Credit: Mark Skainy
From Phoenix, this trip ventures east to the Superstition Mountains and Globe, where it winds south to the hot springs of Safford and the wine country of Willcox and Sonoita. Then it curves north to Tucson, where the Old Pueblo's rich history and culture await. The route returns to Phoenix via a picturesque "back way."
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Lost Dutchman State Park sits at the eastern edge of Phoenix and is worth a visit to take in the breathtaking vistas of the Superstition Mountains. The park is named after Jacob Waltz, a German who was believed to have hidden caches of gold in the mountains in the 1870s.
Next stop: Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Arizona's oldest and largest botanical garden. During the spring, this is the place to see desert wildflowers. More outdoor exploration comes by way of the Legends of Superior Trails, a 12-mile network of hiking, biking and equestrian trails that snake through Arnett Canyon; pass by the abandoned town of Pinal; connect with the Arizona National Scenic Trail; and, end in Queen Creek Canyon.
Keep going toward the twin towns of Globe-Miami that are home to the Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park, an ancient village occupied by the Salado people nearly 800 years ago. In addition to the ruins, the park also houses a museum with an impressive display of artifacts and pottery.
Where to Stay: Cottage Bed and Breakfast, 1104 S. Central Ave., Safford
Start the day off right with fresh-air fun at Roper Lake State Park. A brisk hike along the park's five miles of trails should be followed by a soothing dip in the hot springs. (Attention anglers: Drop a line in the lake to catch largemouth bass.) Post-park, take a scenic drive to the top of nearby Mount Graham, where Mount Graham International Observatory perches. A tour of the observatory includes lunch and shows off several telescopes. You won't want to miss the Large Binocular Telescope—it's the largest in the world, standing just short of 11,000 feet.
As you continue to Willcox, pop into the Rex Allen Museum, an upbeat look at the singing cowboy, screen legend and local boy Rex Allen. Spend the rest of the afternoon sipping Arizona wines at tasting rooms in downtown Willcox. (Willcox is one of two AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, in Arizona and where most of the state's wine grapes are grown.) For dinner, go for fine cuts of beef at Double S Steakhouse or award-winning salsa at Isabel’s South of the Border.
Where to Stay: Arizona Sunset Inn, 340 S. Haskell Ave., Willcox
Arizona's other AVA—and its first—is Sonoita, southwest of Willcox. Three mountain ranges surround this wine-growing region and opportunities to sample the grape range from lively tasting rooms in the towns of Sonoita and Elgin to remote wineries tucked away in the countryside.
But before you embark on a day of wine tasting, first go to Kartchner Caverns State Park. Discovered in 1974, and hidden from the public for nearly a decade more, this living limestone cave has Arizona's tallest natural column and the world's longest stalactite. You could easily spend a full day here, with its accessible underground tours, aboveground hiking trails and family-friendly activities. If you choose to linger, book one of the park's cabins for the night.
Just north of Sonoita is Empire Ranch, a 140-year-strong working cattle ranch owned at various times by prominent ranching families, major corporations and the government. Learn about its history on a self-guided walking tour. Conclude the day with the culinary talents of chef/owner Adam Puckle at The Café in Sonoita; the pasta is to die for.
Where to Stay: Next Door @ Dos Cabezas, 3246 Hwy. 82, Sonoita
With so much to see, do, hike, bike, eat and shop in Tucson, you'll want to plan your time thoughtfully. Luckily, the drive north from Sonoita is short, so you can maximize your fun. Here are a few highlights to weave into the itinerary.
Although I-10 provides the fastest route for the Tucson-to-Phoenix commute, we're sending you north on Highways 77 and 79, known as the "backway" to Phoenix.
As you ascend into the Santa Catalina Mountains, prepare for views galore. First stop: Biosphere 2 in Oracle. Tour this glass-enclosed research facility, built as an artificial ecological system, the largest closed system of its kind.
Just down the road, walk the sculpture park at Triangle L Ranch, then continue east to Oracle State Park. This 4,000-acre wildlife refuge has many easy to moderate trails that the whole family can enjoy, plus kid-friendly interactive activities. And because the park has an International Dark Sky Designation, it lines up a robust programming of stargazing, should you choose to stick around after the sun goes down.
As you travel deeper into the foothills, you'll come across Arizona Zipline Adventures (ziplining, plus a restaurant boasting yummy burgers) and Peppersauce Canyon (hiking, camping, picnicking; leaf-peeping in the fall). As you near Phoenix, divert from the path to explore Downtown Mesa and Tempe.