While everyone knows Arizona as home to national parks like the Grand Canyon, Saguaro, and Petrified Forest, few people heard about Tumacácori. Tucked in the desert of Southern Arizona, the lesser-known Tumacácori National Historical Park preserves the ruins of a Spanish mission built in the 1820s. However, the park represents much more.
Laying at the crossroads of several cultures, the mission grounds preserve the history and stories of the O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache people, as well as European missionaries, settlers, and soldiers. The mission grounds stand witness to their colorful history, including both conflict and cooperation.
Living within driving distance from the site, I visited Tumacácori National Historical Park several times over the years and found the following unique experiences still make the return visit worthwhile.
1. Stepping Into Southern Arizona’s History
As soon as you enter the park through the visitor center, you’ll feel part of history, since the building itself reflects the architecture of a historic mission. Designed to be an interpretive experience, the building incorporates the historic architectural style of the missions, using carved wooden doors, arched portals, and corbels.
The museum housed in the same building showcases unique artifacts and exhibits, telling the story of the Santa Cruz Valley, its indigenous people, and the mission period. You’ll find several detailed and accurate dioramas depicting moments in the area’s history, from Father Kino’s arrival to a rebellion and mass in the mission. You’ll also find life-sized models of the mission’s priests and several of the original wooden saint sculptures from the mission.
2. Glimpsing Back At Life At The Mission
From the museum, walk outside to start your visit to the mission grounds. The first area you’ll see is the Community Plaza, in front of the church building. From here, you can view the whole site, all the pieces offering an opportunity to understand the surroundings and life at the mission.
Imagine the residents from different backgrounds going about their daily lives. Priests from Spain, but also from Austria, Bavaria, Switzerland, and Italy, made their homes here for short periods of time, living side-by-side with the O’odham, Yoeme (Yaqui), and Nde (Apache).
A low mound on your left comprises the remains of several adobe residences. These homes, built so close together, differed from the traditional homes in the O’odham villages, where homes stood separate and did not share walls.
On the right, you’ll notice a ramada, set up to resemble a mission family’s outdoor cooking area.
And straight ahead, the church dominates the area. The gorgeous, elaborate church facade looks out of place in the middle of the desert. It incorporates elements from all over the world — except its surroundings. Egyptian, Roman, and Moorish elements mix and compete, one feature more elaborate than the next. According to the mission guide, the original bright colors showcased Spain’s influence. The columns were bright red, yellow, and black, while the niches where statues stood were colored blue.
As you get close to the building, you’ll still notice the remains of some of the bright paint and patterns.
3. Visit The Church
Every time I enter the church, I am surprised by its age, and I feel the need to re-check it. The shape it’s in would suggest it is much older. However, when I read about its history, it all makes sense. Abandoned in 1848, local settlers removed its roof, using the timbers for their own needs. Exposed to the harsh desert sun, the paint got discolored, and the stucco fell off the walls in most places, giving the interior a much older feel.
The church was designed as a long hall, where people stood or knelt during mass. Walk through the main corridor to the sanctuary with the dome ceiling, where you’ll still see fragments of the original paint on the walls.
If you don’t mind the stairs, walk up to the bell tower. You’ll reach it by walking into the baptistry on the right of the entrance. A stairway leads up a level to the choir loft, and you’ll find the bell fry on the third level.
4. Exploring The Mission Grounds
Leave the church through the sacristy (where the priest would prepare for service) to reach the inner court, where you’ll find a storeroom and the cemetery behind the church.
Near the church, on the right, you’ll find the Convento Complex. Contrary to what the name suggests, it was not a convent, but a series of buildings used by the community. Surrounding a courtyard, you’ll see several rooms. They were used as the priests’ living quarters, a kitchen, an ironworker’s, carpentry, and leather shops, weaving room, and grain grinding mill.
