In order to score a 14-day reservation at Catalina State Park in Tucson during the winter, one must possess monk-like patience, ninja-like reflexes, and an unwavering commitment to planning ahead. Failure to possess these qualities will leave one disappointed, as campsites at this gorgeous park are spoken for almost as soon as they become available. Is it worth it to be that committed to getting a spot at Catalina in winter? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Also yes. It’s one of the nicest state parks in the country and it’s located in one of the best cities to live in during the winter.

The Sonoran Desert in Catalina State Park at sunset
Take a walk around the park at sunset and enjoy these postcard perfect views….

Not only does Tucson offer decent winter weather, but there’s an endless array of things to see and do. Whatever your interest, whether it be science, astronomy, hiking, history, live music, or wildlife, there’s something to do in Tucson. (For specific examples, check out this list of attractions included with the Tucson Attractions Passport.)

In addition to the Titan Missile Museum which I wrote about previously, here are a couple of the places we visited and enjoyed this winter…

Biosphere II

The history of this facility, located in Oracle, Arizona, reads like a made-for-TV movie.

Exterior of Biosphere II in Oracle, Arizona

The complex was the brainchild of a somewhat eccentric scientist who sought to design and build a closed ecological system containing individual biomes – deserts, rainforests, oceans, etc. – for research. He wanted to know whether such a system could one day sustain human life in outer space. Originally opened in 1991, the complex was home to 8 scientists who lived inside the facility for two full years, growing all their own foods and engaging in research to see how human, animal, and plant life handled such a controlled environment. The parent company began a second version of the same experiment a couple years later, but terminated the project early.

Both ventures were beset with technical and biological problems, made worse by human conflict and power struggles. The entire project became something of a boondoggle, the experiments losing their scientific credibility and the whole project devolving into a drama-filled mess. Indeed, when I was reading up on the history of the facility, I ran into this on Wikipedia:

On April 1, 1994 a severe dispute within the management team led to the ousting of the on-site management by federal marshals serving a restraining order, and financier Ed Bass hired Stephen Bannon, manager of the Bannon & Co. investment banking team from Beverly Hills, California, to run Space Biospheres Ventures. Some biospherians and staff were concerned about Bannon, who had previously investigated cost overruns at the site. Two former Biosphere 2 crew members flew back to Arizona to protest the hire and broke into the compound to warn current crew members that Bannon and the new management would jeopardize their safety…

“On April 1, 1994, at approximately 10 AM … limousines arrived on the biosphere site … with two investment bankers hired by Mr. Bass … They arrived with a temporary restraining order to take over direct control of the project … With them were 6-8 police officers hired by the Bass organization … They immediately changed locks on the offices … All communication systems were changed (telephone and access codes), and [we] were prevented from receiving any data regarding safety, operations, and research of Biosphere 2.”

Reading this, I thought, “Wow! That’s all crazy. And funny that the guy’s name was Steve Bannon. It’s obviously not THAT Steve Bannon…”

Then I read how, eventually, there was a lawsuit in which Bannon admitted to having threatened to shove documents down the plaintiff’s “f*cking throat” and called her a “bimbo.”

And I thought,”Nope….Same guy!!”

It’s a long, bizarre story (which you can read about here and here) which, eventually, ended with the facility being abandoned.

Several years later, the property was taken taken over by Columbia University before they, too, walked away. The complex was in danger of being razed completely when the University of Arizona stepped in and took over management in 2011. UA has since been working to revitalize it and put it to good use.

Given the challenges of climate change, having a facility where scientists can completely individualize and control complex environmental factors affecting soil, water, and air, is incredibly powerful. It is truly a marvel to walk 100 feet in any direction and find yourself in a completely different ecological environment.

Interestingly, we learned that UA recently partnered with scientists who’ve been developing a type of coral that appears to be resistant to warming ocean temperatures. The scientists want to grow the coral in a controlled environment to see how it handles various temperatures and how it interacts with other life, before moving forward with larger experiments. (ie: “Let’s not accidentally create the Creature From the Black Lagoon.”)

