Travel

Why I Love Tucson (And You Can Too!)

When Max and I decided to leave Utah so I could become a full time traveling nurse, the entire United States was open to us. There were jobs in Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and we wanted to visit them all. We had big dreams. Our only stipulation when picking a destination was that it had to have geography – BIG geography.

My first contract took us to Washington State, whose Olympic Mountains fit the bill nicely. We stayed for six magical months, taking in glaciers, ancient rainforests, ocean vistas, and rain. Lots of rain. Endless torrents of it. So I had two stipulations for our next contract – big geography and sunshine.

Lake Crescent, Washington
Lake Crescent, Washington

I asked Max, “Ever been to Tucson, Arizona?”
He said, “I think I went to Mesa once.”
I said, “They’re not really the same thing.”

A quick Google search confirmed that, yes, Tucson had some rather striking mountains. So we packed our (soggy) bags and drove to Arizona.

Maybe it was the effect the strong Sonoran sun had on our waterlogged spirits, but Tucson cast a spell on us from the first day of our arrival. The end of my three month contract loomed alarmingly fast. I sought an extension. Then another. Before I knew it, six months had passed and the thought of leaving Tucson – even for the black sand beaches of Hawaii – filled me with panic.

So we bought a house here.

Our sudden decision to stay in Arizona came as a bit of a surprise to our friends and family. The question “So Why Tucson?” came up many times. I found myself blubbering things like “I LIKE COYOTES” and “NO ONE HAS LAWNS HERE,” which didn’t adequately sum up my feelings on this unique environment.

Why I Love Tucson
Sunset from our backyard in Tucson

Wildlife

Tucson sits in the middle of the Sonoran desert, a subtropical landscape teeming with animals of all shapes and sizes. The city is criss crossed with dozens of natural washes, which form a highway system for these critters to travel. This leads to a lot of wildlife encounters in unexpected places.

I’ve never been anywhere else where you can see a bobcat in the middle of town. Coyotes routinely visit our front yard to munch on the fruit from our Pindo palm, and a great horned owl likes to “hoot” from the top of our chimney at night. The desert around Tucson is even known to host North America’s only wild jaguars. How cool is that?!

Proximity to the Ocean

Arizona is not a state anyone associates with the ocean, but would you believe that you can actually get to the closest beach from Tucson faster than you can from Palm Springs, California? Well, you shouldn’t, because that’s a lie. But it’s not much further.

Rocky Point, Mexico is only a four hour drive from Tucson. I love being able to to spend the weekend in another country sipping margaritas on a sandy beach. Don’t feel like crossing an international border? San Diego is only a 5.5 hour drive away.

Rocky Point, Mexico
Sipping on a piña colada in Rocky Point, Mexico
Sea of Cortez, Mexico
The Sea of Cortez from a beach we found near San Carlos, Mexico

Greenery

The phrase, “rolling green hills,” is more likely to conjure up visions of Vermont than the Sonoran desert, but believe me when I say that Tucson is green. The forests here aren’t made up of maples and elms, but of creosotes and palo verdes, and they cover everything.

The foliage here is also completely unique to this part of the world and full of surprises. Take the ocotillo for instance. During dry spells, it looks like a bundle of spindly dead sticks. Give it a bit of water and in 24 hours, it’s bursting with leaves and vibrant red blossoms.

Ocotillo Blossoms
Ocotillo blossoms up close

Small Town Feel, Big City Amenities

You may think that line dancing is the only nightlife activity to be had here, but Tucson’s downtown bar scene is actually packed with craft beer, live music, and amazing DJs. My personal favorite is The Shelter, a 1960s era dive where you can enjoy a retro cocktail under the glow of a disco ball. And if you have your heart set on line dancing, I’m sure no one will stop you.

Tucson is a foodie’s dream. There is a good reason it was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. You can find excellent cuisine from all over the globe – Max and I have our favorite Indian and Thai places of course – but I would be remiss if I didn’t emphasize that the Mexican food here is AMAZING. The chile relleno from Cafe Poca Cosa is worth moving here by itself. And mandatory hugs from the cafe’s owner are a nice bonus.

If I ever decided to pursue graduate studies (Hahahahaha, who am I kidding? One round of nursing school was enough for a lifetime) Tucson offers the University of Arizona, a world class institution of higher learning. The city also has an excellent public school system. Three of its high schools rank in the top 25 in the nation.

Tucson, Arizona from Agua Caliente
Suburbs of Tucson from Agua Caliente Hill

Climate

The incredible weather is Tucson’s biggest draw. The average high in December and January is about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. They’ve never even heard of winter here, except for as some sort of dreadful phenomenon that happens to other people. There are a whopping 286 sunny days per year in Tucson. Eat your heart out, Seattle.

I’ll admit, June is rough going. There were several times when I got into my car on 100+ degree days and burnt the crap out of my hands on the steering wheel. The desert turns brown. The soil becomes dry and cracked. Even the heat tolerant saguaros begin to look a little irritable.

But, just when my blistered hands were starting to grow calluses, something incredible happened – the monsoon broke. And thunderstorms don’t play around here. When it rains, it rains hard. Dry washes become raging rivers, waterfalls erupt, and the desert bursts into life again.

It’s Not Phoenix

I’ve spent time in Phoenix. More accurately, I’ve spent time in the commuter areas that seem to make up Phoenix: Mesa, Tempe, Glenbert, Peoridale. No matter how many times I visit, I never seem to be able to get a feel for it outside of the sensation that it’s just a very large collection of freeways.

I’m sure it’s a lovely city once you get to know it, but I find that my friends and family not familiar with Arizona tend to lump Phoenix and Tucson together. Each city has its own unique personality, so I’ve made a handy chart to help you recognize the differences between the two:

Phoenix vs. Tucson Chart
Phoenix vs. Tucson Chart

I think I had a hard time voicing why we chose Tucson because there are just so many things to love about it. I could go on and on describing the rapturous sunsets, the towering Catalinas, the brilliant night sky, and the vibrant history of this region, but only a visit to the city can really do it justice. And who knows? Maybe once you’re here it will cast it’s spell on you too.

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