Chiricahua National Monument

What to See on a Southern Arizona Road Trip

Starting in November and throughout the winter each year, we look for opportunities to leave Phoenix on a Southern Arizona road trip. An easy thing to do from the city; In fact most destinations are fit for day trips, though we enjoy visiting several of them on a road trip over a long weekend.

While all summer long we drive up to the high country to cool down, starting late fall and throughout the winter we drive south to enjoy this gorgeous desert environment at its best.

The Sonoran desert is at its best in the winter. We even find wildflowers and cacti in bloom this time of the year, but the biggest draw is the weather, with perfect temperatures and not-so-harsh sunshine.

Saguaro National Park can be one of the stops on a Southern Arizona road trip.
Saguaro National Park

Planning Our Trip

Though we often drive the same itinerary, we usually bypass Kartchner Caverns, because we need to plan for it. However, a few years ago, we added it to our Southern Arizona road trip.

It was mid-November when we decided to go on this particular trip, a weekend when we didn’t have any planned activities. As always, we were looking for something to do that would take us out of town.

The weather was perfect in the desert, but we needed to leave the city. We haven’t been in Southern Arizona past Tucson that year yet. And I also realized that my youngest child and I haven’t been in Kartchner Caverns. While the rest of the family visited the caves before, the two of us haven’t. It was time to remedy that.

First, as usual, we though we’d just get in the car and drive. Before leaving though, I looked up Kartchner Cavern’s website. I usually don’t plan much, especially for places within driving distance, so I am not sure what made me look it up, but I was glad I did. I realized we needed reservations. The closest time we found was a month later.

It was one of the few instances when we actually ended up planning the trip – for a month later. Fortunately we got reservations for both Kartchner Caverns tours on the same day (only because someone canceled).

So, if you plan on visiting Kartchner Caverns, don’t forget to make reservations well ahead.

We postponed our Southern Arizona trip, but when we left, we took the opportunity and turned it into a three-day-weekend jaunt.

Our Southern Arizona Road Trip Itinerary

Since we made the trip on a long weekend, we had plenty of time and opportunities to stop and re-discover Southern Arizona.

Our love affair with Arizona and the desert Southwest started on our very first trip here. A few months after a week-long trip we ended up moving here, and still aren’t fully sick of it.

However, most of our trips involve Northern Arizona. We live in the desert, have plenty of trails to explore in town in the cooler months, and when we need to go out of town in the summer, we go north to escape the heat. So over the years, we explored Northern Arizona in much more detail.

Since we go less often, a trip to Southern Arizona is always an adventure.

Our stops this time included many of the environments of Arizona, from flat deserts to mountains and a cave. We even visited a few museums on the way.

1. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Mountain Lion in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Mountain Lion in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

On the way towards Tucson, we first stopped at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Though it was winter, by the time we got there was mid-day. Although we may have cooler days in the winter in the desert, this wasn’t one of them.

Although we, desert-dwellers don’t really consider the high eighties too hot, the mid-day sun is still too strong in the Sonoran Desert without shade. So we skipped the longer hikes. Instead, we visited all the exhibits. A combination of zoo/aquarium/botanical garden/Earth Science Center all in one, the museum is a great place to learn about the Sonoran Desert and its surroundings.

Despite the sun and heat, we had a great time. The animals were a bit sleepy, but we saw them all, even the mountain lion.

We caught a ranger presentation of a beautiful barn owl on her arm. Sitting in the shade of mature trees, we watched hummingbirds flutter around us. We walked through an aquarium, explored an underground exhibit, a riparian habitat, and even a man-built cave that felt like the real thing.

2. Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona

Since we were basically in Saguaro National Park already, we stopped at the visitor center. One of the most representative National Parks of the state, Saguaro National Park is a great stop, especially in the winter.

Though we enjoyed some time in the shade of the outdoor area, and walked the short trail nearby, it was still too hot for a longer hike. We live in the land of giant saguaros, we have plenty of opportunities to hike through them in Phoenix. However, we don’t see such a concentration of saguaros in many other places than here. Sometimes it is worth the drive to enjoy this environment.

3. The Amerind Museum

Amerind Museum - Historic Carved door to the Art Exhibit
Historic carved door to the Art Exhibit of the Amerind Museum

We spent the night in Wilcox, a small desert town with not much to see. But as we were driving towards it, we noticed a sign for the Amerind Museum, a research center and museum of Native American artifacts.

