Andy Mossack lives out his boyhood cowboy dream in Southern Arizona
They say Arizona’s name was derived from the Basque word for good oak tree. Yet, while Arizona white oak may be a fine and noble tree, it’s the saguaro cactus that has revered status in these parts. Well-deserved too in my opinion.
This extraordinary cactus – unique to the Sonoran Desert – not only grows to magnificent heights, but its arms, iconically reaching for the sky, only begin to grow once it reaches 70 years of age.
It provides a safe home for all manner of God’s creatures, offers untold Kodak moments, and is such a protected species it stands proudly wherever it grows, knowing full well it can’t be moved without special permission.
Now that’s what I call plant-based royalty.
Arizona, which only joined the Union in 1912, is neighboured by Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, California, and Mexico. A star-studded line up straight from central casting to showcase America’s wild west. But for me, it’s Arizona that’s the headline act.
The show-stopping Grand Canyon sits proudly in the north, the stunning red wind-carved mountains of the Verde Valley and Sedona lie centrally, but it’s the big sky desert region of Southern Arizona where the wild west truly comes to life. Ride with me as I explore Tucson, Tombstone, and Tubac, meet up with the Earp Brothers at the OK Corral, channel my inner cowboy at a dude ranch, and uncover some outstanding desert wineries. Say howdy to Southern Arizona.
Tucson is Arizona’s second city and just a 2-hour drive from Phoenix. But what a drive. The moment you leave the capital you’re in the Sonoran Desert and see those heavenly saguaros, each arm seemingly pointing out a place of interest, like a friendly neighbour. Surrounded by mountain ranges, this was my first glimpse of the old west, and in my head those pioneer wagon trains were alongside me rolling across the plains following the gold rush trail.
Today’s Tucson is very different from its pioneer days, a proper bustling metropolis with a lively university vibe. But there are many pockets which reflect the city’s mix of Spanish, Mexican, and native American Indian cultures, and some cool 19th century architecture to help bring history to life. Expect plenty of eclectic retailers and some very cool restaurants.
Top of the visit list must be Hotel Congress, built in 1918 and notorious for where the gangster John Dillinger was arrested in 1934. The interiors are original and packed with character. After years of decline the hotel gained a new lease of life when it became a hot venue for live music, and its Cup Café breakfast is nothing short of legendary.
Tucson is the gateway to the Saguaro National Park, home to over two million of my favourite cacti. The park is spread across two sections, east and west, but the Valley Overlook Trail in the west section offers some dream views and some stunning sunsets.
A few minutes’ drive outside Tucson lies the extraordinary Mission San Xavier del Bac, an active Franciscan mission right in the heart of the Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation. Labelled by many as the ‘Sistine Chapel of North America’ it dates to the 1700s when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain. The intricate interior is remarkable, courtesy of architect Ignacio Gaona, and O’odham tribal labourers and reminded me of an ancient church you’d find in Madrid rather than in the middle of a dusty desert.
Entry is free, and there are frequent docent-led tours. It is still used as a place of worship by the O’odham and I found it an enchantingly peaceful place. The boutiques selling Indian art in the adjacent plaza are also worth a look.
Another unmissable destination is Stargazing at Spencer’s Observatory. Normally I don’t recommend anywhere I haven’t been to, but Southern Arizona’s dark sky is World-famous for stargazing and my tour was cancelled due to unusually bad weather! That said, the state-of-the-art observatory atop Cat Mountain is a perfect place for a personal guided tour of the galaxy.
A little further out, in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun is the 10-acre property of the late Ted DeGrazia, an extraordinary Arizona artist and architect whose body of work is nothing short of spectacular with more than 15,000 original pieces. Executive Director Lance Laber, a close friend of the DeGrazia family, took the time to show me around the sprawling estate. “Ted designed and built this whole place himself” Lance told me “And after he passed, we found pieces of his work literally everywhere.”
The Gallery is an adobe mission-style building which served as home and gallery to Ted and his wife Marion, a talented artist in her own right. The myriad rooms display DeGrazia’s art as it evolved throughout the years. Visitors are free explore the estate and even pay respects to the couple whose last resting places are on the property.
The impressive JW Marriott Hotel at Starr Pass is a perfect base by the Tucson National Park towering way above the city. The views are glorious as are the numerous hiking trails that surround it. I took the opportunity to play golf up here at the Starr Pass Golf Club, three nine-hole loops of championship desert golf designed by the great Arnold Palmer.
Just over an hour’s drive along historic Highway 80 (the south west’s version of Route 66) brought me to proper cowboy country and historic Tombstone – “the town too tough to die.” Now it would be easy to dismiss Tombstone as just a cheesy tourist attraction, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The thing is, it is an official historical American Landmark, and the buildings date back to the 1880s.
It was a prosperous boomtown founded by prospector Ed Schieffelin who discovered a fifty-foot vein of silver there in 1879 which heralded a massive silver rush. The population grew from 100 to 14,000 in seven years, the proceeds from the silver mines attracted outlaws, gambling, and bordellos, and the rest as they say, is history.
Tombstone really does feel authentic because it is. The Earps really did live here, as do many residents today. Yes, there is a re-enactment of the famous 30 second gunfight at the OK Corral, but it does take place where it really happened, and it really is entertaining! There’s an excellent guided tram tour around all 55 places of interest, as well as an underground visit to one of the original silver mines.
