History, culture and Wild West fun
Keep your trip on the sunny side by heading south toward Tucson, a friendly college town with warm spring temperatures. Nestled between the Santa Catalina, Tortolita and Rincon Mountains, Tucson easily mixes laid-back living with scenic beauty. Follow this road trip through Tucson and on further south and you'll find everything from wineries and historic missions to caverns, cowboys and Latin American culture.
Start your trip in Southern Arizona with a stop at Old Tucson Studios, where you can really get into the action. This former movie set is now a kid-friendly theme park packed with train rides, shoot-em-out games and plenty of history. You can even take a burro ride! If you're with the kids, don't miss the gold-panning exhibit, where everyone has a chance to strike it rich.
Worked up an appetite on your Old West adventure? Head into Tucson for the city's famed Mexican fare. From classic favorites like El Charro Mexican Café – the oldest family-run restaurant in America – to modern dishes cooked up at Café Poca Cosa, Tucson is brimming with unique Mexican cuisine. While you're here, head to the El Presidio Historic District for one-of-a-kind shopping at Old Town Artisans, a collection of small shops featuring arts, crafts, jewelry and more from hundreds of local artists.
Often called the White Dove of the Desert, this National Historic Landmark dates back to 1783. Located off I-19 just 10 miles south of Tucson on the Tohono O'odham reservation, this soaring Franciscan mission – a fine example of Spanish Colonial architecture – is now a popular spot for tourists, as well as an active faith community. Visit the onsite museum for a fascinating look at the history and restoration of this iconic landmark.
If nature's more your thing – or you have a little extra time – keep driving east on I-10 toward Benson. Just before Benson, you'll hit Highway 90, your cutoff for Kartchner Caverns, a “live” cave full of flourishing plants and animals just discovered in 1974. Head deep into the heart of the caves on a guided tour, where colorful formations create a stunning backdrop for learning about everything from 45,000-year-old bat guano to the oldest column formation in Arizona.
See where Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and other famed personalities of the Wild West lived, fought and sometimes died in this historic Western town replete with saloons, souvenirs and more. Head south from Kartchner Caverns on Highway 90, then east on Highway 82, and you'll reach this famous gun-slinging town in just half an hour. Grab a spot early for the 2 p.m. show at the OK Corral, where the West's most notorious gunfight is reenacted daily.
Just 20 miles south of Tombstone you'll find the old mining town of Bisbee. During the height of the copper boom in the early 1900s, Bisbee was the biggest city between Saint Louis and San Francisco. Today, it's known as an enclave for old-timers and free spirits drawn to the town's away-from-it-all feel. Throughout downtown's café-lined streets, you'll see stunning examples of Victorian-style through Art Deco architecture. Don't miss the Queen Mine, where you can don headlamps and ride deep into the heart of the mountain on a guided tour.
Prefer wine to whiskey? Head to this Southern Arizona vineyard region about an hour outside Tucson. With nine vineyards spread out along rolling hills, it's easy to make a toast to Southern Arizona's best-kept secret: great wine. Located at a cool 5,000-foot elevation, the Sonoita/Elgin area also offers plenty of charm, from B&Bs to guest ranches to friendly cafes.
Just around the corner from Sonoita/Elgin, the springtime hums along quite nicely, thanks to the area's huge hummingbird population. These communities are brimming with unique species all spring, as well as plenty of babbling brooks, leafy trees and cool hikes along the Arizona Trail. Early March is the perfect time to visit, as countless exotic birds stop in during their annual treks.
On your way back to Tucson or Phoenix, stop in at the quaint town of Tubac, just off I-19. Not only will you find charming shops and cafes in this artists' community, but you'll also fall in love with the town's biggest game: golf. At Tubac Golf Resort, you can take in scenic views of desert and mountains while teeing off on the same course as Kevin Costner in the 1996 movie Tin Cup.
Make sure to map your trip ahead of time for directions and approximate driving times. Depending on your pace (and how early you get up), you may need more than a day for some itineraries.