A few months ago, I went on a Southern Arizona road trip. While the purpose of my particular trip was mainly to visit relatives, we did take some time out to have fun and explore, of course, and it got me thinking that I should probably write a blog post on cool things to do in Southern Arizona. I think a lot of the time, Northern Arizona gets all the glory. Home to the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Flagstaff, and Antelope Canyon, Northern Arizona is an absolutely amazing place. But if you find yourself in the Southern part of the state, there are some cool things to enjoy there as well. If you find yourself visiting the area or just driving through, check out some of my recommendations and have a great time!
Ok, so Yuma isn’t exactly known as a tourist destination, but if you’re heading out to Arizona from California along highway 8, you’ll probably be stopping in Yuma for lunch and to gas up. Why not have some fun while you’re at it?
Ok, so these are technically still in California, but they are right over the border from Yuma. As you’re driving along highway 8, you’ll see these amazing sand dunes. Pull over and check them out! When I pulled over, it was 110 degrees outside so we stood next to the door, took a quick picture, and retreated back to the oasis of our air conditioned car, but I’d like to go back sometime and hike around on the dunes as I’ve seen others doing.
Who doesn’t love a ghost town? Yuma is home to a legit wild West ghost town, and you can take a tour! This will for sure be on my list of places to stop on my next journey through Southern Arizona!
I didn’t stop here, but my aunt did once and she told me about it. This is an old prison built in 1876 that is now a museum where you can take a tour and see photographs of some of the prisoners who served time here over its 33 years of operation and get a feel for frontier justice. The cells are open air, meaning the prisoners endured some harsh conditions during the summer when temperatures soared into the triple digits.
View this post on Instagram
HOLY MOLY! I'm so happy i got to visit Hell Hole Prison! Only @akosimangtomas knows how big of a fan i am of Ghost Adventures. Ask me about any of their episodes and i'll be able to answer. That's how much i love the show! Weird, i know, but i'm so fascinated by anything paranormal. This particular haunted prison-The Yuma Territorial Prison-was featured on Ghost Adventures' Season 12 Episode 8 (o ha, memorized talaga) so you can just imagine how ecstatic i was to be here! Gaaaaah! Thanks @mr.applesauce14 for taking us here! 😍😍😍 #yumaterritorialprison #hellholeprison #ghostadventures #ghostadventuresfan
On the Road to Tucson…
After leaving Yuma, you’re starting at about a 4 hour drive until you get to Tucson. It doesn’t have to be boring, though. Just stop at one of these gems!
Do you like dates? Why not stop in Dateland for a rest, a stretch, and one of their famous date shakes. I had never had a date shake before and it came recommended, so I thought I would give it a try. It was a good opportunity to get out and switch drivers anyway, so why not? The date shake was pretty good! They also have a little shop with gifts and souvenirs as well as all sorts of date products.
Bored with the monotony of the road? Why not pull over and check out some awesome petroglyphs? The Painted Rock Petroglyph is a collection of hundreds of ancient petroglyphs near the town of Theba, Arizona, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 (source: Wikipedia).
Tucson is a bigger city, so you’ll find plenty to do here. If Tucson is your final destination, it really is a wonderful little city with a lot of desert activities and attractions. I’ve spent a lot of time there in my life as I have family in the area, and I always have a good time. If you’re just passing through, however, make sure to stop at one of these awesome places:
On our way into Tucson, we were starving. We wanted to stop in Tucson rather than somewhere a little closer because we knew we would have a larger variety in our food options if we waited until Tucson. I was driving this leg of the journey, so I asked my husband to Google some good food in town and this place popped up with a lot of rave reviews, so we decided to give it a try. I eat a lot of Mexican food, so my taste is pretty discerning, and I’ll say that Tucson Tamale Company had excellent tamales! We liked them so much we got some dessert tamales and those were awesome too. I left happy and just a little bit too full. Will be back for sure!
