Walking tour of Tucson

Although these days we’re focused on getting ready to launch the Airstream, it can’t be all work all the time.  To get a break from the long list of “to do” items and a little exercise, I planned a day out to explore downtown Tucson’s historic sites.  We’ve been living here for four years, on and off, and I am still constantly surprised by the many hidden corners of Tucson that I’ve never seen.  It has quirky neighborhoods everywhere, oddball homes, tons of cultural artifacts, great museums, surprising restaurants, and historic buildings.  For a small city, it has a surprising amount to offer.

We used the map provided by the Tucson Presidio Trust for Historic Preservation for our tour.  The entire walk they recommend is about 2.5 miles, which is pretty mild by our street hiking standards especially since downtown is mostly flat.  The catch, however, is that this is mid-May, and so daytime temperatures are pretty consistently in the upper 90s or low 100s.  I tried to get Emma out early with dire warnings about hiking in the heat, but ultimately she decided that snoozing on a Sunday morning was more important than avoiding the heat.  With the 30 minute drive to downtown, our hike didn’t get started until about 10 a.m., and the air was already well into the 90s by then.

Oh well.  We’re used to it.  I know to a northerner the idea of walking around on asphalt in 100-degree heat would be horrendous, but of course it was the famous Arizona “dry heat”.  You put on light colored clothes, apply sunscreen, wear a big hat, and carry a water bottle or two.  With all that prep, my only problem was a burning sensation through the soles of my sneakers …

The first stop on the tour is the best.  Right in downtown there’s a recreated presidio, which is a sort of fortification from the Spanish Colonial era.  Spaniards needed to migrate from Mexico to California through some pretty tough country inhabited by the Apaches, and they were not on good terms.  So Spain established a line of 17 presidios, of which Tucson’s was the largest (11 acres) and and last.  Almost nothing of the original presidio still exists, but on part of the original site a very good recreation has been installed, and it’s well worth a visit.  Being a hot Sunday, we found ourselves the only visitors and so got a private guided tour from the volunteer who was on duty.  Fascinating and free.

The tour ultimately passes 22 sites, including statues commemorating the Mormon Battalion, Pancho Villa, and a Spanish “soldado de cuera” (leather jacket soldier, wearing a sort of armor made from deerskins), two footbridges, historic houses, cathedrals, parks, gardens, a historic hotel, a shrine, and even an elementary school from 1930.

We particularly liked the little shrine called El Tiradito (“The Castaway”), a.k.a. “The Wishing Shrine,” which is said to be the only shrine in the US dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground.  It’s obvious that many people still visit this shrine regularly to light candles and leave notes for those who have departed.  It’s hard not to be struck by the poignancy of this site and the offerings.

(There’s also a public water fountain nearby, which was great for us since we had already used up most of our supply.  In 2.5 miles of 100 degree+ heat we drank about 24 ounces of water each.)

I was most impressed by the fact that walking the streets of Tucson, we encountered no “bad neighborhoods” and discovered several areas that I never knew existed.  There’s really nothing like walking or bicycling a city to get to know it.  I was also pleased to connect the dots between several old neon signs that I’ve documented over the past couple of years.  Some are gone, others have been restored as a result of the new Historic Sign Amendment, including the famous “diving girl” sign.  (She used to advertise the Pueblo Hotel, but now the building houses a law firm.  Thanks to Piccaretta Davis for investing the money in having her restored.)

Of course, being a hot Sunday in downtown, we also encountered very few people until we got to the Congress Street district where retail is concentrated.   It seems few are interested in street hiking when it is over 100 degrees — go figure.


Toward the end of the tour we found ourselves on familiar ground at the Hotel Congress, famous for being the place that John Dillinger and his gang were caught in 1936.  The Hotel Congress has managed to survive by adapting, still offering hotel rooms that hark back to the 1930s, but also offering a nice little restaurant downstairs, a bar, and live music regularly.  We have so few historic hotels left in Tucson that we treasure those that remain. It’s a huge neon sign on the roof that I’ve photographed several times.

Besides the tip of carrying water and dressing correctly, there’s one other thing you must do if you are to street hike here in the summer:  find covered parking for the car.  On Sunday most of the lots were free, so we chose the main Public Library’s underground garage and were glad we did.  Parked underground, the car was only about 102 degrees inside, whereas parked in the sun it would have been unbearable for a while.  The Honda Fit is a great car but its dinky AC really can’t handle desert heat.

What do you do when you’ve conquered downtown on a day that even the lizards are seeking shade?  You go to one of our many cheap and wonderful Mexican restaurants, in this case El Guero Canelo (“the blonde guy”) and you get a Mexican Jarritos fruit soda and a burrito. At least that’s what we did.  Your mileage may vary.

We’ve got a few more days of heat and then we’ll saddle up the Airstream for points north and higher altitude.  By Saturday, the Airstream will be up around 7,000 feet and we’ll be looking for our long sleeved shirts again.