The I-19 corridor south of Tucson is hard to beat for a leisurely day enjoying art, culture, history, and excellent Mexican cuisine. There is so much to see and do between Tucson and the Mexican border that we recommend you start early.
When we take guests on this, our Tucson Day Trip #1, we usually drive 55 minutes from Downtown Tucson to the furthest destination south, which is Mission Tumacácori, almost to the Mexican border. The rest of the day is a leisurely drive back toward Tucson with at least 7 worthwhile points of interest along the way. Check out the map at the bottom of this post.
is a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. This mission was founded by Father Kino in 1691. Take Exit 29, then turn left under the Interstate. At the frontage road, turn left. You can’t miss it. Bring your camera.
A block or two east of the mission is the Anza Trail along the Santa Cruz River where you will find dozens of bird species as well as native critters. You can hike the Anza Trail north along the Santa Cruz for 3.5 miles to Tubac.
It was from here that Juan Bautista de Anza organized and led a 1,200-mile expedition to California that resulted in the founding of the City of San Francisco in 1776. The expedition included 240 colonists and over 1,000 head of livestock: cattle, horses, and mules.
Even though they had to traverse an unforgiving desert sparsely populated with sometimes hostile Indians, all of the colonists arrived safe, a testament to Anza’s leadership.
A mile south of the mission on the frontage road is the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company. If you’re into cooking, this family-owned shop is worth your time.
We have 3 original videos about Tumacácori.
2. Tubac Village
is about 3.5 miles north of Tumacácori on the east frontage road (or Exit 34 if you get back on the Interstate). Here you will find more than 100 shops, galleries, and restaurants. Bring your credit card.
Here also is the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. This archeological site was where the first Spanish presidio (fort) in this region was established in 1752. The soldiers here protected Spanish missions & settlers from Apaches, or at least tried to. Repeatedly attacked, the soldiers and settlers abandoned Tubac in 1775 and built El Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón in what is now downtown Tucson. The park has a short self-guided walking tour that we highly recommend for reasons you will discover.
Dining In Tubac Village
Tubac has several good places to dine. (1) Tubac Deli has very good sandwiches. (2)Elvira’s is one of our favorite Mexican restaurants. (3) Shelby’s Bistro is on the south side of the village across a bridge. If the weather is good, you can get a fine view from your table on the patio.
Between Tumacácori and Tubac on the frontage road is Wisdom’s Café, one of the oldest and best Mexican restaurants in Southern Arizona. Note, however, that Wisdom’s is not open Sundays.
For more things to see and do around Tubac and Tumacacori see our Things to Do in Tubac and Tumacacori page.
3. Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory
There is no way to include a tour of the observatories atop Mt. Hopkins in a day trip and still see the other sites along the I-19 Corridor. From the Visitor Center, a shuttle takes visitors with reservations up a very steep, narrow, & winding road to the top. The total time to ascend, tour the observatories, and descend is about 5 hours. Two hours are required just to get up & down. But the view from the top is splendid.
However, the Visitor Center is worthwhile. Watch the short video to get an idea what scientists do here. Also, there is a pleasant picnic are here. Check out our slideshow on the Whipple Visitor Center.
From Tubac, to north on I-19 about 11 miles and get off at Exit 48 (Arivaca Road). Follow the frontage road north about 2 miles and turn right (east) onto Elephant Head Road. From here the visitor center is about 8 miles. Just follow the signs.
4. Madera Canyon
is about 12 miles east of the I-19 at Green Valley. It is one of the premier birding areas in the United States. Almost 300 species of birds have been spotted here. Bring your binoculars or spotting scopes.
Bring your own food! There is no grocery store or restaurant in Madera Canyon. However …
Madera Canyon has several pleasant picnic areas between 4,000 and 5,000 feet elevation. The best one is at the top where the road ends. From there, you can take a trail to the top of Mt. Wrightson (9,400 feet above sea level). In winter, bring warm clothes.
5. Titan Missile Museum
is one of the strangest & most fascinating places you will ever visit. Literally, there is nothing like it.
Get back on the Interstate heading north and exit at the Duval Mine Road (Exit 69). Turn left (west) and follow the signs. The first reaction of most people to whom we recommend this most unique museum is one of disinterest. But all who accepted our recommendation have thanked us. Take the one hour guided tour. They might even let you turn the key that launches the missile. If you understand what this place was about, at the very least, you will leave wondering how the human race survived the Cold War.
Check out our brief video about the Titan II Missile Museum.
6. Mineral Discovery Center
Stop here for a fascinating look into the world of copper technology and copper mining as well as other minerals. This is one of the cornerstones of the Arizona economy. It also supplies the world with copper, without which our modern civilization could not exist. If it has an “ON & OFF” switch, it needs copper to work.
The ASARCO Mineral Discover Center & Mission Mine Tour is only 15 miles south of Downtown Tucson. From Titan Missile Museum, continue north on I-19 and get off at Pima Mine Road (Exit 80). Desert Diamond Casino is on the east side of the freeway. The Mineral Discovery Center & Mine Tour are on the west side. Just follow the signs.
The tour takes about an hour and is both interesting & educational. Great for school-age children. Check out our Mineral Discovery Center slideshow with photos taken while we were on tour.
ASARCO was founded in 1899 as American Smelting And Refining Company.
7. Mission San Xavier del Bac
is a place, both historical & sacred, that no visitor to Southern Arizona should miss. Head North from the Mineral Discovery center and get off on the San Xavier Road (Exit 92). Head west and you will plainly see the magnificent church known as the White Dove of the Desert.
Mission San Xavier is on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Tohono O’odham means “Desert People”. The Spanish called these American Indians “Papago” (meaning “Bean Eaters”. Conquistadors were not really into PC.).
The Tohono O’odham were farming along the Santa Cruz River when Father Kino established the mission here in 1692. This functioning church is a mixture of Moorish, Spanish, and American Indian art and architecture. San Xavier is open to the public 7AM to 5PM, except during church services.