Last Updated on July 30, 2020 by Janet Frost
Tucson, Arizona is often overlooked as an Arizona destination. The iconic Grand Canyon and the bustling metropolis of Phoenix draw the most attention. As is the case in most regions, the lesser known communities are far easier to visit and enjoy. Tucson is certainly not “small’ with a metro population of close to one million. However, when compared to Phoenix, it is closer to outdoor adventures, less expensive, and has much less congested traffic.
So, what should you do with 3 day Tucson itinerary?
Let’s Go! Learn Things about Tucson, Arizona
Day 1 in Tucson: The Mountains
Phoenix and Tucson are located in the Basin and Range region. The Basin and Range region, making up Southern Arizona, is characterized by steep mountain ranges alternating with deserts. Phoenix is a vast “basin” with most of the mountains many miles from the city. Tucson on the other hand, is nestled into a much smaller basin that is surrounded closely by five mountain ranges. Any direction you turn in Tucson offers majestic mountain views and nearby outdoor adventure. These mountains are packed with a variety of climate zones and ever changing flora and fauna.
So, for our first day in Tucson, we will explore the most prominent of the Tucson mountain ranges, the Santa Catalinas. Just 25 minutes from downtown, the Santa Catalina mountain range wraps around Tucson to the north. This range is 250 square miles of peaks, ridges, canyons and waterfalls. Needless to say, it is a recreational paradise.
Coronado National Forest
The Coronado National Forest covers 1.7 million acres and is made up of 15 mountain ranges. These ranges rise dramatically from a sea of surrounding desert, they are known as the Sky Islands. Elevations range from 3,000 to 10,720 feet. Some of the mountain ranges include the Chiricahua Mountains, Huachuca Mountains, Santa Ritas, Rincons, Piñalenos, and our Day 1 destination, the Santa Catalinas.
The Coronado National Forest is named for the Spanish explorer Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who led his expedition from Mexico through southern Arizona in 1540. Coronado was searching for gold and the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola. He never found gold, but his name lives on in the region.
Sabino Canyon Recreational Area and Mt. Lemmon are both within the Santa Catalina range and the Coronado National Forest. As part of the National Forest system, the National Park Services Annual Pass does cover the entrance fees. Without this pass, there is a $5 daily cost for Sabino Canyon and no fee for Mt. Lemmon.
Sabino Canyon Recreational Area
Sabino Canyon is one of the top highlights of the Tucson area. It does get busy and hot so this will be an early stop on Day 1. The Canyon has a nice Visitor Center and a plethora of Rangers and Volunteers to help you create the perfect experience in Sabino Canyon. Be sure to check in with them because they will share updates about water levels, wildlife sightings and any safety issues.
There is no driving in the park but there are two shuttle options. One runs up Sabino Canyon Rd with 9 stops over 4 miles. The other runs up Bear Canyon Rd with 3 stops along 2 miles. Sabino Canyon and Bear Canyon Shuttles cost $10 and $6 respectively and fill up quickly. It is possible to walk up the roads if you want to bypass the shuttles. There are also over 30 miles of trails throughout the park that climb up through the canyons, cross back and forth over Sabino Creek and introduce you to the vast wildlife wonderland of the Sonoran Desert. There is literally something for everyone at Sabino Canyon. Plan on spending at least 2 hours.
Beer Pairing: Sentinel Peak Brewing
Unless you are brand new to the blog, you know that I find a way to enjoy craft beer on every adventure. For this 3-day Tucson itinerary I will be including a recommended Beer Pairing for each day and its activities. On this first day I highly recommend lunch and “refreshments” between the Sabino Canyon and Mt. Lemmon adventures. It seems to work well after a morning of hiking in Sabino to recharge before heading up the Mountain. However, you can also save it for late in the afternoon on your way back down from Mt. Lemmon. Either way, the recommended Beer Pairing is Sentinel Peak Brewing in the Midtown area of Tucson.
Sentinel Peak is operated by 3 local firefighters. The beer is a nice traditional selection of craft brews that will please everyone in your party. They offer some blonde, some dark, some hop, and some funk. If you are a craft beer fan, you will understand. In addition to their nice beer, they have some outstanding food. Any of the versions of their mac-n-cheese will fuel your tank. They have yummy sandwiches and salads as well. Fill up, kick back and relax for a bit because the afternoon will be a thrill ride. Literally!
The road to Mt. Lemmon starts in the desert basin of Tucson. This highway twists and turns 23 miles up to the highest peak of the Santa Catalinas, Mt. Lemmon at 9000 ft. Along the drive you pass through four Climate Zones. The diversity of these zones is equivalent to the region from Mexico to Canada. As you slowly start to climb, the valley is replete with Saguaro cacti. Each of these iconic Wild West sentries stand tall with unique personalities.
Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway is the only paved road that leads to the upper reaches of Mt. Lemmon and the Santa Catalina Range. It is one of the most scenic drives in southeast Arizona. The vistas, hoodoos, deep canyons and cool forests are exhilarating. In an hour you can travel from a 90 degree afternoon to a cool 65 degrees with a few patches of remnant snow.
The University of Arizona has created a wonderful audio tour that narrates your journey from desert to chaparral/grasslands, to oak woodlands, to pine forest and finally spruce forest. Take a few minutes to download the app and activate when you pass the UA sign.
Day 2 in Tucson: Downtown
The Tucson basin, snuggled into the five mountain ranges, was first inhabited by the ancient Hohokam people. They lived in the Tucson area from around 450-1450 A.D, in a complex agricultural society. For reasons unknown, these peoples vanished from the basin. In the 1700’s the area was discovered by the far-reaching Spaniards and Jesuit missionaries. Father Kino established the Mission San Xavier del Bac and Spain built the Presidio San Agustin.
Tucson became the capital of the newly formed Arizona Territory in 1867. In 1882 Wyatt Earp killed Frank Stilwell, setting off the fuse that would culminate in nearby Tombstone. It wasn’t until 1912 that Arizona joined the U.S. as the 48th state.
This town, fondly referred to as the “Old Pueblo”, is packed with history. Throughout the rocks and canyons you can find petroglyphs from the Hohokam, the stately Mission San Xavier still stands just south of town and neighborhoods reflect the Native American, Spanish and cowboy influences.
Mercado San Agustin
Our second day in Tucson will be spent exploring downtown. It will be a mix of historic and contemporary flavors. First stop will be the San Agustin Mercado. This trendy open-air public market is designed to replicate a traditional Sonoran plaza. The chill courtyard is one of my favorite spots to linger over coffee and dulces (sweets).
Just west of downtown and the I-10, the Mercado offers locally roasted coffee at Presta Roasters, yummy traditional hispanic pastries at La Estrella Bakery, French farm-to-table dining at Agustin Kitchen and Mexican cuisine representing six different regions of Mexico at Seis.
After you have had enough lingering over your coffee it is time to head east towards the center of Tucson and into some of the historic barrio neighborhoods. You will find vibrant colors, original adobe structures and a culture unique to southern Arizona.
The Barrio Viejo is just a couple of miles southeast of the Mercado, bordered by Cushing St. to the north, and 18th Ave to the south, Main Ave to the west and Stone Ave to the east. The architecture is predominantly Sonoran Traditional where zero setbacks are common, creating continuous streetscapes of houses and shops. You can find all of the historic barrio neighborhoods with this guide from the Downtown Tucson Partnership.
The oldest and original setting for Tucson is the El Presidio, located east of I-10 and north of Congress Most of the structures date from 1860 to 1920 and include Sonoran Row houses, Mission Revival, bungalow style and American Territorial. El Presidio encompasses Hohokam pit houses, the 18th-century Spanish colonial presidio, the subsequent Mexican village, and Anglo homes. Home to restaurants, offices, shops and the Tucson Museum of Art, this is a uniquely walkable neighborhood.
Street Mural Art
The street mural art scene in Tucson is amazing. As you finish up your exploration of the Historic Presidio District keep a lookout for some of the displays. Wander through the streets and see how many you can discover. A quick 10-minute walk will bring you into a pocket of several murals AND the first of your Beer Pairings for Day 2. The most impressive of the murals is the enormous work of Joe Pagac at Sixth Street and Stone Avenue. It features a man, woman, tortoise javelina and jackrabbit riding bikes. This local muralist also has an installation on the back wall of Borderlands Brewing Co. Yep…after all that urban exploring, you deserve a beer.
Beer Pairings: Borderlands Brewing & Ermanos Beer and Wine Bar
Frequently, craft breweries are completely focused on their beer and do not attempt to provide food. I appreciate this sentiment as a beer aficionado but as a foodie I like a mix of both. So, on Day 2 the Beer Pairing includes two suggestions. After all that tromping around downtown Tucson you will be hungry as well as thirsty.
But first, you have worked your way to Borderlands Brewing and they have great beer and a great beer-drinking scene, no food. After spending a few minutes contemplating Joe Pagac’s desert critters mural, find the front door and beer garden of Borderlands Brewing Co.
Borderlands Brewing is a cavernous warehouse backed up to the railroad tracks. The space is a quintessential craft beer ambiance. Rustic communal tables remind me of Munich. Funky art lines the walls, eclectic beer flows and everyone is family. A couple of my favorites are the Toole Ave Hazy IPA and the Noche Dulce Porter. They do have a random schedule of food trucks but check their calendar first.