We took a one hour tour of the facility which not only highlighted its history and current uses (they left out most of the drama), but also showed how the whole place works. Turns out, it’s quite an operation to maintain a desert, a savannah, a rainforest, and an ocean all within the same building. We were taken down to the bowels of the complex and got to see the various equipment that makes it all possible.

The lung under the Biosphere II
This is a “lung” which moderates the volume of air inside the facility – because air heats up under the glass during the day and cools down at night, the facility needs a way to control volume.

While it’s readily apparent that the complex has been neglected to some degree over the years, it was good to see scientific progress occurring inside. The University of Arizona is a world class organization and will, hopefully, continue to make the best use of the facility.

San Xavier del Bac Mission

The only thing more beautiful than the exterior of the San Xavier del Bac Mission…

Exterior photograph of San Xavier del Bac Mission in Arizona

is its interior:

The interior of the San Xavier del Bac Mission in Arizona

The Spanish Colonial church, completed in 1797, is the oldest European structure in Arizona. The church is located on the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation, it is run by Fransciscans, and its congregation is primarily made up of the native population.

Ceiling of the San Xavier del Bac Mission

Thousands of tourists and believers visit the church each year. On a bright, southern Arizona day, they can look forward to stunning views both inside and out.

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

If you tell anyone you’re going to Tucson, they will tell you you HAVE to go to the Desert Museum and you MUST go to to the Raptor Free Flight. They are not wrong. The Desert Museum isn’t really a museum at all. It’s more of an outdoor garden/wildlife habitat/zoo kinda thing. It’s very large, well designed, and can easily keep you busy for hours. We checked out several of the gardens with Kevin’s parents while they were in town visiting, and attended the Raptor Free Flight. The Free Flight is an educational demonstration where staff teach guests about the birds of prey who are swooping over the crowd as they fly from one handler to another.

The Desert Museum certainly qualifies as one of those “if you only have one day to spend in Tucson, go here….” places.

The Mirror Lab

Speaking of the University of Arizona, we visited the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab which is located on campus. This lab is currently manufacturing 28-foot-wide glass mirrors for use in various next generation telescopes. These new telescopes will put everything that came before them to shame. For example, the Hubble Telescope is 100,000 times more powerful than the human eye. The Giant Magellan Telescope, which will utilize the mirrors being produced at this facility, will be 100 million times more powerful.

Artist’s rendering of the Giant Magellan Telescope. The telescope, which is expected to be operational in 2025, will be located in Chile.

The challenge the scientists at the lab faced was how to build a huge mirror that was strong enough to not break, light enough that it could be moved, and accurate enough that it could collect the type of imagery sought. The folks at this lab pioneered a new way of building the mirrors, using a honeycomb shaped mold to build the glass, a spinning furnace to heat the glass and shape it, and then months of intense computerized polishing to ensure perfect surfacing.

Partially constructed honeycomb shaped structure inside circular oven at Mirror Lab in Tucson
Step 1: build out the honeycomb structure inside the the massive circular oven; Step 2: place thousands of pounds of glass on top of the honeycomb; Step 3: attach the lid to the giant oven and begin spinning it. After 5-7 days of 2100 degree heat, the glass will need up to 90 days to cool before it can be removed from the oven.

The website for the telescope contains pictures of the process, as well as information about the telescope itself.

Large circular glass plate waiting for polishing at the Mirror Lab in Tucson
At this point, the giant plate of glass will go through the grinding and polishing process. This is the most time consuming and exacting process. Even the most minuscule imperfection would be catastrophic, so the majority of the lab’s work is focused on polishing the mirror’s surface.

Visitors can tour the lab to learn about its groundbreaking methodology. There is a classroom component to the tour and then a walk-through of the various facilities. We found the tour fascinating and highly recommend it.

Tohono Chul Garden

Walking trail with bench at Tohono Chul in Tucson, Arizona

Tohono Chul is a 49 acre, private botanical garden and nature preserve located in the center of Tucson. Visitors can take guided tours to learn about the various native plants that live in the Sonoran desert and to take in some of the beautiful scenery. The facility is host to a cafe, outdoor concerts, and a large greenhouse.

