When Barbara Kingsolver set out to write her now-famous treatise on locavorism, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the first step she and her family took towards the goal of growing all of their own food for a year was to move away from their home in Tucson to more fertile farmlands in Virginia. But that's not to say nothing grows here in the stunning Sonoran Desert, which is ablaze with life around every canyon bend. You just probably want more diversity in your diet than saguaro cactus fruit, is all.
For a Houstonian, deserts and mountains like those that surround Tucson are incredibly alien environments, worthy of visiting for the exotic scenery alone. But getting to Tucson from here is no easy task. There are a few direct flights on United into Tucson's small airport, but they're pricey. Southwest makes layovers in Los Angeles, turning a trip to Tucson into an all-day slog. American Airlines is your best bet, making short layovers in either Dallas or Phoenix.
I'd suggest simply grabbing a cheap ticket to Phoenix and renting a car for the short, two-hour drive to Tucson. You'll want a car once you're there anyway—despite the cute trolley system downtown—and the drive south to Tucson will take you straight past one of the main reasons to make that visit:
The Santa Catalina Mountains and the Coronado National Forest
Whether you visit in the summer or the winter, the rugged Santa Catalina Mountains and the surrounding Coronado National Forest offer ample hiking and other outdoor activities—yes, even for those who aren't in the kind of peak physical shape it took Sara Plummer Lemmon to be the first woman to scale Mount Lemmon, the highest peak in the Catalina range, in 1881.
A leisurely, hour-long drive up the General Hitchcock Highway (the only paved road in the area) to the top of Mount Lemmon, which tops out at 9,159 feet, includes plenty of places to pull over and take in the forests of cactus, towering hoodoos and sweeping vistas of Tucson 6,000 feet below. The drive culminates at the village of Summerhaven, so named for its cool temperatures year-round; during the summer when it's usually 30 degrees cooler in Summerhaven than in Tucson it's a refreshing getaway from the desert floor below, while winter sees the little Alpine burg blanketed with snow.
The nearby Sabino Canyon Recreation Area—also within the vast Coronado National Forest—offers easier hiking opporuntities as well as a tram that takes visitors along a 3.8-mile route with nine scenic stops along the way. The tram even offers evening tours of the area—a great opportunity to see wildlife you'd normally miss during the day.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
This stark white church with an intricate Spanish Baroque façade rising up from a desert plain is stunning even before you learn its history. The oldest European structure in Arizona, Mission San Xavier del Bac was built between 1783 and 1797 by the native Tohono O'odham people on whose reservation it still stands today. (Look for their Prussian blue thumbprints climbing the columns near the pulpit.) During periods in which she was abandoned after the Mexican Revolution and other transitional periods in the Southwest's history, the mission served as an ad hoc camp for cowboys and other travelers who used its elaborate church as shelter for their horses and campfires.
Today, collaborative efforts between the Tohono O'odham and preservationists have restored many of its delicate frescoes, statuary and paintings. Docent-led tours and a Linda Rondstadt-narrated documentary on the restoration efforts are free, and well worth your time. Spend the money you saved on a $3 smokeless candle to light in the church and some delicious, freshly-made fry bread from the cafe.
Pima Air & Space Museum
The fact that it offers two-day passes should be an indication as to how sprawling the Pima Air & Space Museum truly is. The 127-acre campus contains over 300 aircraft housed inside hangars, while the adjacent 2,600-acre Boneyard (a.k.a. the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group) holds 4,400 retired planes, helicopters and other flying machines, making it the largest aircraft storage and preservation facility in the world. At that point, it doesn't even matter if you're even remotely interested in planes—you're looking at the Grand Canyon of grounded aircraft and the sheer breadth of it is staggering.
You can only visit the Boneyard through the Pima Air & Space Museum, but you can purchase separate $7 tickets that allow you to take a 75-minute tour. And although the Pima Air & Space Museum is open seven days a week, the Boneyard is only open Monday through Friday, so plan accordingly.
The University of Arizona's many museums
Houston has the Museum District; Tucson has the Museum Neighborhood, a cluster of first-rate facilities on the campus of the University of Arizona. Here, you'll find the Center for Creative Photography, which houses the largest collection of of Ansel Adams photographs and negatives in addition to the full archives of over 60 of America's most famous photographers; the University of Arizona Museum of Art, which contains European works from the 14th to the 19th centuries and notable modern works from Edward Hopper, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and Marc Chagall; and the Arizona State Museum, containing all the treasures you'd expect to find in the oldest and largest archeology museum in the Southwest.
Carne seca at El Charro
As a Texan, you may have had machaca, but you've never had dried beef quite like the carne seca served at El Charro Cafe. Since 1922, this charming family-run restaurant has been drying its beef the old-school way: on the roof, in wire cages, slowly dehydrating in the hot Sonoran sun. The result is something that tastes like a blend of beef jerky and juicy fajita meat. At El Charro, you can get your carne seca almost any way: in a taco, in a burrito, in an enchilada, even in a salad or a breakfast taco. Whatever you do, order it with a pint of El Charro Café 1922 Amber Ale to wash it down; the beer is made especially for El Charro by Tucson's own Barrio Brewing Co.