Nogales, Arizona, has long been known as a crossroads of cultures -- a place where Native American tribes met up with Spanish explorers centuries ago, and where Hispanic and Anglo customs later merged.
That distinction continues today. As Arizona’s foremost United States/Mexico border crossing, Nogales melds the cultures, perhaps like no other place in the state.
Stroll the streets of downtown Nogales, and you’re likely to hear Spanish-language radio stations playing Mexican pop songs as you pass by stores offering colorful blankets, turquoise jewelry, and cowboy boots.
The Nogales Chamber of Commerce sums it up: “Here, Native American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures come together, and ranching traditions of the Old West are part of us.”
I had passed through Nogales a number of times over the years on trips to Mexico, and I was always struck by how the towns of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales in Sonora, Mexico, form one large urban area while retaining their own identities.
Recently, I returned to take in the sights on the Arizona side, and I was reminded that a visit to this part of the state comes with some daunting border-town realities. Visitors are sure to notice coils of concertina barbed wire attached to stretches of the border wall that separates the two cities, as well as numerous Border Patrol vehicles on the streets.
Still, when I began exploring the area, I felt a familiar appeal of wandering into a fascinating international zone.
Along with the town of Nogales, there are a number of attractions worth checking out in the surrounding Santa Cruz County. Here are nine of the best.
Experience Early 1900s Architecture
The historic Santa Cruz County Courthouse is hard to miss, with its curving staircase, aluminum-gilded dome, and its location overlooking the town’s busy Morley Avenue.
The Society of Architectural Historians calls the 1904-era tufa stone structure “among Arizona’s most significant territorial buildings, constituting its first Beaux-Arts courthouse.”
The building served as a courthouse through the 1980s, and it’s now home to offices and local museums. It is a great walk-by stop on a tour of downtown Nogales.
Delve Into Local History At Pimeria Alta Museum
Another distinctive building in the downtown houses the Pimeria Alta Historical Society and Museum, which the Visit Arizona website describes as containing “a fascinating history on the area, including information on the military encampment ‘Camp Little’ and Pancho Villa’s Battle of Nogales.”
The museum -- located on North Grand Avenue right in the middle of the downtown and just a short walk from the old courthouse building -- is housed in the old Nogales City Hall, which was built in 1914.
Take A Shady Rest At Nasib Karam Park
For something a bit different on the cultural scene, head to the charming Nasib Karam Park in downtown Nogales. The park is named for Nasib Karam, a Lebanese American who was a well-known lawyer in Nogales for years, serving as both the city and county attorney before his death in 1975.
Nasib Karam Park is located downtown, not far from North Grand Avenue. It features benches and picnic tables under towering trees, and a pretty ramada.
Glimpse Spiritual History At Sacred Heart Church
In a parish that dates back to the late 1800s in nearby Tombstone, the Sacred Heart Church towers over Nogales with lovely white stucco walls and imposing rock walkways.
The church, which was completed in the 1920s, was built in the mission architectural style. It can be accessed off the Nogales downtown area through an enclosed walkway and steep staircase. It is a nice stop on a walking tour; or, if you’re so inclined, the church offers services in English and Spanish.
Explore The Mission Culture At Tumacacori National Historical Park
For a much earlier era in Arizona’s culture, be sure to stop by the ruins at the Tumacacori National Historical Park, where the first mission activity dates back to the late-1600s arrival of Spanish colonial Jesuit missionaries, and the region’s native people lived for centuries before that.
An interpretive guidebook for the site states: “The goal of Spanish colonization was simple: to remake New Spain in the image of Old Spain.” Once a village of the O’odham people, Tumacacori became a frontier mission, and later a headquarters mission. At the peak of activity, the mission was the backdrop to the lives of nearly 200 mission residents.
Today, the site showcases the partially restored ruins of three Spanish missions, two of which are National Historic Landmark sites.
The site is located along Interstate 19 between Tucson and Nogales -- about 20 minutes north of Nogales and about 45 minutes south of Tucson.
Pro Tip: The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail from Tumacacori to Tubac allows hikers to follow in the footsteps of Juan Bautista de Anza, the captain of the Tubac Presidio who famously left Mexico in 1775 on a journey to the San Francisco Bay Area. The first section of the Anza Trail established in Arizona was the four-mile stretch between Tumacacori and the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. It is a hiking and equestrian trail only.
Check Out Early Military History At Tubac Presidio State Historic Park
Preserving the ruins of Arizona’s oldest Spanish presidio (military fort), the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park lies between the charming town of Tubac and the Tumacacori Mission site. The three attractions make a great stop on a road trip from Tucson to Nogales.
Along with showing the underground archaeological remains of the fort, the state park also offers an excellent museum that tells the story of the region’s mining, ranching, Civil War history, Arizona Territorial Period, women and children, and the printing press that printed Arizona’s first newspaper in 1859.
Take A Side Trip To Patagonia
Located just 25 minutes northeast of Nogales lies the quirky little town of Patagonia. Known best for its excellent birding, the town also offers an adorable downtown made up of colorfully painted buildings, proximity to the southern terminus of the Arizona Trail, and the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. (Note that the center remained closed in early 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Patagonia makes a perfect side excursion on a Tucson-to-Nogales road trip and has a number of fun breakfast and lunch options.
Pro Tip: For a scenic loop option, consider taking a slight detour southeast on Interstate 10 from Tucson rather than heading south on Interstate 19. Follow I-10 for about 20 miles and then head south on Highway 83 for the scenic drive toward Patagonia and Sonoita. The route will take you through rolling grasslands, stands of ocotillo cacti, and past a beautiful mountain range before reaching the Highway 82 intersection, where you will turn west toward Patagonia, and then on to Nogales.
Indulge In Authentic Mexican Cuisine
When you’re this close to the border, you can rest assured that the Mexican cuisine is going to be plentiful and authentic. That holds true on both sides of the border. While Nogales, Arizona, also has its fair share of fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Jack in the Box, its Mexican restaurants are known to be the real deal.
On the Arizona side, check out Cocina la Ley for Mexican specialties like traditional cocteles (shrimp cocktails) with tomato, cucumber, and onion, and birria (shredded beef) tacos. For dessert, head to Finitos for Mexican ice cream.
Walk Or Drive Across The Border
Normally, tourist traffic between the two towns of Nogales is brisk. Visitors to Nogales, Arizona, regularly walk or drive across the border to visit Nogales, Sonora, for shopping and dining, and vice versa. A passport is required.
Pharmacies are plentiful along the streets on the Mexico side, and shop vendors cater to visitors looking for pottery, jewelry, knock-off purses, and blankets. You will see the colorful shops and alleyways as soon as you cross the border.
A convenient walkway is typically available for pedestrian traffic across the border, with parking lots on the Arizona side for a small fee.
Note, however, that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions have been in effect advising visitors to reconsider non-essential travel. Be sure to check the status of the Nogales Port of Entry before heading across the border.
Before You Go
Nogales is located about an hour south of Tucson on Interstate 19, making for an easy day trip from Arizona’s second-largest city. Head here for more day trips from Tucson.
Like much of southern Arizona, the best times to make the trip are fall through spring, when average high temperatures are in the 60-and-70-degree range from November through April, and in the 80s in May, September, and October. Summers are fairly hot in Nogales, with average highs in the 90s in June, July, and August.
If you do decide to cross the border, it is advisable to check the U.S. State Department’s travel advisories for Mexico beforehand. On my recent trip, I visited Nogales, Arizona, on a day trip, and I did not cross the border.