The northern half of Arizona is known as having the interesting places to see. The Grand Canyon, Sedona, the Painted Desert, these are the destinations that call to visitors from around the country and the world. However, southern Arizona, mostly flat desert, is also a wonderful place to explore.
To start with, the southern portion of the state has the two major metro areas Arizona lays claim to: Tucson and the sprawl of Phoenix, the US’ sixth largest city by population as of this writing and my former home. In addition, there are some amazing desert views, and a surprising number of cultural and historical activities.
This guide will give you all the information you need to explore the lower half of the Grand Canyon State. Please click on the links within to find more specific content about some of the things you’ll want to see.
How to Get There
While Tucson has a decent small airport, most trips to Arizona will involve either driving in or a flight into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. Frequently rated one of the top airports in the country, it is a major hub for Southwest and American, and even has a daily flight to/from London on British Airways.
From the airport into the city is a very short drive, as Sky Harbor sits just outside downtown Phoenix. And from Phoenix to Tucson is about two hours down Interstate 10, which mostly runs south during this portion before turning back to an east-west highway and heading into New Mexico and Texas.
Arizona, like so much of the west, is fairly isolated. Los Angeles, San Diego, and Las Vegas are the closest major metro areas outside the state, each being at least 4-5 hours’ drive from Phoenix, and El Paso about the same from Tucson.
Much of Arizona is open space, so flying in is typically the easiest route. An ATV ride would be more fun, though!
How to Get Around
If ever a place about which I write a guide calls for a car, this is it. Not only are these two cities spread out and lacking in truly viable public transportation, many of the wondrous things to see in southern Arizona are outside of the cities themselves. So the moral of the story: rent a car if you don’t drive your own.
A couple notes on driving here. First, Phoenix especially is notorious for radar-enforced photo tickets. If you see a police car just parked empty on the side of the street, it might have a motion activated radar gun. Intersections also can have such things. Keep an eye out. Second, there are some CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) checkpoints, as nearly this entire area is classified as a border zone with Mexico. Know your rights when you are stopped.
Unlike the old days in Tombstone, getting around these days will require a car.
What to See
Shockingly, as most people see Arizona just as empty desert, there is a lot to see and do in southern Arizona!
Let’s begin with Phoenix itself. In addition to the normal sorts of activities one would find in such a huge metropolitan area, there are some unique spots. The city is home to an incredible Musical Instrument Museum, regarded as one of the best in the world. For lovers of desert scenery, the Desert Botanical Garden is a wonderful escape. Or get out into it on an ATV adventure. Interested in history? Check out Heritage Square.
The desert landscapes in the state abound. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument sits along the Mexican border, while Saguaro National Park is easily accessible from Tucson.
History is also readily present in southern Arizona. My favorite spots are the boom town of Tombstone – known most for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral – and the Titan Missile Museum. Seriously spectacular!
Tucson itself also has a lot going on if you have a day or two to spend.
Finally, if you are around during Spring Training, go see a game. The environment is wonderful. (Alternatively, the Arizona Fall League is one of the most intimate ways to see a baseball game you’ll ever experience.)
Heritage Square isn’t what most people think Phoenix looks like.
What to Eat
Let me start with this: for a border state, the Mexican food in Arizona is really not up to par. It is much more Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican. However, with that being said, there is a surprisingly good food scene, especially in Phoenix.
I am currently working with Phoenix doctor and foodie Dan Warren on the definitive guide to the best local spots, so make sure to check back here soon.
And here it is! Check out our guide to the best eats in Phoenix!!
This wonderful fella is the brûlée burger at Paradise Valley Burger Co. OMG!
Where to Stay
Both Phoenix and Tucson are large cities, home to dozens of hotels from every major and minor chain. However, there are a couple of standouts to me, for those looking for a resort as a destination in and of itself.
The Arizona Biltmore is possibly the state’s nicest hotel, with a price tag to match (although summer can be a bargain). However, my favorite is the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. Incredible pools, lovely gardens, and spacious rooms make the memories of the time I had a work conference there in my former life pleasant ones. Once again, summer can be a relative bargain.
Other Useful Information
The weather is southern Arizona is extreme. Winters can be cold (it can freeze overnight) and wet – rain amplifies during an El Niño event. Summer will be hot, very hot. Daytime highs can exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit (45 Celsius) and nights rarely cool below 90. Be prepared. Have water. Don’t spend too much time outside. Apply sunscreen liberally. And don’t leave things – or people or pets – in cars outside. Things will melt; living things will die. Summer can also bring spectacular lightning storms all around, although it may be too hot to actually rain.
Dust storms are about the only natural disaster to be aware of outside of heat. They can come up suddenly, so if you are outside, seek shelter, and if you are driving, pull to the side.
While there are more native Arizonans these days, it still seems most are transplants, especially from California. Many are retirees, and will drive more slowly. Just be aware.
Probably the most iconic southern Arizona view.
While not high on most peoples’ destination wish lists, southern Arizona offers so much that it really should be, especially in conjunction with a trip to other places in the region. The desert is calming, the people are decent, and the experience is altogether a positive one!
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