Achieve Peak Oasis Vibes in Tucson This Fall

Sep 30, 2021

Though best known to travelers as a stunningly arid escape, Tucson just emerged in its lushest possible incarnation after an epic monsoon season. So a city that’s always lovely as the summer heat fades is verging on the Edenic this year, with mountainsides newly carpeted in green, waterfalls flowing and butterfly populations soaring. Put otherwise: The Fall 2021 version of this Sonoran Desert enclave is one you’re not going to want to miss.

Read on for some of the best ways to get to know it.

The Seven Falls Trail

This Sabino Canyon Recreation Area trek culminates in a series of seven cascades (yes, the name is a bit of a spoiler) and their accompanying natural pools. But the 8.2-mile moderate hike is worthwhile for more than the titular falls: Along the way, you’ll be surrounded by many-armed saguaros, fuzzy teddy bear cacti and golden-leafed cottonwood trees, among other residents of the Coronado National Forest.Just know that you’ll be winding along—and across—a stream for much of the time, so wear or pack shoes that you don’t mind getting wet, plus a swimsuit if you wind up taking a dip in the pools, as locals love to do. And as on all Tucson hikes, take copious amounts of water.

Marshall Gulch Trail

For an entirely different perspective on Tucson, check out the city from on high—and from a whole other habitat: the much more traditionally forest-y one you’ll find atop Mount Lemmon (where, come winter, there’s an actual ski resort). Though you’ll spend some of the hike shrouded in ponderosa pine forests, you’ll also find clearings with breathtaking views onto the valley below.

Mount Lemmon SkyCenter

While you’re in the neighborhood, you may want to make a day of it (or at least an afternoon and evening of it). Once you’ve hiked the trails of Mount Lemmon, head to its university-affiliated SkyCenter for a five-hour SkyNight experience. You’ll get an astronomy lecture, dinner—and an expertly guided tour of Tucson’s dazzling night skies. The evening requires reservations (book as soon as you know you want to go)—and warm layers in the fall.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The name always throws newcomers, because no museum you’ve ever been to looks—or feels—like this one: essentially, a wide-open habitat mid-desert with the occasional naturalistic enclosure where the likes of bighorn sheep scale jagged outcroppings, prairie dogs peak out from burrows, javelinas laze under bridges and otters do the Sonoran desert version of aquarobics. And while you’re likely to see butterflies throughout Tucson thanks to their post-monsoon boom, the butterfly garden at the Desert Museum is an excellent starting point.

Tohono Chul

Serious butterfly enthusiasts—in addition to fans of botany and all-around natural beauty—will want to head to this garden, gallery and bistro complex. Among the many onsite attractions is the registered Monarch Waystation, where some of the most famous butterflies on earth can stop and refuel during their fall migration. Also particular to fall: the autumnal section of the onsite Sonoran Seasons Garden, where hummingbird trumpet flowers lure their namesake winged wonders to kaleidoscopic effect.

A White Stallion Ranch ride

To commune with creatures on a different scale, saddle up. Though you’ll find excellent outfitters throughout the area, serious enthusiasts may want to consider a full-immersion experience at the likes of White Stallion Ranch, home to an estimable private herd and riding menu. Whether you want to go fast or slow, ride through the mountains or the cattle pens, or learn new skills or just kick back in the saddle, you’ll have five to seven hours’ worth of options every day but Sunday (the horses’ day off).

The Starr Pass Mountain Biking Trail System

If you’d rather ride through the desert under your own power, you won’t find a more beautiful or beloved setting than the mountain biking trails of Starr Pass: an almost 10-mile network of intermediate and advanced routes that blend rocky and smooth sections—and desert and city vistas. And should you want an easier or harder trail, know that the wider Tucson Mountain Park is home to all kinds.

Boca Tacos

To fans of Top Chef, Maria Mazon needs no introduction: Her exquisite Mexican fare and abundant heart made her a standout (and final-five competitor) last season. But even if you walked into her Tucson restaurant with no knowledge of her hot streak on Bravo (or for that matter, her semifinalist status at last year’s James Beard awards, or any number of additional accolades), you’d still be starstruck by her food—not just the namesake tacos, which come in iterations from chicken mole to chipotle BBQ, but also her banh mi quesadillas, her carne asada burros—even her chips and salsa flight. Pair any of the above with a margarita and some fresh air on the patio—and that’s peak Tucson autumn right there.

Ready to go? Read about where to stay, things to do and places to eat, then start planning your Tucson getaway.

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