Southeastern Arizona—the area between Tucson and the Mexican border—is a bastion of true Americana but also a place where the Old West meets the new.
This 160-mile (257-kilometer) route (with side trips) heads southeast from Tucson along the Old Spanish Trail to Pistol Hill Road, then follows Interstate 10 to Highway 83 South, leading into the Santa Rita Mountains and the glory of the Old West. Turn east at Highway 82 in Sonoita and head to Highway 80. Follow it south to Tombstone and on to Bisbee, your final destination.
Start in Tucson
Tucson is an outdoors lover's paradise with canyons, mountains, and deserts to explore. Park your car and hike up Seven Falls Trail in Sabino Canyon to a natural pool with views. Drive the eight-mile (13-kilometer)-long Cactus Forest Drive in the east section of Saguaro National Park (3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson; tel. 1 520 733 5153; www.nps.gov/sagu). For a historic place to stay downtown, try the funky Hotel Congress (311 E. Congress St., Tucson; tel. 1 520 622 8848; www.hotelcongress.com). The authentic Guatemalan cuisine of Maya Quetzal (429 N. 4th Ave., Tucson; tel. 1 520 622 8207) includes specialty rice and various dishes made with mole sauce.
Into the Mountains
As you leave Tucson and head into the desert, admire the legions of tall cacti from which Saguaro National Park takes its name. Driving south on Highway 83, penetrate rolling hills dotted with manzanitas and piñon pines. When you hit Highway 82 at Sonoita, you leap into a John Ford Western. To the immediate west are the Santa Rita peaks. To the northeast are the Whetstone Mountains and to the southeast, the Huachucas. Their canyons shelter lost mines, ghost towns, and terrain that famed Apache warrior Geronimo once roamed.
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
Detour southwest on 82 to take a nature walk at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve (tel. 1 520 394 2400), outside of the town of Patagonia. Here the Nature Conservancy has set aside some of the pristine watershed of Sonoita Creek, including some of the largest (more than a hundred feet/30 meters tall) and oldest (130 years) Fremont cottonwood trees in America.
Kartchner Caverns State Park
Head back east on 82, then detour north on 90 toward Benson for a visit to Kartchner Caverns, discovered in 1974. (Call ahead for tour reservations: tel. 1 520 586 2283; www.azparks.gov/Parks/KACA/index.) The caverns have stunning, unbroken formations, most impressively in the Throne Room and the Big Room.
Head back south on 90, then take 82 east and 80 south to reach Tombstone, perhaps the most famous of western towns. The history of Tombstone is most accurately told at the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park (3rd and Toughnut Sts., Tombstone; tel. 1 520 457 3311; www.azparks.gov/Parks/TOCO/index.html). For breakfast, try the Denver omelets at the OK Cafe (220 E. Allen St., Tombstone; tel. 1 520 457 3980). On the streets of Tombstone, find reenactors portraying cowboys and saloon floozies, schoolmarms and hanging judges. Desperadoes jerk their guns and fire at each other, returning you to the days of the O.K. Corral. Stop in at the Boot Hill Cemetery to see the graves of the men who died in the famous 1881 gunfight. Drop by an 1880s theater called the Bird Cage, "the most wicked nightspot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast." It's now a private museum with dusty exhibits from the days of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. The Bird Cage reportedly served as a brothel, too, where tired-looking women (judging by their photographs) with names like Soap Suds Sal and Dutch Annie entertained men in private while actors trod the stage. Tombstone's Crystal Palace (436 E. Allen St.; tel. 1 520 457 3611; www.crystalpalacesaloon.com) still pours beer in the same saloon in which Wyatt Earp reportedly ran a faro game.
Continue southeast on 80 to reach Bisbee, a prime example of the new Old West. Here, the land is shot full of copper and other minerals. To some, that was reason enough to build a substantial town in the middle of a narrow canyon called Mule Gulch, so they did, replete with opera and stock exchange. Learn Bisbee's story at the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum (5 Copper Queen Plaza, Bisbee; tel. 1 520 432 7071; www.bisbeemuseum.org). Ride deep into the historic Queen Mine on a hardhat tour (tel. 866 432 2071; www.queenminetour.com).
Bisbee has steep streets with twists and turns that would do a Greek village justice, yet it's quintessentially American. Clapboard cottages perch above bulging retaining walls stamped "PWA," for Public Works Administration, signaling their New Deal origins. Today, "Old B," as it's called, is an almost perfectly preserved piece of history, remaining much as it was when it was rebuilt in 1910 after a devastating fire. Even the RV park, the Shady Dell (1 Douglas Rd.; tel. 1 520 432 3567; www.theshadydell.com), lets you stay in a vintage Airstream trailer or on a Chris-Craft yacht parked in the desert. Such a time warp has attracted everyone from old hippies to recovering dot-commers to genuine loners eager to hop off the world. Or try Bisbee's Copper Queen Hotel (11 Howell Ave., Bisbee; tel. 1 520 432 2216; www.copperqueen.com), which exudes old-fashioned comfort.
The Bisbee Grille (2 Copper Queen Plaza; tel. 1 520 432 6788) dishes up good diner food (burgers, patty melts). Tacho's Tacos (115 Naco Hwy.; tel. 1 520 432 7811) has authentic Sonoran food, cheap and tasty.
Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau (tel. 800 638 8350; www.visittucson.org); Tombstone Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center (tel. 888 457 3929; www.tombstonechamber.com); Bisbee Visitors Center (tel. 1 520 432 3554; www.discoverbisbee.com).
—Text by Andrew Nelson, adapted from National Geographic Traveler