Despite the costumed actors walking around, the original main street with its covered boardwalks is well preserved and lined with saloons, the famous Birdcage Theatre, and numerous retailers selling vintage western wear. And, just off the main drag, I found the original Boot Hill cemetery.
I’m not ashamed to say it, Tombstone reignited my boyhood cowboy memories, and I loved it.
With my senses now on full cowboy, I drove across to the Tombstone Monument Ranch for my overnight dude ranch experience. Even though it’s been rebuilt to look like a wild west town, (the bedrooms are behind each shopfront), it is a working cattle ranch with a 140-year history. And I was more than ready for my stint in the saddle.
My horse was Jez, a big stallion who was clearly impressed with the confident way I mounted up. That was until Becky, our ride wrangler announced as we started out “Just so you know guys, it’s rattlesnake season, so keep your eyes peeled.”
Fortunately, gentle Jez was a dream ride and safely carried me past ancient Native American petroglyphs, abandoned railroad grades, and old prospector monuments. Fortunately, no rattlers.
We got back in time for a drink before dinner, and as I walked into the saloon, the piano stopped playing as I said to the bartender “slide me a glass of red eye.” I lied about the piano, but I did get a glass slide. In my head theme tunes from old spaghetti westerns were playing out, and if there was a poker game up for grabs, I would have been all in.
That night, some good old boys with long beards regaled us with cowboy and country songs and I was in wild west heaven.
Sonoita and Elgin
These two tiny towns are at the forefront of a fast-growing wine region with over twenty wineries establishing excellent vines despite the burning heat of summer and the chilly desert winter nights. The added benefit was I drove there through some spectacular mountain passes and that iconic western landscape of a single road disappearing into the horizon.
It was easy to spot Los Milics Vineyards in Elgin. Its otherworldly monolithic steel pillars gradually rose out of the desert as I grew near. Their spectacular new tasting room is set amongst the pillars and directly face the Mustang Mountains. I sat on a sun-drenched patio sampling some delicious wines with tasty snacks from talented chef Ana Borrajo, and genuinely thought what a very special way to enjoy wine. Later this year they are opening a clutch of luxury casitas for overnight stays. Sleeping amongst the vines, how cool is that?
A few minutes’ further on, Doz Cabezas Wineworks in Sonoita couldn’t be more different, but just as fabulous. Kelly and Todd Bostock have an entirely different approach to winemaking than their friends at Los Milics. Doz Cabezas is a homely rustic ranch-style property that not only produces excellent-value wines but serves delicious fresh wood-fired pizzas out of a trailer. “No frills, just great tasting wines and fresh pizza, what can be better.” Todd said after I’d sampled a few of his favourite wines matching perfectly with his own pizza recipes.
Little-known Tubac, by the banks of the Santa Cruz River, is Arizona’s oldest European settlement. It’s an interesting drive from Sonoita, only 90 minutes, but the road runs right along the Mexican border offering up some dramatic landscapes particularly close to the border crossing at Nogales.
The small village of Tubac is an eclectic mix of art galleries, boutiques and cafes, but I was here for a stay at the Tubac Golf Resort & Spa. It’s on what in 1789 was a 600-acre Mexican ranch, but today is a lovely property with hacienda-style villas, an excellent restaurant and three 9-hole golf courses. Its claim to fame? It was once owned by Bing Crosby (who designed the golf holes) and was the golf course featured in the comedy movie Tin Cup.
The nearby Tumacacori National Park contains the ruins of three ancient colonial missions and an interesting museum chronicling the region’s history which are well worth a visit.
Memories of the Old West
As I rode off into the sunset to Phoenix, I felt saguaro arms waving farewell as I drove past. One thing is for sure, I could never tire of looking out at that Sonoran landscape. It’s like starring in your very own western movie.
See you next time partner.
All images (C) Andy Mossack and Arizona Office of Tourism. Feature image (C) An Pham.
Tell me more about visiting Southern Arizona
For more details on these activities and more in Southern Arizona please visit the Arizona Office of Tourism at Visit Arizona.
American Airlines and British Airways run daily flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor.
Additional recommended sights near Scottsdale
.Scottsdale Desert Botanical Garden, Extraordinary collection of desert cacti, flora and fauna. Learn about the plants and people of the Sonoran Desert. Also just next door, you’ll find the amazing natural Hole in the Rock formation in Papago Park.
Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin West Discover the winter home of the man who invented the Prairie Style Movement of desert archtecture
Tombstone Monument Ranch All the fun of a dude ranch with horse riding and cowboy fun. Rates from £381 B&B for 2 nights.
Tubac Golf Resort & Spa Charming hacienda-style resort with spa and golf course. Rates from £127 per night
JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort 5 star luxury accommodation high above Tucson in the foothills of the Tucson National Park. Rates from £247 per night.
The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. Lying adjacent to the famed TPC Stadium Golf Course, this is a huge luxury property in true Fairmont style. I was there just as they switched on their jaw-dropping annual Christmas holiday lights extravaganza.
5 Points Market & Restaurant. Excellent organic hipster café in a trendy neighbourhood near downtown Tucson.
The Coronet. Upscale sustainable restaurant in downtown Tucson. Reservations essential.
Seis Kitchen. Excellent Mexican street food from Mexico’s six regions. Privately owned and run. There are three locations in Tucson.
Cup Café. Legendary breakfasts and lunches. Part of Hotel Congress in downtown Tucson.
Wine Tasting and Eats