There are parts of the property that feel very much like an organized garden, while others are much more natural with easy trails meandering through. Sculptures and other artwork are scattered throughout the grounds, and the facility hosts numerous cultural exhibitions. It is a lovely place to spend an afternoon wandering around – which is exactly what I did with my friend, Julie!

Mount Lemmon

When Kevin’s parents were in town, we took a drive up to the top of Mount Lemmon. This gorgeous road is notable for its epic and unforgettable change in scenery.

You start at the bottom surrounded by a sea of saguaro cacti…

Saguaro cacti growing on a hill at the bottom of Mount Lemmon

But just 27 miles later, you find yourself surrounded by evergreens and snow…

Evergreen trees and snow covered grounds at the top of Mount Lemmon

The views from the top go on forever….

View of mountains from the top of Mount Lemmon in Tucson

and provide a nice backdrop for family selfies….

There are hiking trails, ski trails, and restaurants on the mountain as well. Something for everyone…

Saguaro National Park

Speaking of awesome trails, there are two sections of Saguaro National Park, one on either side of the city of Tucson. I went for a hike with Mark and Joodie on the western side, up to the top of Wasson Peak. This particular trail is about 7 miles long and listed as ‘moderate.’ It provides beautiful views of the saguaro covered landscape (naturally), and endless mountain vistas from the peak.

It was a particularly beautiful hike on a particularly beautiful day and, unsurprisingly, I thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with Mark and Joodie (Kevin was having a lazy day and skipped out on the hike). If you only have time for one trail in the area, Wasson Peak is a good one to get a taste of the Sonoran Desert environment.


Even after spending two consecutive winters in Tucson, we know we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s available in this fun city. Between the endless opportunities to socialize and the limitless educational, historic, and scientific attractions that can be found all around, it is an ideal place to spend the winter, and we look forward to doing so again in the future.


Where we stayed:

Catalina State Park, Tucson, Arizona

Lazydays KOA, Tucson, Arizona

Pima County Fairgrounds, Tucson, Arizona


  1. Wow! I had no idea Tucson had so many different things to offer! Looks fun! The bio dome thing is cool – but it reminds me of the Gaylord hotel in Nashville. They proudly tell you you can walk for acres and acres without going outside (huge glass roof) and then I started wondering, “Is there a reason I shouldn’t be outside??” It’s strange how you can get claustrophobic in a large space. I love the church and it’s architecture. So beautiful! Glad you got some great hiking in! Awesome pictures as usual!

    • Yeah, that is definitely odd about the Gaylord. I get building a structure where people don’t have to go outside when you’re in the far north or in a place where it rains a lot or whatever, but Nashville? The weather there is pretty decent! Very weird! Anyway, yes, the church is stunning, both inside and out. Probably one of the most striking we’ve seen. It was especially pretty because the skies were so blue that day. Absolutely worth a visit if you check this area out.

  2. Aptly titled!
    Surprisingly enough, of all the places you visited I only missed one, Tohono Chul. I may just visit it one day, one winter. A guided tour at San Xavier del Bac would also help in learning the stories behind the interior and exterior of the mission. I agree the interior is exquisite and beautifully preserved and restored.
    So glad you were finally able to do most of what Tucson has to offer and you even had time to tour the Mirror Lab! Fascinating!
    Your round-up and pictures are my “Tucson fix” this winter. Love it all and Thank You ????

    • I think I originally heard of the church from your blog about it! We considered doing a tour, as one was just leaving when we arrived, but we decided to skip it and just walk around on our own. Probably a dumb decision since many of the things we were looking at could have been explained. Oops. Next time!!!

      And definitely check out Tohono Chul next time you visit. You’d love it!

  3. It looks like you guys made a serious dent in the Tucson Attractions Passport. They should link to your website—your photos are beautiful and your descriptions are great! (Cool photo of the Harris’s Hawk family :-))
    We’ve done about half of the things you listed, and some more than once (Wasson Peak hike, Tohono Chul, and the Tucson Desert Museum) but San Xavier and Mt. Lemmon are still on our list, and now I’m intrigued by the Mirror Lab. Next visit to Tucson, we’re definitely gonna need to spend more than a few days. I agree with you, Tucson in the winter is hard to beat!

