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Road Trips of the Saguaro Cactus Southwest

There's a road trip for everyone in this guide to Marana stops in the Sonoran Desert.

The giant Saguaro cactus is the emblem of the southwestern United States because it is found in only one desert: the Sonoran Desert. This desert covers the southern half of Arizona, a tiny bit of California, and about half of the State of Sonora, Mexico. The Saguaro cactus landscapes are both otherworldly and completely familiar landscapes of countless cowboy and contemporary Western movie locations, but these cacti are found in just some parts of the Sonoran Desert. So what kind of road trip are you looking for?


Insider tips: Mature Saguaro cacti are very tall and can grow to as high as 40 feet (more than 12 meters). Each one is unique and can have many arms or just a few. A forest of them is majestic. You cannot hug them because they have serious spines, though you might want to because they are adorably anthropomorphic. They usually bloom between late April and mid-June. You can read more about that here

By June, flowers that were pollinated by bats have turned into deep ruby red fruits. These fruits have been harvested by ancient peoples for millennia. Tohono O’odham tribe members harvest Saguaro fruit in a ritual that marks the beginning of the New Year, which varies every year depending upon when the Saguaro fruit is ripe. You can read more here.

If you are planning a multiple day visit to Southern Arizona, purchase a digital Passport Book of Attractions, with discounts on nearly 100 attractions in the region – nearly everything that there is to do – that you can redeem with your phone. The Passport is also a great map for finding smaller destinations and attractions organized by theme (nature/adventure/historic/Western/family). Get one here.


Nature and Adventure Road Trips

Click here for an interactive map of this road trip.

For an introduction to the natural Saguaro landscape without being too far from hotels and amenities, make a beeline to Saguaro National Park West. You can quickly get into one of the most beautiful National Parks in the U.S. and immerse yourself in the Saguaro universe. Here you’ll find easy walks, hikes, and scenic drives that feature many different views of interesting mountains, petroglyphs, birds, and wildlife everywhere (hawks, ravens, Desert Cottontail bunnies, roadrunners, and squirrels are common to see). From the Marana Road exit 236 off the I-10 southbound from Phoenix, about 14 miles north of Tucson, you will be in Saguaro National Park West in less than 30 minutes.

Continue to the west on Sandario Road. From there it’s a direct route that quickly changes from farmland to Saguaro landscape.

A road trip that you can complete in an hour or two starts at the Saguaro National Park West Red Hills Visitor Center  where you can pay for your pass, pick up a map, and grab some souvenirs. Then head a little more than two miles away to Signal Hill Picnic Area and take a 5-7 minute walk from the parking area to a spectacular lookout of petroglyph-covered rocks.

If you have more time, you can explore hiking, walking, or scenic driving loops in the Park.
    
From the Red Hills Visitor Center the world renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is just a couple of miles down the road. Here you will find the animals of the Sonoran Desert in their natural habitats. From mountain lions to raptors to javelina to hummingbirds. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is half a day in itself and has dining options and a large gift shop for visitors only.

Another easy half day trip is to Ironwood Forest National Monument, just 30 minutes north of Saguaro National Park West. You can keep your home base in Marana for this trip, as Ironwood Forest is only 44 minutes from the nearest hotel in Marana.
Ironwood Forest has craggy mountains and lush desert landscape of Saguaro cacti, Ironwood trees, and Palo Verde trees. Ironwood trees are thought to be the oldest trees in the southwest, living to be as old as 1,500 years. They have dense clusters of lilac purple and white flowers in the spring that, from a distance, resemble Cherry Blossoms or orchids. Palo Verde trees have bright yellow blossoms in April or May. The explosion of color from these, and other flowering Sonoran Desert trees, is sometimes surreal.

From Saguaro National Park West, you have some very different options to continue your nature adventures to the south.

To the southwest of Saguaro National Park West, you can explore the Baboquivari Peak Wilderness Area, a sacred mountain that hosts Kitt Peak and Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Southeast is Madera Canyon, in the Coronado National Forest, just over an hour from Saguaro National Park West Red Hills Visitor Center, where you will find a lush pine and oak forest, and a running creek.

If you want to get as far away from city life as possible, less than two and a half hours southwest from Saguaro National Park West, is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Heading south from S. Sandario Road, take W Tucson-Ajo Highway 86. You will drive through the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, which is the third largest in the U.S.

You could spend months visiting National and State parks throughout Southern Arizona and never see the same type of landscape.

