Billed as the “greatest hidden gem in the Southwest,” Tubac nestles in the bottom right-hand corner of Arizona, a mere stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Just off the I-19 desert highway under wide-open skies, Tubac is an oasis in the arid, ochre desert that creeps in all directions. It’s no surprise different peoples, each with their own culture, have inhabited this area in times gone by, their legacies creating the unique and fascinating mélange that is Tubac today.
Famed (as its own signs will tell you) for being “The place where art and history meet,” this eclectic town of 1,300 residents ticks more boxes than you might imagine. From countless galleries and artisan curios to colonial history, riverside trails and popular birdwatching spots to an upscale top golf resort, it’s no wonder this hidden gem is appearing on people’s radar.
Just 45 miles south of Tucson, down brisk Interstate 19, where 75 miles an hour is often the posted speed limit, this colorful, postage-stamp-size town is easily enjoyed as a day trip. If you come only to browse through the many galleries, you will be selling yourself short. Here is an idea of how to discover the best of Tubac in just a single day.
Step Back In Time At The Tubac Presidio State Historic Park
Any visit to Tubac is best begun at Arizona’s very first state park — the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. The site of the Presidio — the oldest Spanish fort in Arizona — is now a museum with fascinating insights into the local history. Visit the museum to learn how different cultures (from Native American Indian tribes to Spanish colonials, Mexicans, and pioneers) all made Tubac their home over the centuries. There is a good reason people settled here. If, like me, your museum attention span is limited to an hour at best, don’t worry. With different buildings to maintain your interest, there is enough easy-to-follow information here to inform but not so much as to cause you to reach for the Tylenol. Tours are self-guided so you can spend as long or as little time as you want here.
The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Allow an hour and a half.
Pro Tip: Park your car under a tree and invest in a reflective screen. Particularly in the summer, the heat can be brutal, and returning to your car after a few hours in the sun can be like opening the doors to Hell itself.
Take A Historical Walk On The Anza Trail
Having learned all about Juan Bautista de Anza at the museum, now is a good time to follow in his footsteps on the Anza trail, which is accessed near the Presidio and ends 1,200 miles later in San Francisco! A much more manageable 4-mile out-and-back trail is marked, and for a single day trip (especially in the warmer months), we found just a mile out and a mile back was enough to experience the diversity of this local environment. It’s an easy trail that starts out wide and flat, meandering through open desert meadow before funneling into woodland. Yellow grasses and trees (that in March were still shorn of their summer plumage) line the trail. A sudden flash of green is a giveaway that water is near. The Santa Cruz River runs almost all year round, and during our recent March visit, the brown river was flowing languidly. We left the official trail behind and darted to the river bank just a few steps away. We sat, watched, and listened as the serenity enveloped us. All our stresses ebbed away with the slow-moving water. Perhaps we just got lucky, but the silence was disturbed only by the sing-song of different bird species — gray hawk, cardinals, yellow warbler, vermillion flycatcher, woodpeckers, and many more we did not recognize. In the distance, remnants of snow clung onto the peaks of the Tumacacori Mountains.
Allow an hour here — more if you are keen birders and stopping frequently to catch a sudden splash of color as birds flit among the trees. After about a mile, a sign directs walkers back into Tubac along a roadside, though we preferred to retrace our steps along the serene riverbank trail.
Swing Over For Lunch at the Tubac Golf & Country Club Resort
A quick one-mile hop in the car to the Tubac Golf & Country Club Resort brings you to a second desert oasis, albeit man-made. The Tubac Golf & Country Club Resort (rooms start at $159/night depending on the season) is home to three golf courses, a pro shop, accommodations, restaurants, and even a wedding chapel. Movie buffs will recall Tin Cup was filmed here. Head to the Stables Ranch Grille — a fine dining restaurant with a rustic hacienda charm offering both in and outdoor dining. A table outside on the patio gives you a worm’s-eye view of players tackling a tricky par three, the green shoe-horned neatly between a lake and an imposing sand trap. As they line up their putts, tuck into bacon-wrapped shrimp or a choice taco. Allow an hour and a half for a leisurely, laid-back lunch in the sun.
Pro Tip: After lunch, take a few moments to check out the resort with its whitewashed, clay-tiled buildings, colorful flowers, and manicured lawns.
Refreshed, head back into Tubac for some serious browsing. There are over 30 galleries (I stopped counting at that point) not to mention endless shopping opportunities. You’ll find everything here, from brightly colored Mexican pottery to fine art paintings, Native American works to metallic sunflowers, clay rabbits, and turquoise jewelry. Monochrome is not part of Tubac’s lexicon. If art is your thing, you’ll be in heaven.
Do visit the Tubac Center of the Arts with its galleries, studios, and meeting space to see awesome artwork depicting Tubac and the Southwest.
Pro Tip: Check out the opening times since the Tubac Center of the Arts is closed during the hot summer season.
Be Dazzled By The K. Newby Gallery & Sculpture Garden
If the kaleidoscope of colors and textures hasn’t made your head spin as you walk through the town, a visit to the Newby Gallery and Sculpture Garden surely will. Tens of brightly colored metallic sculptures whirl in the wind — each one seemingly folding in and re-inventing itself in perpetual motion.
Allow 30 minutes (or more if you know you’ll be captivated by the endless twirling).
Put The World To Rights At The Grumpy Gringo
Having been mesmerized by the infinitely changing patterns of the garden sculptures, take a breather at the unofficial social center of Tubac. Grumpy Gringo (Fine Cigars) is the place to kick back, have a cigar, and spend some boy time. Originally established in 2008 by Terry Kirkpatrick (a former U.S. Customs agent whose book Sixty Miles Of Border provides an interesting insight into the fight against drug smuggling in this part of southern Arizona), this is the largest and oldest Daddy Day Care Center in Santa Cruz County. A sign above the door indicates the “Husband Drop off” point. So, if wandering aimlessly around metallic sunflowers or miniature cacti on a hot, sunny afternoon is not your thing, join like-minded fellows on the porch and put the world to rights.
The humidor contains an impressive array of fine cigars (mostly Nicaraguan and other central American vintages). You don’t have to be a smoker to enjoy the company but do bring your own beer. The Grumpy Gringo (today owned by 80-something-year-old Bud, who isn’t the least bit grumpy) does not have a liquor license but does have small lockers for rent where locals can store their cigars (and beer). Allow as long as you can!
Pro Tip: Although opening times (Tuesday through Sunday) state from noon until at least 5 p.m., socializing on the porch can continue long beyond closing time. Don’t let the official closing time put you off. I mentioned to my wife there was a cookery shop up the road and bought myself an extra half an hour.
Enjoy Dinner At Elvira’s
Before heading home, enjoy a Tequila and some Mexican fare at the upscale Elvira’s restaurant. Entering the restaurant is like pulling back the curtain of Lawrence of Arabia’s majestic desert abode — dark walls with red or blue lighting creating a vibrant Arabic feel. Don’t be fooled though — this is as Mexican as it gets, and the extensive lunch and dinner menus provide the best Mexican fare around. Allow about an hour and a half here.
Take In The Sunset
There is no better way to end a full and varied day than to watch the sun set gently over the harsh desert landscape. Sunsets are particularly vibrant in Arizona due to the fine sand particles in the air. Check out sunset times and have your camera ready to end your picture-perfect day.