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Tucson, Arizona: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park & San Xavier del Bac Mission

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Desert Museum has elements of a zoo, botanical garden, and natural history museum, and was open on Christmas day and was an excellent introduction to the Sonoran Desert.

Because of the holiday the table service dining restaurant was closed. The counter service restaurant had two sections; one with “traditional” family food (pizza, burgers) and a second with southwest options. Adjacent to the dining area was a small art gallery, with desert-inspired works by local artists.

Our visit stretched over three hours, but we easily could have spent more.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum- Stingrays

I was initially confused how an aquarium and stingray tank were applicable to a desert museum, but we learned that the Sonoran Desert stretches across northwest Mexico and borders the Gulf of California. At a set time during the day, and for an additional fee, we were able to feed the rays, and it was a highlight of our visit.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum- Trails & Habitats

There were many short hiking trails, making the museum a good way to experience the desert for families with young children.

Mountain Woodland, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ 2022

There were exhibits with native animals of Arizona, with each section divided by the type of habitat. Our favorites included the beaver in the wetland habitats and the prairie dogs and mountain lion in the Mountain Woodland habitats.

The trails also offered an opportunity to see wildlife outside of those in the enclosed habitats, like this (larger than those that live in Virginia) lizard that startled us along the garden path.

Saguaro National Park

King Canyon Trail, Saguaro National Park

We started at the Visitor Center, where Park Rangers suggested four stops on the scenic driving loop. The first stop suggested for children participating in the Junior Ranger program was the nearby Nature Discovery Trail, a less than 1/2 mile loop with interpretation about the local plants and animals. We skipped it because we had spent so much time the day before at the Sonoran- Desert Museum, and instead headed to a trail that Alex had hiked on his visit in 2019.

Signs warned that during the summer, visitors should consider limiting their outdoor activity to before 10am. The December temps were in the high sixties but felt much warmer in the direct sun.

Saguaro National Park- King Canyon Loop

We chose to start the loop with a moderate climb up the King Canyon gold mine trail, and then return via the Wash Trail. Some of the Wash trail required rock scrambling on tall “stairs”, which would be a plus or a minus for some families. If we had started in the valley we would have had to climb up the rocky areas, which may have been easier than navigating the best footing going down.

King Canyon Trail, Saguaro National Park, Tucson, AZ 2022

There were a few petroglyphs that weren’t as prominent as at Signal Hill, but were exciting to find without any interpretive markings.

Saguaro National Park- Wild Dog Trail

My second hike of the day was solo. Alex dropped me off near the Valley View parking area for a one way walk along Wild Dog trail to Signal Hill. This easy trail had few other hikers, and I found myself alone to watch occasional wildlife.

Saguaro National Park- Signal Hill

Signal Hill is the most highly visited stop in the park. The Hohokam people etched petroglyphs between 450 and 1450 CE into the rocks and ledges that can still be seen today. Fun fact: petroglyphs are etched into rock, while pictographs are painted onto the surface.

San Xavier del Bac Mission

San Xavier del Bac Mission, Tohono O’odham Nation San Xavier Indian Reservation, AZ 2022

The San Xavier del Bac Mission was built as Spanish Franciscan mission in 1797, as European missionaries sought to convert the indigenous Tohono O’odham people to Catholicism. The Church is now a nonprofit organization open to visitors and an active church that holds Mass on weekends.

Hilton El Conquistador Resort

El Conquistador Resort, Tucson, AZ, 2023

El Conquistador Resort

El Conquistador was in the northern Oro Valley area of Tucson. We chose to stay at the El Conquistador Resort to combine a relaxing holiday feel with our sightseeing. We had only planned to stay two nights, but shortly after arriving and seeing the 75 degree days ahead on the weather forecast we added an additional night. There were four dining options; the upscale Epazote Kitchen, the Colibri Lobby Lounge, the poolside Desert Springs Grill, and the Sundance Cafe, open for breakfast and lunch. We utilized all four, and each served its intended purpose perfectly. The main pool and children’s slide were heated and comfortable in the winter sunshine. Our first room was in the Acadia adult pool area, downhill from the main resort area. Adults without children would enjoy the direct access to the unheated pool in the summer. We opted to move a more updated and convenient mountain view room connected to the main resort area when we extended our stay.

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