The drive from Phoenix to Tucson is only about two hours—if you drive straight through, that is. But we’ll let you in on a little secret… Southern Arizona has a ton of cool places, and if you’re already planning on going to Tuscan, why not use this as an opportunity to see something new? From state parks and stunning scenery to historic sites and remnants of a time long ago, the road from Phoenix to Tucson is filled with short detours that are sure to amaze you. Keep reading to see what we mean!
Mesa is only about 30 minutes east of Phoenix, but it’s still worth a stop, especially if you haven’t been there before. Among the top attractions in Mesa are Mesa Grande Cultural Park, Mesa Arts Center, and the i.d.e.a. Museum. If you’ve already worked up an appetite, there are plenty of restaurants where you can grab a bite to eat, including the Original Blue Adobe Grill, República Empanada, and Pete’s Fish & Chips. And while you’re in town, make sure you check out the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Downtown Mesa—it has exhibits featuring native cultures, Mesoamerica and South America, and, yes, dinosaurs!
A leading institution for archeology, paleontology, and other types of natural history, the Arizona Museum of Natural History is a must-see when passing through Mesa. Open Tuesday through Friday from 10 am to 5 pm, on Saturday from 11 am to 5 pm, and Sunday from 1 pm to 5 pm, the museum is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $8 for students, and $7 for children ages 3 through 12. The museum has more than 60,000 artifacts, and in addition to its permanent exhibitions, it also hosts rotating ones, so there’s always something new to see!
About 45 minutes east of Phoenix on the southwestern edge of the Tonto National Forest, you’ll find Lost Dutchman State Park. The park is named after the legendary Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, which, allegedly, is hidden somewhere in the nearby Superstition Mountains. We don’t recommend going treasure hunting here, though—temperatures often break 100 degrees Fahrenheit! Instead, most visitors settle for hiking one of the park’s many trails.
The shorter hiking trails at Lost Dutchman are the Native Plant Trail (0.25 miles), Prospector’s View (0.7 miles), and Jacob’s Crosscut Trail (0.8 miles). Some of the longer trails include the Treasure Loop Trail (2.5 miles) and Siphon Draw Trail (4 miles). You can also camp in the park on the park’s campground or even rent a cabin to stay the night in! Wildlife viewing is another popular activity at Lost Dutchman, and some of the animals that you might see are desert mule deer, coyotes, desert cottontail rabbits, roadrunners, bobcats, Gila monsters, and javelina.
Located within the Tonto National Forest, Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is around two hours northeast of Phoenix, and it’s a great place to do some exploring, especially since you’re already in the area. At 400 feet long, Tonto Natural Bridge is believed to be the largest naturally-occurring bridge in the world. A geological wonder, Tonto Natural Bridge will undoubtedly heighten your admiration for Mother Nature, and the surrounding area is filled with opportunities to hike and experience the more natural side of Arizona!
The hiking trails around Tonto Natural Bridge are pretty short, but they’ll all considered to be rather strenuous, as the terrain is relatively steep. You can see the bridge from many different angles throughout the park, and there are both paved and unpaved paths from which you can view it.
Just north of Tonto Natural Bridge Park, you’ll find Montezuma Castle National Monument, which is about ten minutes north of the town Camp Verde. (By the way, while you’re driving through Camp Verde, make sure you check out the Verde Valley Archeology Center, where you can learn more about the local history of the area for free!) One of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America, Montezuma Castle National Monument is truly a sight to be seen, especially when you consider that people actually lived there!
Though named after the great Aztec emperor, Montezuma Castle was not built by or for Montezuma, nor is it likely that Montezuma ever even saw Arizona, let alone the apartment-like structure constructed in this limestone cliff. The ancient abode was actually built by the Sinagua Indians, a prehistoric group of indigenous people who once resided in the area.