    • Every time I look at that Tucson Passport list, I am blown away. I think the UA has an outsized impact on the city and it’s just great. So many opportunities to learn about cutting edge science and technology and they are just so open to the community. And what are the chances of combining a town with that kind of university with a gorgeous national park, multiple beautiful state parks and private gardens, history and art museums, and everything else? It’s just a fantastic spot!

    • I am not surprised at all that you’ve visited the Mission multiple times. It’s like a photographer’s Disney World! I could have spent hours there just clicking away. Same with the Desert Museum. We were there a bit early in the day, but even with the harsh light, it was so much fun to take photos!

  4. I’m embarrassed to admit that despite living in Arizona for 20 years, we have only visited a few of those attractions! Guess you don’t always take advantage or appreciate what’s in your backyard! Definitely will check those out next winter when we are back in the Southwest. Very interesting post…..thanks for the info & ideas!

    • Oh trust me, I understand. We lived 20 minutes from the Smithsonian in DC for 20+ years, and somehow managed to only visit a fraction of the museums a handful of times. It’s embarrassing really, but that’s just what happens. Sometimes you’ve got to get away before you realize just how much cool stuff is right there for you.

  5. Wow, we’ve been to Tucson twice for extended amounts of time and only managed to do two things on your list (and one of them was with you guys!). I’ll have to ask you more about the other campsites WHEN WE SEE YOU!!!! (Crazy all caps because we did not spend our winter socializing and are in desperate need of human contact ????)

    • Hahaha… there were times over the last few months when we dreamed of heading somewhere quiet and “away” so we could regroup….and here you are wishing for more people. This “finding balance” thing certainly can be tough at times. ???? However, we are definitely looking forward to catching up with you guys! It’s been too long!

  6. Well, we obviously need to return to Tucson to visit Catalina State Park and to see all the attractions we missed. The city really does have a remarkable concentration of interesting historical, cultural, scientific, and outdoor destinations, especially relative to its size. If only it weren’t 150 degrees there all summer…

    • I know… it’s unfortunate that people really only have a couple months to see all this stuff (at least, if they’re living in an RV). It could easily be the perfect place to hang out for longer if not for the awful heat. And yes, if you can get into Catalina, you should. It’s truly one of the best state parks we’ve been to – close to everything, but worlds away.

  7. Great post, it reminded me of why we enjoy Tucson and keep coming back. We’ve missed a few of the sights you visited and enjoyed others. More reason to return eh? We had the Mission pretty much to ourselves one time and this beautiful, quiet, haunting music was playing in the background. Goosepimple time. We love Tohono Chul and it’s little garden cafe and this year we went to the more formal Tucson Botanical Gardens also. The Raptor’s flying so close overhead were exhilarating! We didn’t know what to expect but were excited when the man next to us was told to take his son down from his shoulders before the birds began their show! The road to Mt . Lemmon is always a must when you’re in the area. Last year we took our Jeep up the back way. The last few miles were almost too much for me to bear. The only bad part about our visits is the insane difficulty of getting into Catalina – it’s ridiculous.

    • Yup, getting into Catalina, especially for a long reservation, is nearly impossible. We were very fortunate this year, but it took some serious work. I’m jealous you got to see the church with no one in it. We were there on a quiet weekday and it was still quite busy. Would have loved to see it without all the tourists! And we didn’t go to the cafe at Tohono Chul, but it certainly gets rave reviews. We’ll check it out next time we go!

    • Yup, we were there for like 2 months total and only scratched the surface. I can see why people come back year after year. It’s the perfect spot!

  8. Wow! This post definitely makes me want to go back to Tucson. We barely scratched the surface when we were there before, and I’d love to visit the biosphere and the mirror lab! The desert is so much more beautiful and interesting than I expected it to be.

    • You can say that again! I never understood why people loved it so much until we started spending time there. Now I totally get it! And Tucson offers that much more – not just the natural beauty, but so much to learn!