Saguaro National Park is somewhere you should absolutely visit if you have the chance while you’re in Tucson. That being said, the park is actually divided into two sections and they aren’t anywhere near each other (the entire city of Tucson sits between the two sections). If you’re short on time, you may have trouble deciding which section you should visit. Honestly, both sections are pretty amazing, but the West side can be combined with a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (more on that later). Whichever part of the park you choose, you’ll have the opportunity to get up close and personal with some beautiful saguaro cacti, so don’t miss it!
Ok, so the East part of the park has a great loop road with a lot of pull-outs that you can turn into, get out, and commune with nature. This was especially nice when we were there because it was obscenely hot, so it was nice to be able to get out of the car and enjoy the cacti, but never to be too far from the life saving air conditioner of the car. The Eastern section has a great visitor center and there were quite a few javelina (sort of like a wild boar) resting in the shade along the back window of the visitor center, which was cool.
Focused on the Sonoran Desert, the Museum is mostly an outdoor experience: zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium. It is known as being one of the best attractions in Tucson, so definitely check it out if you have the time!
Old Tucson is a movie studio/theme park dedicated to giving you the Wild West experience!
Pinnacle Peak is one of those silly theme restaurants that is part super cheesy, but also a lot of fun. They are a Wild West themed steakhouse and their gimmick game is strong. My uncle used to take me and my cousins there when I would visit in the summers when I was a child, and it was always a lot of fun. They have a tradition there that if you wear a tie to the restaurant, they will cut if off and put it on the wall. There are ties everywhere! We used to always go to the thrift store and buy the most ridiculous ties we could find prior to arriving so they would come cut them off. It always got a lot of laughs (just don’t wear an actually nice tie there because it will get ruined). Great place for kids or for people who just enjoy a little cheesy fun.
This gem in the desert is one of the world’s largest non-government funded air and space museums. There’s a LOT of aircraft for you to discover here, so you can easily spend an entire day exploring. If you’re shorter on time, just pick your top choices and enjoy walking around and discovering some truly awesome flying machines.
Ok, so Mount Lemmon isn’t really for you if you’re just “passing through” Tucson. I would recommend this if you’re going to be staying in town for at least a few days. Mount Lemmon is located in the mountains above the city, and is a wonderful respite from the hot, sunny desert. Get up into nature and go on a gorgeous hike in the forest among towering trees. It’s lovely!
My trip took me about 80 miles East of Tucson, not too far from the New Mexico border along highway 10, as that’s where my relatives live, so I wanted to touch on the areas past Tucson in case you’re continuing on from there. There’s plenty to keep you occupied!
If you’re in the area, you can’t miss Tombstone. This town will give you the full Wild West experience. Entertain yourself with activities like taking old-timey photographs, check out the O.K. Corral, catch a “gunfight” performance, do some shopping, and stick around for some drinks and lunch.
You’re going to see billboards for The Thing? for miles and miles before you finally reach it, so I’m guessing curiosity will get the better of you. When you pull over at The Thing?, you’ll enter a big shop full of all sorts of interesting items and curios. There’s a lot to look at there, but if you’re wondering, you can buy a ticket to see The Thing? for about $1, which will gain you entry to the back of the building. It will take you through a museum of all kinds of random historical objects (some fascinating, some ordinary) until you reach The Thing itself, which is a mummy.
There is a barbecue restaurant in an old train boxcar in town, and the food is pretty good! My local sources tell me their beef is local (as in, down the street local) and it definitely tasted fresh! I had the brisket stuffed baked potato and it was amazing! It was so big, I had the rest for breakfast the next morning. Lots of food here, so plan to come hungry or take a to go box.
While you’re in Willcox, why not go wine tasting? This surprisingly awesome little town has a full-service winery, and it’s pretty good!
Long story short, when I told people I was heading to Arizona in the hottest part of the year, they looked at me like I had sprouted a second head. That being said, I had a great time. There was a lot to see and do, and I had a great time! I’ll be back again, and I can’t wait to find out what additional adventures await me when I return. Have you spent time in Southern Arizona? What was your favorite thing there? Would love to hear your tips, stories, and experiences!