5. Visiting A Traditional O’odham House: Melhok Ki
Before the mission, an O’odham village stood on the premises. Though none of their traditional homes survived in the area, the National Park Service wanted to give visitors an idea of what they looked like. Built in 1997 by O’odham from the San Xavier community, the home you see here reflects their traditional houses, still used today.
Melhok ki means “ocotillo house” in the O’odham language. It refers to the ocotillos, or cactus-like trees, used as a frame. Before the Spanish arrived, the O’odham built rounded homes using mud over a frame made of wood. When rain washed away the mud, they applied a new coating. Over time, they adopted the square rooms. The home also included a mesquite ramada called a wa:ato (“WAH-ah-toe”), and a brush enclosure for cooking.
6. Walking Through A Walled Orchard
The mission complex included a walled garden since the Spanish felt the need to bring in the plants they were familiar with and represented “civilization” in their view. Though not indigenous to the desert, many of these plants grew here, with extra care. But today, you’ll see mostly native trees in the orchards. They replaced the originals and were grown from seeds.
7. Hiking To The Santa Cruz River
A short walk from the mission grounds leads through a mesquite forest to the nearby Santa Cruz River. The woodland plant community you’ll pass through supports diverse wildlife, so chances are, you’ll see birds and small mammals during your walk.
The Santa Cruz River originates north of Tumacácori in the San Rafael Valley, and flows south, crossing the border into Mexico before turning around and comes back to the US. Along the way, it creates a rare cottonwood-willow environment, a wildlife corridor in the desert home to many threatened and endangered species.
Sit in the shade of a willow along the banks of the river and enjoy this environment. But resist getting in the water or even touching it. As clear and inviting as it looks, the park rangers warn it is polluted with E. coli (thanks to the cattle ranchers upstream).
8. Stargazing In A Dark Sky Park
Far from the light pollution of cities and towns, Tumacácori is an International Dark Sky Park, perfect for stargazing. The park offers sunrise and sunset visits several times a year, with opportunities to watch the star-filled skies and take part in interpretive programs. They focus on the connection between the way different cultures saw and interpreted the star-filled skies.
9. Watching Traditional Craft Demonstrations
If you visit at the right time, you can attend traditional craft demonstrations on the park’s grounds. Though last time I visited, they weren’t offering it because of COVID, during previous visits I’ve always seen traditional craft demonstrations, and according to the park’s website, they still offer them at certain times.
They may include tortilla making, O’odham basket weaving, leatherworking, ironworking, and paper flower making.
10. Celebrating The Cultures Represented In Tumacácori
The park also organizes special events that celebrate the cultures of people of the surrounding desert.
The O’odham Tash celebrates the original residents of Tumacácori, sharing their art, music, crafts, and heritage. You can sample their traditional foods and play one of their traditional games.
The Yoeme (Yaqui) Ways of Today offers a glimpse into the lives of another tribe of the desert and includes several rituals, theater shows, and ceremonies.
The largest of the cultural celebrations, La Fiesta de Tumacácori, celebrates all the cultures associated with Tumacácori and the Santa Cruz Valley. Lasting two days, the celebrations start with a procession through the grounds and a multi-cultural mass in front of the historic church. You’ll find traditional food, arts and craft booths, live entertainment, and children’s activities on the mission grounds, with free admission throughout the weekend.
Only fifteen minutes from the US-Mexican border, near the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Pasqua Yaqui tribe territories, Tumacácori National Historical Park still sits at the crossroads of several cultures. A visit to the mission offers an opportunity to learn about the present-day nations surrounding it, from a historical perspective.
Besides the cultures, visiting Tumacácori is also a perfect way to learn about the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona, its landscape, flora and fauna, and weather patterns.
The best time to visit Tumacácori is in the winter, or the shoulder seasons, when the weather allows pleasant walks on the mission grounds and hikes to the river. You should count on spending about two hours at the site, though if you only stay on the paved trails and on the mission grounds, it is possible to visit it in under an hour.