For an adrenaline charge, try Arizona Zipline Adventures in Oracle, an hour and 20 minutes northeast from Saguaro National Park West Red Hills Visitor Center. You’ll find a completely different landscape at the slightly higher elevation there, with oak forest and lush vegetation. You’ll also be in the neighborhood of world-famous Biosphere II, so plan to take a look.

Where to eat:

Pull of the I-10 southbound for Tucson at Marana Road/exit 236 (14 miles north of Tucson) and continue to the west on Sandario Road. You’ll find many dining options from casual sit down restaurants, fast food, and locally famous food trucks, depending on the time of day.

Magnolia Blossom food truck, corner of Marana Main Street and Civic Center Drive.
Nico’s Mexican Food, 11855 W Marana Rd
Taqueria Plaza’s, Sandario Road in the First Baptist Church courtyard
Skyrider Café at Marana Regional Airport, W. Avra Valley Road for a great American diner breakfast or lunch (open 6:30 am -2:00 pm, seven days a week), on the way to Saguaro National Park West
Bisbee Breakfast Club, Sandario Road (opening February 2020)
Chuy’s Mesquite BBQ Grill, Sandario Road (opening February 2020)
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has restaurants for ticket holding visitors

Where to stay:
Stay at hotels in Marana for the closest and most scenic access to Saguaro National Park West and Ironwood Forest National Monument. 

To the south of Saguaro National Park West, look for accommodations in Tombstone, AZ, including Tombstone Monument Guest Ranch and the Larian Motel.

To the northeast of Saguaro National Park West, Oracle, AZ has many charming guest ranches including Triangle L Ranch, El Rancho Robles Historic Guest Ranch, Historic C.O.D. Ranch and newer guest accommodations. Oracle is home to Oracle State Park and Arizona Zipline Adventures.

Where to find Saguaro and Sonoran Desert nature souvenirs:
Saguaro National Park West’s Red Hills Visitor Center
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Ancient and Contemporary Native American Culture Road Trips

Click here for an interactive map of this road trip.

Did you know that the earliest large-scale agricultural irrigation site ever discovered in the U.S., at 4,000 years old, is in Marana? That is just one example of the continuous history in this region, which can be explored through museums, tours, sacred peaks, and natural areas.

In 2018, this region was named the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area for the ancient and contemporary cultures that have been here for at least 13,000 years along the Santa Cruz River. For 15 must-see places along the Santa Cruz River check out the guide to the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area here

How do you cap a day of immersion in extraordinary ancient and living Native American cultures? A great way starts with award-winning cuisine at Casino Del Sol Resort’s PY Steakhouse on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation. Casino Del Sol is situated in a stunning landscape, which is a mini-road trip in itself if you take the scenic backroads—from Saguaro National Park West/Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum/Old Tucson, to Casino Del Sol via S. Kinney Road, to Irvington, to S. Joseph Road, to Valencia Road.

In addition to the sites in our guide that are adjacent to the Santa Cruz River, you might take a road trip to Kitt Peak and Baboquivari Peak. Both are sacred peaks to many peoples in the Sonoran Desert. The two peaks are about 1 ½ hours apart by car, and about an hour and 20 minutes from Saguaro National Park West’s Red Hills Visitor Center.

Where to eat:

Pull of the I-10 southbound for Tucson at Marana Road/exit 236 and continue to the right on Sandario Road. You’ll find many dining options, including two casual sit down restaurants, a fast taco shop, and a couple of locally famous food trucks, depending on the time of day.

Magnolia Blossom food truck, corner of Marana Main Street and Civic Center Drive.
Nico’s Mexican Food, 11855 W Marana Rd
Taqueria Plaza’s, Sandario Road in the First Baptist Church courtyard
Skyrider Café at Marana Regional Airport, W. Avra Valley Road for a great American diner breakfast or lunch (open 6:30 am -2:00 pm, seven days a week), on the way to Saguaro National Park West
Bisbee Breakfast Club, Sandario Road (opening February 2020)
Chuy’s Mesquite BBQ Grill, Sandario Road (opening February 2020)
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has restaurants for ticket holding visitors

Southbound from Saguaro National Park West/Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum/Old Tucson:

Coyote Pause Café (7:30 am – 2:30 pm, open seven days a week)
Los Nopales Restaurant (10:30 am – 7:30 pm, closed Sundays and Mondays)
PY Steakhouse at Casino Del Sol Fine dining

Where to stay:
Stay at hotels in Marana for the closest and most scenic access to Saguaro National Park West and Ironwood Forest National Monument. 

