Explore one of Arizona's oldest communities in a day trip: What to see, how to get there
Enjoy a history lesson, a gentle hike, a shop till you drop outing and an art appreciation class all wrapped up in one scenic road trip when you travel to the small southern Arizona hamlet of Tubac.
Driving south past Tucson, the desert doesn’t turn spinier and desolate. Instead, it softens, becomes downright pastoral. Cactus-dotted slopes give way to rolling grasslands shaggy with mesquite. Tubac nestles in a mountain-framed valley on the banks of the Santa Cruz River.
Water flow in the Santa Cruz may be intermittent, but around these parts, even good intentions are enough to create a delicious riparian corridor. Humans have inhabited the fertile valley for 10,000 years. When Europeans arrived, this is the route they chose.
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A painful colonial past
In the late 17th century, Spanish missionaries traveled from Mexico up the Santa Cruz River valley seeking to convert Indigenous people. Father Eusebio Francisco Kino founded missions throughout the region, including the one at Tumacácori in 1691.
The Spanish were quick to use force to control the territory they had claimed. This finally led to an uprising by the O'odham people (called Pima by the Spaniards) in 1751. A presidio, or fort, was established at Tubac in 1752, making it the first European settlement in what would become Arizona.
Tubac emerged as a significant destination long before Phoenix or Tucson had been developed. Charles Poston moved to Tubac, where he headquartered his mining company. Poston would come to be known as the “Father of Arizona” for his role in procuring Arizona’s territorial status.
By 1859, Tubac was the largest town in the region. Arizona’s first newspaper started here. But the boom times only lasted as long as there was a military presence. When the fort went unmanned, residents all but vanished. It wasn’t until the Apache people were subdued in the late 1880s that the community stabilized for white settlers.
Also about this time, silver strikes led to boomtown growth in Tombstone, and the railroad was routed through Tucson, sparking that city's development. Tubac had forever lost its position of prominence.
How Tubac became an arts destination
In 1948, landscape painter Dale Nichols opened an art school in Tubac and the quiet little burg began an evolution into an artist colony. No wonder the town coined the slogan “Where Art and History Meet.”
Today, 100-plus shops occupy the village plaza, where old adobes, Spanish courtyards and ocotillo fences blend seamlessly with a handful of newer buildings. Yet the history still feels palpable. When you’re on Calle de Iglesias in Old Town Tubac, you’re traveling on one of the oldest roads in America.
There’s a whiff of emergent Santa Fe here without the startling art prices. Tubac doesn’t even have a traffic light, so don’t be surprised if you fall into a relaxed rhythm as you wander the tree-lined plaza with something to see around every corner. Enjoy outdoor sculpture gardens, splashy fountains, rows of brightly painted pots and Old World architecture.
Is Tubac open?
Many of the shops and restaurants are open Wednesdays through Sundays, although some are operating with limited hours due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors can find information on which businesses are open, as well as safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the Tubac Chamber of Commerce website, https://tubacaz.com.
To get to Tubac from central Phoenix, take Interstate 10 east to Tucson, then take Interstate 19 south for about 40 miles to Exit 34. Tubac is on the east side of the highway. Note: Distance is measured in kilometers on I-19.
What is there to do in Tubac?
It’s easy to lose a day in Tubac, one of the most eclectic arts communities in Arizona with a surprisingly wide range of styles and mediums. You’ll find fine art, folk art and colorful souvenirs. This is the kind of place where you can buy a painting for the living room, a pack of greeting cards, jewelry for a special occasion and furniture for the patio.
Several restaurants are scattered throughout the village, ranging from casual delis to fine dining. Most are offering carryout service during the pandemic.
Tubac Presidio State Historic Park
At the edge of the plaza, Tubac Presidio State Historic Park holds down a prime corner of what was once New Spain.
Designated as Arizona’s first state park, it preserves the original ruins of the fort built in 1752. The 11-acre park features eight gardens, including perennial, children’s, heirloom and herb gardens. Several picnic tables sit beneath a grove of mesquite trees.
The 1885 Territorial Schoolhouse is one of the oldest in Arizona. A furnished row house dates to the 1890s. An impressive museum houses original artifacts and exhibits on the long, multilayered history of the Santa Cruz River Valley. The printing press for Arizona’s first newspaper is on display and still works.
More exhibits can be found in Otero Hall, including the only 1850s ambulance on display in the United States. The walls are lined with vivid paintings by William Ahrendt depicting key moments in Arizona history.
Details: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. 1 Burruel St., Tubac. $7, $2 for ages 7-13, free for age 6 and younger. 520-398-2252, https://azstateparks.com/tubac.
Tumacácori National Historical Park
Travel 3 miles south of Tubac to learn about the reason the town exists. Tumacácori National Historical Park encompasses the ruins of three Spanish mission communities.
The main unit includes the Tumacácori Mission Church, which was never completed. Behind the church are the mortuary chapel and cemetery. The mission grounds are open daily. The visitor center, museum and park store are open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays only due to the pandemic.
Details: 1891 E. Frontage Road, Tumacácori. $10, free for age 15 and younger. 520-377-5060, https://www.nps.gov/tuma.
Juan Bautista de Anza Trail
A 4.5-mile stretch of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail connects Tubac Presidio and Tumacácori. The entire route covers 1,200 miles from Nogales, Arizona, to San Francisco.
The level stretch between Tubac and Tumacácori traces the Santa Cruz River through shady woodlands and follows the route Anza took on his overland trek in 1775 to establish the first non-Native settlement at San Francisco. It’s popular with birders and hikers. Be alert when hiking because there have been mountain lion sightings this winter.
Zoom with Roger Naylor
Arizona Republic contributor and author Roger Naylor will give a Zoom talk on his latest book, "Arizona’s Scenic Roads and Hikes." It's presented by the Sedona Library and will include a slideshow. Take a virtual tour of Arizona’s most scenic highways, from sun-kissed deserts to snow-capped mountains, from the cosmic abyss of the Grand Canyon to the red rocks of Sedona and the soaring monoliths of Monument Valley.
When: 1:30-2:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12.
How to register: Sign up to receive the Zoom link at https://www.sedonalibrary.org or call 928-282-771.
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