The city of Flagstaff is about three hours north of Phoenix, and some of the attractions in the area include Walnut Canyon National Monument, Wupatki National Monument, and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. But while you’re in Flagstaff, you don’t want to miss the Lowell Observatory, just east of the city—with a history that dates all the way back to 1892, it was one of the first astronomical observatories founded in America.
From specially-equipped solar telescopes to an open-deck observing plaza, Lowell Observatory has everything that you need to feel like a professional astronomer. You’ll also find an array of artifacts, informational exhibits, and interactive displays at the center, and you can learn about the facility’s research projects, like the origin and evolution of comets. You can purchase tickets to the observatory online ahead of time or in-person at the visitor center.
A little less than four hours northeast of Phoenix, Petrified Forest National Park is definitely worthy of a slight detour on your way to Tucson. Known for its fossils and, of course, its unusually large deposits of petrified wood, Petrified Forest National Park is filled with rare natural phenomena, and while it might not be as famous as the Grand Canyon, it’s inarguably an Arizona state treasure that anyone traveling in the area should see.
The petrified wood that’s strewn throughout the park is composed of almost solid quartz. Impurities in the crystal—like iron, carbon, and manganese—are what can give it a multicolored appearance. Petrified Forest also encompasses part of the Painted Desert, and one of the best ways to see the strikingly colorful landscape is by hiking the park’s Painted Desert Rim Trail. A short hike, the Rim Trail is only about a mile round trip, but it offers hikers some undeniably spectacular views of the Painted Desert. Other notable points of interest in the park include the Painted Desert Inn, the Rainbow Forest Museum, and Newspaper Rock.
About two hours north of Tucson, the city of Globe is a small town that’s located on the outskirts of Round Mountain Park. Rich in archeological significance, Globe is an interesting place to stop when headed southbound from Phoenix. Among Globe’s highlights are the Gila County Historical Museum and Old Dominion Historic Mine Park. That being said, the city’s main attraction would probably have to be Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park & Museum, which you’ll find just southeast of the city.
The ruins at Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park & Museum can be traced back almost 800 years to the Salado people. Accompanying the remains of the village is a museum that holds a number of Salado artifacts, including pottery, as well as a botanical garden that showcases the native plants that aided the tribes in their survival, despite living in such an arid, unforgiving environment. The museum is thought to have the most historical artifacts relating to the Salada people, rendering it a highly nuanced experience that is truly unlike any other. The park is open daily from 9 am to 4:30 pm, and in the summer, it’s closed Monday and Tuesday.
Around 50 minutes before you reach Tucson, you’ll come across Oracle, a quaint town that makes for the perfect last stop before finally making your way to Tucson. While there are a few parks and restaurants in Oracle, the town’s draw is actually a couple of miles down the road—but don’t worry, if you’re heading down Interstate 77, it’s a little hard to miss. Positioned at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Biosphere 2 is sure to catch your eye, thanks to its oddly-shaped structures that feature glass and steel-metal tubing. Originally constructed to serve as a closed, independent biomes that would mimic Earth, Biosphere 2 is now a public research facility that’s overseen by the University of Arizona.
While the Biosphere experiments failed, the center is still highly useful in the study of Earth science, and it remains one of the only facilities of its kind. With tours offered daily, Biosphere 2 gives visitors the chance to see scientific innovation up close in an educational experience that’s nothing short of unforgettable. The center is open daily from 9 am to 4 pm, and you can purchase tickets online ahead of time. General admission is $21 for adults, $19 for seniors, and $14 for children ages 5 to 12.
The city of Tucson is a not-so-hidden gem in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Some of its top attractions include Reid Park Zoo, the Tucson Botanical Gardens, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Old Tucson, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. You might be thinking that there’s nothing to see between Phoenix and Tucson other than a whole lot of desert—and while it’s true that you’ll be driving through large, arid stretches of land, the journey through Southern Arizona is anything but dry! That is, if you know what to look for. Check out one (or more) of these stops on your way to Tucson and watch as your ordinary drive transforms into a Wild (South)West adventure!