Jeff Gorin's ROAD trip to So. Arizona, Spring 2012

Region: North and Central America
Destination: Southern Arizona, Spring 2012
Submitted by: L. Jefferson Gorin
From: 03/21/2012
To: 03/24/2012
Residing as I do in the Phoenix metro area, it is a short 2-hour drive on Interstate 10 to the Tucson area, which I regard as a "jumping off point” for a road trip through a variety of historically significant areas in southern Arizona. In April 2012, I spent the early part of a week visiting several historical sites along Interstate 19, which splits from I-10 at Tucson to connect with Nogales AZ, on the US-Mexico border. Tucson and surrounding communities boast a population of almost one million; it’s the "Second City” of Arizona.

My road trip spread over parts of three days, the first day having begun on a Sunday, when I took a leisurely drive to Tucson in the late afternoon. This approach allowed me to overnight nearer to my destination area south of Tucson. The actual sightseeing filled most of the following two days, with a return to my home base on a Tuesday evening.

For such a driving adventure between Tucson and the international border, I recommend staying overnight in Tucson, which offers a high density of desirable motels, hotels and resorts in all price ranges. My favorite lodging is the InnSuites Hotel & Suites, located adjacent to I-10 near the St. Mary’s Road exit from the interstate highway. It is centrally located, clean, economical, and offers a great hot breakfast included in the room rate. During several stays there over the years, I found the staff to be always cheerful and efficient.

It’s best to plan an early start each day. Several points of interest along I-19 can be easily visited in a day, since the distance from Tucson to Nogales is only about 65 miles. The interstate highway generally follows the Santa Cruz River valley, a picturesque area with mountains on both sides of the valley. Most of the driving is at altitudes of 2500 to 3500 feet above sea level, and the springtime is an especially delightful time for such drive in southern Arizona … not too hot and not too cold.

My approach on the second day of the visit, Monday, was to start out from Tucson early, driving south along I-19 to the first site of interest. During the day I slowly made my way back north, stopping at several points of interest, thereby winding up back in the vicinity of the big city and my lodging at day’s end.

My first stop was the Tumacacori National Historical Park, about 20 miles north of Nogales on the border. Settlement at Tumacacori dates back at least to the early 17th Century, when this was the site of a Pima Indian village in north Mexico. The first European visitor was the Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino, who in 1691 founded a mission at Tumacacori, the first Spanish mission in what is now the USA. The mission church is well preserved and is quite picturesque. A fine museum run by the National Park Service is also on the grounds, offering rich detail about the history of both the Native Americans and the Spanish in the area through displays in words and pictures.

The next point of interest going north is Tubac Village & Tubac Presidio State Historical Park. Tubac is generally known as southern Arizona’s original village settlement of significant size. It has been continuously occupied by Europeans since 1752, when Spanish colonizers established a Presidio, or fort and military garrison. Its history is well presented within a museum at Arizona's first state park, the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. One of the unusual displays in the museum is the original printing press which printed Arizona’s first newspaper, the Weekly Arizonan, in 1859. The press is still operable! The park also displays a well-preserved Territorial School House, Arizona’s second such hall of learning.

In modern times, Tubac Village has a resident population of about 1200, and is primarily an artist colony with international renown. With a reported 90 galleries and studios, and only 40 miles south of Tucson, Tubac is home to sculptors, painters, potters, artisans and jewelers. The center of Tubac's cultural life is the Tubac Center of the Arts, which offers a year-round schedule of events that include exhibitions, performing arts and art education and classes for children. While I did not sample them, several good dining and lodging establishments are reported to be available in Tubac.

Though not along I-19, a 15-20 minute drive from Tubac takes you up to the Smithsonian Whipple Observatory, high atop nearby Mt. Hopkins (about 8500 feet above sea level). The Observatory visitors center, open nearly every day of the year, explains the research work conducted there via exhibits and pictures. The Whipple Observatory site, jointly run by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the University of Arizona, houses several research telescopes including a 6.5 meter reflector. Even for one not that interested in astronomy, the view from the top of Mt. Hopkins is amazing … across the Santa Cruz valley to the various "sky island" mountain ranges within 80 miles.

After visiting the Whipple Observatory, I wound up my second day and headed back to the hotel in Tucson. The following morning, my third day, I checked out of my hotel and was out early driving back down I-19 to my next point of interest, the Titan Missile Museum.

This Museum offers the only underground ICBM installation in the world open to public view. The site is a short drive along DuVal Mine Road after exiting from I-19. Of course, this nuclear missile facility is decommissioned and no longer operable! But the tour you can take from the visitor center and museum is fascinating.

This missile installation is all that remains of the 54 separate Titan II missile sites that were on alert during the Cold War across the United States from 1963 to 1987. Able to launch from its underground silo in just 58 seconds, the Titan II was capable of delivering a 9-megaton nuclear warhead to targets more than 6300 miles away in about 30 minutes. The optional guided tour takes you underground to the Control Room where the missile launch could be controlled, and even demonstrates exactly the procedure whereby the two Air Force officer launch controllers could act in tandem to launch the missile if an authenticated message to do so was received from the U.S. president.

My last stop along the route back to Tucson was the San Javier del Bac mission, also commonly known as "The White Dove of the Desert”. It is visible from the I-19 roadway. The mission building presents a striking white, Moorish-inspired design, elegant and simple, with an ornately decorated entrance. The interior is richly decorated with ornaments showing a mixture of New Spain and Native American artistic motifs.

While the original structure was founded in 1692 at a location 2 miles distant, the present building was constructed under the direction of Franciscan Fathers Juan Bautista Velderrain and Juan Bautista Llorenz, mainly with native labor working from 1783-1797 with a loan of 7,000 pesos. It serves the Catholics of the San Xavier District of the Tohono O'odham Nation of Native Americans. The mission was designated a National Historic Landmark in the 1960s.

On my 3 day visit to this area of southern Arizona, I returned home following the stop at San Xavier del Bac. However, if you like aviation and old aircraft, you can take time on the third day to check out the Pima Air & Space Museum in south Tucson, adjacent to Davis Monthan Air Force Base. The museum includes over 300 retired/restored aircraft and spacecraft on display in a combination of outdoors and enclosed areas. Given the number of outdoor displays, I recommend visiting this museum only at times of the year when daytime temperatures are moderate. Having visited this rather extensive aircraft display on an earlier trip, I did not include it in my itinerary this time.

As a single person traveling on this 3-day roadtrip, I financed the tour for less than $350 including food, lodging, gas and museum admission fees.


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