Best places to find ancient Southwest culture souvenirs:
Arizona State Museum gift shop for small items, jewelry, branded items, books, much more.
San Xavier Co-op Farm store for current selection of dried Tepary beans, mesquite meal, and other Sonoran Desert foods.
Tubac Presidio State Historic Park gift shop for books, small items, and much more.

Cowboy Western Movie Locations/Vintage Guest and Dude Ranches Road Trips

Click here for an interactive map of this road trip.

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Visit the top five Western movie filming locations experiences in the Marana-Tucson area, and then see even more movie locations just 1 ½- 2 hours south of Old Tucson. From Old Tucson, continue 1 ½ hours south to Tombstone, the historic Western town where many movies about its history were also filmed, and Bisbee, the historic mining town, where Bisbee ’17 was recently filmed. 

Where to eat:

Li’l Abner’s Steakhouse is a must, to sit on the same bar stools and chairs that probably every famous actor that ever filmed in this area ever sat on. Here are a few that most definitely have sipped and supped here: Tom Mix, Rex Allen, Randolph Scott, James Stewart, Audie Murphy, Joseph Cotton, Robert Powell, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Van Johnson, Richard Widmark, Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, James Garner, Keith Carradine, and maybe even George Clooney and Sam Rockwell. Li’l Abner’s inviting atmosphere and vintage interior might also have attracted  leading ladies such as Shelley Winters, Yvonne de Carlo, Joanne Woodward, Janet Leigh, and Sharon Stone.

Hacienda del Sol in the Catalina Foothills has classic Hollywood character, history, and great views.

Hotel Congress in downtown Tucson has authentic Western history, urbane cowboy chow, and unmatched desert deco ambience. Want to learn about John Dillinger? This is your place.

Where to stay:

White Stallion Ranch private guided tours of movies filmed on the property for guests only. 

Mira Vista Resort where movie stars stayed while filming in and around the area. Note: Mira Vista is now a popular luxury clothing-optional resort. And it still has all of the character from its heyday as a movie filming mecca.

Sanctuary Cove offers a single guest cottage in the middle of scores of movie locations.

Nestled in the Catalina Foothills is Hacienda del Sol Resort, a luxury boutique vintage property where many Hollywood stars stayed.

To the south of Saguaro National Park West, look for accommodations in Tombstone, AZ, including Tombstone Monument Guest Ranch and the Larian Motel.

Further south, check out the historic Rancho de la Osa that has hosted national political figures, literary figures, and movie stars alike in a stunning nature preserve.

To the northeast of Marana:
You’ll find Oracle, AZ a charming village that attracts artists, has movie filming history, and a bunch of vintage guest ranches. Oracle State Park and Arizona Zipline Adventures are two adventures here to be had.

See: Triangle L Ranch, El Rancho Robles Historic Guest Ranch, Historic C.O.D. Ranch and https://www.visitoracle.org/where-to-stay 



Where to find cowboy Western movie souvenirs:
Old Tucson gift shops throughout the park

Where to find Sonoran Desert cowboy/cowgirl/cowchild/cowbaby souvenirs:
White Stallion Ranch (open to guests only)
Hacienda del Sol Resort Gift shop open to the public



Luxury Destinations for a Road Trip (that may not involve driving a car)


Click here for an interactive map for this road trip.

  

Why drive all over the place when you can have an escape and hunker down at either (or both) of the two most luxurious destinations in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert with Saguaro National Park West views? Hiking, swimming, horse riding, and more await you.

The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, is one of a handful of resorts that was on both of the Forbes Travel Guide’s lists of the most luxurious resorts and most luxurious spas in the world. It has a view of petroglyphs and Saguaro cacti from the spa pool and, if you’re lucky, your massage table.

You may stay for a long while at the White Stallion Ranch, the nationally top-rated luxury guest ranch by TripAdvisor, where you can experience the desert through multiple daily horse rides and personal guided Western movie filming location history tours, in addition to rock climbing and loads of daily activities.

The choice is difficult: lay around by a pool after a massage, and then dine on Sonoran Desert haute cuisine or hang out in the coolest, most luxurious Western movie filming location in the world and be active in the desert as much as you want. Ugh. Decisions. Book back-to-back visits at both. Really, why wouldn’t you? 

Where to stay:
Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain
White Stallion Ranch

Where to dine:
A couple of feet from your bed at either/both resorts.
On a trail ride at White Stallion Ranch (for guests only).

Where to find luxury souvenirs:
The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain spa shop
White Stallion Ranch (for guests only)

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