Marana, Arizona, is one of those cool places you feel lucky to discover. I lived in Arizona many years ago and had not heard of this lovely area located about a 20-minute drive from Tucson. This area was a huge tourist destination back in the day due to the many Westerns that were filmed in this area. Because the area was so remote, there was a huge business for guest ranches that hosted the Hollywood film crews and the tourists who came to the area to see where their favorite movies were filmed. Foodies will love learning about the rich culinary and agricultural history of the area. The town makes a great base to explore Southern Arizona without all the traffic of Tucson.
Pro Tip: Marana is in the desert, so drink plenty of water. Because of the low humidity, it is easy to get overheated. Put on sunscreen each morning and wear a hat before heading outside. An umbrella also works well to protect you from the sun.
Thank you to the Town of Marana for hosting a press trip for me and providing lodging and some tours. All opinions are my own.
1. Saguaro National Park
Located in the Sonoran Desert, Saguaro National Park has two locations. For this trip, we will visit what is known as Saguaro West or the Tucson Mountain District. The park is named after the saguaro cactus that are the size of trees and can live up to 250 years. The saguaro is the iconic image that symbolizes the Southwest. The must-see sight here is the Signal Hill Petroglyph Area. It is a short walk with 40 feet change in elevation up to the top of Signal Hill. It is the largest petroglyph site in the park. There are over 200 prehistoric Native American petroglyphs that can be seen from the trail. If you are not sure what you are looking for, there are interpretive signs at the top that point them out. They were made from 550 to 1,550 years ago. You can also access longer trails from this area.
Pro Tip: Wear sturdy hiking shoes and long pants if you plan to do longer hikes to protect your legs from the jumping cholla, a plant that will attach itself to you by sharp barbs. It got me but luckily, I was with a more experienced desert hiker who used a rock to scrape it off, then her tweezers to pull out the barbs.
2. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Located a few miles past the Saguaro National Park visitors center, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a combination of a zoo, a botanical garden, an aquarium, and a natural history museum with over two miles of paths through a variety of desert terrain. The beautiful gardens show the vibrant Sonoran Desert’s ecosystem and its variety. Animals are presented in natural habitats, and you stumble upon the exhibits as you follow the pathways. The desert loop trail is half a mile and has breathtaking views. Just note that it is downhill heading out and uphill heading back, so make sure to pace yourself. The museum gift shop is large and showcases local artisans.
Pro Tip: The museum opens at 7:30 a.m., and it is worth it to start your days early especially when it will be hot.
3. The Ritz Carlton At Dove Mountain
The Ritz Carlton at Dove Mountain, a five-star Forbes-rated property, is arguably the top resort in Arizona. It is also one of the only places in the country you can have a five-star experience, and explore a national park. The resort’s architecture complements the scenery of the area and you will feel as if you are in Saguaro National Park. CORE Kitchen and Wine Bar is an utterly unique restaurant. It has its own 42-tree citrus orchard with oranges, Minneola tangelos, and red grapefruit trees. Executive Chef Emily Dillport uses regional sustainable products and local growers as much as possible, including Sonoran Desert-foraged saguaro, agave, and mesquite as well as locally grown Sonoran wheat. No desert stay is complete without a great pool, and the Ritz has three. Truly a luxury experience.
Pro Tip: Make sure to hike some of the trails on the property. The Wild Burro Trailhead is located just before you reach the Ritz and heads northeast into Wild Burro Canyon where you can connect to other trails.
There are four golf courses in the area, all sitting amidst the desert with the greens popping against the arid terrain. The Golf Club at Dove Mountain stands out with its challenging 27 holes designed by Jack Nicklaus. Surrounded by saguaro and the majestic Tortolita Mountains, the course highlights the natural beauty of the area. This is a luxury facility with a pro shop and the amazing Cayton’s Burger Bistro for post-round snacks and drinks. The club is popular, so make sure to reserve your tee times. If you are lucky enough to visit late May to July, you can view the saguaro blooms, witnessing firsthand the cactuses beautiful white flowers.
5. Marana Gastronomy Tours
Tucson was the first U.S. city to be named a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, and Marana is the largest provider of produce, heritage grain, honey, and wild desert foods to the city. With over 4,000 years of agriculture and culinary history, Marana can truly be called a Town of Gastronomy. Marana Gastronomy Tours are offered at different times of the year through Discover Marana. These tours will take you to ancient archaeological sites to learn about the agriculture of the area from archaeologists as well as meeting local experts on wild food foraging. There are even some tastings. Caroline Niethammer, author of A Desert Feast led a foraging walkabout during the tour I took. She showed us how to identify wild edible plants and demonstrated foraging techniques. If the tours aren’t offered during your visit, check out Discover Marana or the visitor center as you can visit many of the sites on your own to create a self-guided tour.
6. Taste A Unique Craft Beer
Some must-stops in Marana are Catalina Brewing Company and Button Brew House. Both breweries are masters of their craft, sourcing local ingredients as much as possible. Andy Bartolic, head brewer at Catalina even goes into the desert to pick prickly pear cactus to make the juice used in one of his brews. Both Catalina and Button Brew make a beer using chiltepins, tiny, red, super-hot chilies that are native to the Sonoran Desert. Try both and compare the tastes. It is truly a beer unique to this area. The two breweries are located near each other, so make sure to visit both.
7. Biosphere 2
I visited Biosphere 2 back in the 1990s when they had a group of people locked in for two years. Just a fascinating experiment. Today you can tour the campus and go inside the giant terrarium which even has a mini ocean, a desert, and a rainforest.
Although Biosphere’s original mission has changed, the unique facilities are now dedicated to the research and understanding of global scientific issues. It is a center where you can learn about the Earth and its future. The tour is fascinating. It involves lots of walking and stairs. Plan to visit earlier in the day when it is cooler.
Pro Tip: Make sure to download the app. You will be prompted to do so when you buy your tickets. The tour is self-guided with numbered stops, and you can listen to the audio tour on the app.
8. Los Morteros Conservation Area And Heritage Trail
When you pull up to the Los Morteros Conservation Area and Heritage Trail trailhead it is hard to imagine that this barren desert site was once a large agricultural Hohokam community. Los Morteros translates to “The Mortars,” and on sections of the trail, you can see the mortars on boulders and outcrops in the area. They were used to grind mesquite pods, corn, and seeds. The 120-acre park is filled with evidence of the history of the area. Interpretive signs point out the many archeological features which include the mortars, pit houses, an oval-shaped ballcourt, and even trash heaps from the Hohokam people dating from 500 A.D. to 1450 A.D. It is truly fascinating to explore.
Pro Tip: Navigate to Los Morteros Conservation Area at W. Linda Vista Blvd. near the N. Silverbell/W. Lambert intersection, but note that Google maps will send you to the wrong location to park. Park on W. Linda Vista Blvd. You will see a rusted fence and a small sign. Just past the fence are interpretive signs so you will know you are in the right place.
There is so much to see and do in Southern Arizona, and Marana is the perfect town to start your adventures from.
More Marana Pro Tips
The desert heat is no joke. Even during my visit at the beginning of April, it was unseasonably warm with temperatures in the 90s. Plan any strenuous exercise for earlier in the morning or later in the evening. Also make sure to watch a desert sunset. Just epic.