  9. Beautiful post Laura….some places we have visited and others we will add to the list! Even with the crazy winter weather this year, Tucson is always a charm. Your title is so right…

    • I absolutely agree. And even when we had cold weather, it was usually bright and sunny, so there’s that! I expect we’ll be back to Tucson many more times.

  10. Great review of Tucson! We never made it to the mirror lab or any of the observatories, but we’ll be back… when it is warmer of course!
    PS. Where’s your Pin? LOL!

    • Haha… I thought about doing one, but it doesn’t feel like Pinterest post to me. I’m gonna keep those more topical – very specific places I talk about in-depth (ie the Missile Museum) and campground reviews. I think those will make the most sense on Pinterest.

  11. We loved Tucson, but were only there for a week. I definitely want to return and see all the things we missed. I really fell for the Saguaros. They are so interesting to see in person rather than in a photo.

    • I completely agree. In person, the saguaros are enormous and just so cool! Plus, all the other crazy cacti… we really love the desert landscape. And I have no doubt we’ll be back in Tucson many more times. It’s a great town!

  12. We have only driven through Tucson going somewhere else….never stopped. But now I see a bus load of reasons to make it a destination. Where else have you been staying and any site tips at Catalina? Thank Laura…great post.

    • Hey! We stayed twice at Catalina, and then spent a week at the Tucson Lazydays, and a week at the Pima County Fairgrounds. They’re all good for their own reasons (at the bottom of the article I link to campground reviews for each of the parks). If you can’t get into Catalina, but you still want a very natural feel, I’d also suggest Gilbert Ray which borders the western section of the National Park. It’s FC/FS and electric only, but very beautiful for a couple days. As for Catalina, our preference is B Loop, but 99% of the sites in A loop are great too. It’s a terrific park and a terrific town. I’m sure you guys would enjoy it!

  13. Wow, and wow again! Tucson has been on my wish list for a long time. Sounds like it’s time to make it a priority. Interesting history on the Biosphere, I wonder if the fact that students change from year to year helps keep the human conflict out of the equation.

    • That’s an interesting point. I think just having a university in control of some of these projects might help manage conflict. There’s not the overall profit motivation, research projects are likely managed pretty well, and lots of students want to use these facilities to advance their research and their careers. From what I read, it sounds like the Biosphere project had a lot of issues because it was just poorly managed.

  14. What a variety, you guys did good! A previous commenter was right — the Tucson tourism board should hire you. We probably did miss out by not listening to a tour at the mission, huh? What were we thinking?! That was a beautiful day, though. You can chalk up even more credit for Wasson — it was 7.8 miles of happy hiking with you. That was one humdinger of a trek. Thank you for the wonderful recap of what Tucson has to offer, and thank you for sharing some of those adventures with us in person. ????

    • Haha… I was thinking the same thing when I went to write this blog: “I probably would have a lot more to say about this church if we’d bothered to take the tour…that was leaving right when we got there…” ???? Ah well, I guess people will just have to be impressed by my “Oh look, pretty!” commentary, instead.

      Anyway, thank you right back for joining me at the Mission and for suggesting the Wasson Peak trail. Both experiences were fantastic! Now… onwards to new states!!

    • We did not… Honestly, I never really think about farmer’s markets during the winter. They just seem like more of a summer thing, but I do know there are some that operate in the area year round. Maybe next time we’ll go check one out!

  15. Tucson certainly does have lots to keep one busy. For awhile it was at the top of our list for potential places to settle. But we did decide it was just too far removed to the rest of the country. The Tucson Attraction Passport is definitely worth the money. It also “forces” one to visit various places:) We still need to get to the Mirror Lab…maybe next winter! We love Wasson Peak! This is our go to with friends who visit and hike..

    • We have definitely discussed Tucson as a possible long term landing spot. It has so much that we’re going to be looking for in a hometown – especially the University. We really love college towns. BUT, there’s that whole summer thing that I just don’t think we’re gonna be able to get by….. I mean, 90 degrees each day, we could handle. But 120 seems like a bit much…. We’ll see though. I’ll certainly take being too hot over being too cold these days. And I agree on Wasson Peak – it really provides a perfect overview of the area!


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