By Jill “MamaBug” Frier
Just north of the Mexico border and a bit south of Phoenix you can find a part of the state that is steeped in history, beautiful terrain, and fascinating sights to visit. Southern Arizona is a great place for a weekend getaway, and an ideal location to avoid the hustle and bustle of tourists and locals heading to locations further north. The gateway to Southern Arizona is Tucson, which is a destination unto itself, but a little further south you can find many interesting small towns, national and state parks, historic sites, and local artists and wineries. Here is a list of some of our favorite Southern Arizona towns and the must-see places to visit when you go.
The first stop on our list is Benson, Arizona. A tiny town of about 5,000 people, Benson is the first major stop on the highway past Tucson. The town was founded as a railroad terminal and a stagecoach station, serving as a place for travelers to stop as they made their way through the southern part of Arizona. It’s historical status as a “pit stop” for tourists passing through remains to this day.
One of Benson’s key features, however, is that it is also the home of Kartchner Caverns State Park. This world-class Arizona State Park features fantastic caves and beautiful desert vistas. The park opened in 1999 and provides facilities for camping, hiking, and of course, touring the caverns. A visit to Kartchner Caverns is worth the trip south to Benson, but be sure to book your cave tour tickets in advance as tours book up quickly.
A bit further down the road, past Kartchner Caverns on Highway 90, you’ll find the town of Sierra Vista. Much closer to the border of Mexico, Sierra Vista is a larger community with a population of around 44,000. The Hummingbird Capital of the World, Sierra Vista has a more temperate climate than Phoenix, with beautiful mountain views, big skies, and tons of Old West history. As one of the key settings for many of the popular Joanna Brady novels by J. A. Jance, this idyllic area is a fantastic place to enjoy the outdoors and hike one of the many Southern Arizona “sky islands.”
Sierra Vista is also adjacent to the historic U.S. Army base, Fort Huachuca. Constructed in 1877, Fort Huachuca was one of several forts established to protect southern Arizona against the legendarily ferocious Chiricahua Apaches, led by Geronimo. It was also headquarters of the famed 10th Calvary, also known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” The fort is still an active Army base today, but you can visit the historic district and see many of the notable Old West structures still standing.
One of the most well-known small towns in Southern Arizona is Tombstone, located down Highway 80, south of Benson. Labeled “the town too tough to die,” Tombstone is one of the most famous and celebrated towns of the historic Old West. With a population of less than 1,500 people, Tombstone is still one of the most popular places for Arizona tourists to visit and experience a true taste of western history. Visitors can see a reenactment of the showdown at the O.K. Corral, visit Boot Hill Cemetery, or stop in the historic Rose Tree Inn Museum.
The place with the worst reputation in Tombstone, widely believed to be the wildest and meanest place in town, is the Birdcage Theater. At least 16 deadly gunfights took place in the former saloon, brothel and gambling hall, and legend has it that at least 26 people died there between 1881 and 1889. If you’re looking for a trip to one of the most infamous haunted hot spots in Arizona, this is it.
Further south down Highway 80, about 10 miles north of the Mexican border, is the small town of Bisbee. A cultural mecca for artists, the historic mining town is home to about 5,600 people with charmingly restored Victorian homes, galleries, museums, and historic sites throughout the town. The Queen Mine was one of the richest copper mines in history and is still a popular spot for visitors.
One of our favorite stops as we travel further west on I-10 towards New Mexico is Wilcox. A small town of not quite 4,000 people, Wilcox is known as southern Arizona wine country. An agricultural oasis, the Wilcox area produces almost 75 percent of the grapes grown in Arizona, and grows more wine-making grapes than any other region in the state. This small railroad town is also the gateway to the Chiricahua National Monument, known for its fascinating rock formations and mountain trails. Located at the convergence of the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Madre, Sonoran Desert, and Chihuahuan Deserts, Chiricahua is one of most unique National Park sites to visit in the state.
Southern Arizona is a great place for a day trip or weekend stay, with many unique, historical places and natural wonders to experience. Take some time to check out the local favorites in each town and be sure to check www.LadybugsBlog.com for more ideas for great places to getaway and visit in Arizona!