Since we haven’t visited it before, we felt we couldn’t pass the opportunity. So we looked it up while we sat in the hotel.

We planned to drive to the Chiricahua Mountains the next morning, but we thought the side trip to the Amerind Museum would be worth it. We weren’t too far from it, after all. I learned that they have on display most of the finds from the archaeological site Paquimé in Mexico, not far from the border, a site we had visited years ago.

It was still early when we made our way towards the Amerind Museum. We drove a few miles on a dirt road to reach it, where we seemed to be the only humans around. We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, only passing a few livestock on the way.

At the end of the dirt road we found the small museum, still closed when we got there. While we waited, we walked around the premises, on a short trail in the surrounding desert. We were the only people visiting when it first opened, though another car pulled up a bit later. We had a great time exploring the exhibits, since we knew the history behind it, we could relate the objects to the place they were found.

After walking through the main museum building, we walked over to another building. Its entrance was an old-fashioned, large, carved wooden door, with no visible handles. I wasn’t sure how to open it, but I was hoping we could go inside and see if they had anything else displayed.

Someone who worked there came over and opened it as she entered, and we followed her inside. We entered a contemporary art museum displaying works from Native artists. As I walked through the main room, I had a feeling I recognized something about the artist, even if if not the art work. When I looked at the name, I realized I was right, though I only knew the artist as a musician up until then. I was looking at the artwork of Ed Kabotie. This was an unexpected bonus. I always liked his music, but I enjoyed his artwork even more.

We walked through other exhibits, and enjoyed a few moments in this out-of-the-place little museum of Indigenous Art and archaeology.

4. Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

A highlights of our trip, Chiricahua National Monument is one of the most beautiful places in the state, and one of my favorite Arizona National Park units. Higher in the mountains, the weather was perfect here for a few hikes.

The scenic drive through Bonita Canyon is spectacular and we enjoyed the slow winding road.

We hiked to Echo Canyon, and a little beyond, a short but spectacular trail, surrounded by stunning rock formations.

We also stopped at Massai point for another hike. It was nice to feel cold at times in the shade of the cliffs. Once back at the Visitor Center, we hiked on the Rhyolite Trail, alone in the forest.

We did not encounter either one of the jaguars seen in these mountains. Since 2015 as many as three jaguars were spotted in these mountains, to the delight of all those who hope to see them return to the US one day. I was looking out for them, but fortunately for me, we didn’t see either one.

5. Kartchner Caverns State Park

Kartchner Caverns. photo curtesy of Arizona Office of Tourism. photo copyright and credit: Arizona State Parks and Trails
Kartchner Caverns. photo curtesy of Arizona Office of Tourism. photo copyright and credit: Arizona State Parks and Trails

The real highlight of the trip, the reason we took this road trip to begin with, Kartchner Caverns was our main, and last destination. Saved the best for last. Actually, we had our reservations for Sunday.

I heard and read a lot about these caves. Still, seeing them was a treat I will never forget.

It wasn’t my first time in a cave. We’ve been exploring caves in the Yucatan for years. I have been in a few in my childhood, in and around the Carpathians. But this one is truly magnificent.

Tours of Kartchner Caverns

The state park offers two separate tours, exploring different sides of the cave system.

The Throne Room tour is the longer one and its highlight is Kubla Khan in the center. The light show was spectacular in the large cavern the first explorers called Xanadu. We would not have been able to see this huge column and the surrounding stalactites, stalagmites and smaller columns without these lights. Why did they name it Xanadu? You’ll guess if you read the poem. Then definitely go see the room.

The Throne Room tour is shorter than the Big Room. I am not sure which one I like better overall. As spectacular a Xanadu is, the Big Room has so many more things to explore. Bacon, fried eggs, and other food-related names on those formations made us all wonder if cave explorers are a starving bunch.

Our guide indeed confirmed this, telling us that before entering a cave, they don’t eat for a while, so they are already hungry. Staying underground without food for a long time, all they will think about is food. Though no matter if the name inspired by hunger or not, the bacon formations look like perfect bacon slices. Interesting, and beautiful (if you happen to like bacon).

I have no personal photos because we were not allowed to take cameras or phones inside. However, I am able to use one from the Arizona Office of Tourism. You can look on their website for more great photos. Though nothing compares to actually seeing it all in person.

The End of the Southern Arizona Road Trip

After our visit of Kartchner Caverns, we returned to Phoenix, feeling good about our short trip. Though we’ve lived in Arizona for decades, we still found a few new things to see and do.

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