Next stop will be food and drinks. The Ermanos Craft Beer and Wine Bar is just half a mile southeast from Borderlands and a mile off the University of Arizona campus. Ermanos is a destination to keep everyone in your group satisfied. Craft beer, good selection of wines and amazing food makes this the perfect way to end Day 2 in Tucson.
Day 3 in Tucson: The Desert
Tucson sits on the eastern edge of the Sonoran desert. It covers southwest Arizona, very southern California, wraps around the northern end of the Gulf of California. and down into western parts of Sonora. The desert draws its name from the State of Sonora in Mexico. This extraordinary region is home to 60 mammal species, 350 bird species, 20 amphibian species, over 100 reptile species, 30 native fish species, and more than 2,000 native plant species. Especially unique about the Sonoran Desert area southeast of Tucson is that it provides a vital habitat for the only population of jaguars living within the United States. The Sonoran desert is also the only place on earth where the amazing Saguaro cactus grow wild. Although you will encounter them in the Phoenix area, it is here in Tucson that they are revered and protected in the Saguaro National Park.
Day 3 you will fall in love with the vast life of the Sonoran desert.
Saguaro National Park
The Saguaro National Park straddles Tucson with a West and East district. Each area has a Visitor Center, Scenic Drive and numerous hiking trails. The West side sits in the Rincon Mountain range and the West is in the Tucson Mountain range.
For our Day 3 adventure we are going to head to the West side. I am not going to debate the greatness of West vs East districts here. If you have the time and inclination to drive across Tucson to enjoy both, by all means go for it. The two sides do have slightly different feels and experience. Personally, I prefer the West district because of the added option to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum AND it is closer to some awesome Beer Pairing opportunities…..What can I say…
Gates Pass Rd
Depending on where you are starting, you can drive through the Saguaro National Park West and to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum from the north on Picture Rocks Rd or from the south on Gates Pass Rd. For the most stunning mountain vistas and the return route closest to our beer, I recommend starting on Gates Pass and ending on Picture Rocks.
As you leave the Tucson city limits and head west, you will notice the road narrowing and climbing. It’s crazy, but you will be sharing the road with both bicyclists and over-sized RVs. You would swear neither of these can survive this Pass. But all of you chug on in spite of switchbacks and elevation gain. As you twist through the blind curves into incredible views of the Tucson mountains and the desert floor below, you understand why everyone is braving this journey.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
As you descend down to the desert floor the sweep of majestic Saguaro cacti will take your breath away. At the base you will pass the touristy attraction of Old Tucson, the rugged Gilbert Ray campground, Tucson Mountain Park, numerous hiking trailheads and finally the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum . This destination calls itself a zoo, aquarium, botanical garden and natural history museum. That sounds like a jam-packed adventure for Day 3 in Tucson. I am not typically a huge zoo fan but this one is done pretty well with plenty of natural habitat surroundings. Even if you are not interested in the critters, the setting is a spectacular desert with docents and annotation to expand your knowledge of the Sonoran Desert.
They offer a daily raptor program in the cooler months of the year and maintain an aviary and a buzzing hummingbird haven. This is a birder and photographers dream. I even loved their gift shop. It was packed with books and resources and ways to learn. Spend your time wandering this museum but be sure to stay hydrated anytime of the year.
Beer Pairing: 1912 Brewing & Button Brewing
Button Brew House
Button Brew House opened in late 2017. This is a truly Mom and Pop craft brewery and every visitor is welcomed to the family. They have some really fun local twists on some of their beer selections. For instance the
Chiltepín Red, a Sonoran Spicy Red Ale. This unusual beer created a pretty spectacular Spicy Michelada (a beer version of a Bloody Mary). There is no food here just great beer for desert thirsty guests.
P.S. They have a heavy hitting IPA weighing in at 12.5%ABV if you are feeling brave.
My go to spot for “funky” beer selections is 1912 Brewing . I know that sours and edgy beer is an acquired taste not meant for everyone. However, if you like the adventurous, this is your place. There is always a great sense of camaraderie and welcome at 1912. They do have a consistent food truck most evenings. Check their website calendar for details.
P.S. Do you recognize that date 1912? Yes that is right, it is the year of Arizona’s statehood.
3 Day Tucson Itinerary in Review
WOW! This sounds like such a fun 3 days in Tucson I want to head out and visit all these hotspots again. Tucson is a wonderland of outdoor adventures and chill patios to relax in at the end of your day. Plan your visit to Tucson soon! Let me know you’re coming and I can give you even more ideas. For now, here is a brief review of these Tucson itinerary recommendations:
- Sabino Canyon
- Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway
- Beer Pairing: Sentinel Peak Brewing
- Barrios and Street Mural Art
- Beer Pairing Borderlands, Crooked Tooth and Ermanos
- Gates Pass Rd
- Saguaro National Park West
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
- Beer Pairing 1912 and Button brewing
Why not spend your 3 Days in Tucson during Arizona Beer Week, first week in February?