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Tucson & Tombstone, Arizona

Updated on July 2, 2018
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M. D. Jackson has traveled and lived all over the Southwest/Northwest. She visits everything from tourist traps to National Monuments.

El Conquistador Water tower
El Conquistador Water tower | Source

Cowboys

My husband is a cowboy at heart. He doesn’t ride a horse or chew tobacco, he is not really big on cows, but somewhere inside of him there is a want to be a part of the Wild West. He grew up bucking hay and working on an egg farm. These were experiences he holds dear to his heart. I guess we all played Cowboys and Indians as kids; we all listened to country music at least once, and we probably all wished we could have worn a ten gallon hat. This brings us to our family vacation a few years back when my husband talked us all into a trip to Tucson/Tombstone. I am fairly certain that this idea came to his mind following a John Wayne marathon. But, who am I to judge.

We headed out for Tucson early in the morning, a five hour drive from our house. We had one rest stop way the other side of phoenix. Zuni (Native American) women were selling pottery and beads. At that point I knew this was going to be a great vacation, no vacation is complete without pottery and beads (at least not in the Southwest). It was already over 90 degrees outside as we headed into Tucson in search of our hotel. We are an adventurous bunch. I never like to pay a lot for a hotel room because we are never in them for very long. Some people may prefer the sunken tub and a view, but how much time do you spend in the room?

We somehow ended up at the south end of Tucson at the Palo Verde Inn and Suites. I have stayed in some questionable hotels… nothing like this. Our room was right off the pool (that part was great); the place was in desperate need of repair. In fact in the next courtyard over there was an in ground Jacuzzi that someone was making a planter bed out of (you know because they did not want to pay to fix it). The landscaping was nice and our air worked so we went on with our trip.

Mexican Food?

That first night all we had was a street map, so we drove around looking for a local Mexican food place (you don’t go to Tucson to eat spaghetti). We did not find a Mexican food place but we did find a Claim Jumpers. We are rural people and had never eaten at Claim Jumpers. It was fairly awesome. It wasn’t local Mexican food however, I would absolutely go there again. Plus the motif was western complete with antler chandeliers so I felt a certain satisfaction in the idea that we were doing something novel.

That night we swam at the hotel and relaxed. Outside of the decapitated room and Jacuzzi filled with dirt, the place wasn’t too bad. One thing that worked in our favor was that even though the pool was suppose to close at 10pm, no one ever showed to lock the gates during our entire stay, a couple of those nights we were in there until 1am, something that obviously never happens in your more prestigious hotels. Since the pool was the best thing about the Palo Verde you had to appreciate that they neglected to shut it down.

Tombstone

Day two of our vacation was a trip to Tombstone. If I had indulged him, my husband would have bought chaps and a six shooter for this outing. He was pretty excited. The type of excited that makes you hope the whole day is not a bust. After a minimal breakfast we headed out. The desert scenery turned into rustic mountains. Old tourist trap signs lined the highway and I am still looking for a sign that says “two headed snake” because you know I’m stopping if I ever see it!

The town of Tombstone is only three blocks and half of it is dirt roads. The rich mining history of Tombstone is what attracted the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday. To see it today there are lots of historically restored buildings and people running about in period dress. Up to this point I had not seen the movie Tombstone. That sounds silly, but we actually bought the DVD from Walmart in the middle of this trip. It started to rain, not just sprinkle, rain. Can you imagine rain in Tombstone in July? The streets turned to mud at that point and for a minute I had that thought of how awful it must have been to ride a carriage or horse in the rain.

Our first and probably the most interesting stop was the Bird Cage Theater. Back in its day the Bird Cage was a house of entertainment and prostitution. Not much has changed in this building during the last 100 years. They do not tell you at the door but, the Bird Cage has nude prostitute photos on the walls. I mention this because I had to reign in my ten year old who was jump started into puberty during this visit. This is not a good stop for children. They have not restored this building. A lot of what was there 100 years ago is still in its natural state. In case you are wondering it looks almost exactly like the scene in the movie Tombstone when Ringo shoots off a couple rounds at the theater.

Next we strolled through town making our way to the OK Corral. The OK Corral was not what I expected. There was a gift shop and a television running various versions of Wyatt Earp movies. The people were nice, but it lacked something… it lacked an actual corral! Maybe they should have renamed it the “where did you put the corral, corral”. This lack of corral and animals was not lost on my sons who kept asking, where is the corral? Ok, so no corral. Just a gift shop where the corral once stood.

We wondered through shops on our self guided tour and eventually found the Epitaph newspaper building. They had the original newspaper from the shootout at the OK Corral. The Epitaph building itself was pretty interesting and full of old stuff. The neat thing about Tombstone was almost everywhere you went people were in old west attire. The women had big puffy gowns and the men were wearing chaps and gun holsters, they made you feel out of place like you needed to go get a period costume yourself and prance around. It sorted reminded me of Disneyland with all the costumes.

Somehow we made our way to the courthouse/museum. I love this building. You can see from the pictures the great care and grandeur that was put into creating the Cochise Courthouse. Built in 1887, the structure is solid and strong. The original fixtures (they were eventually outfitted for electricity) still hang in the hallways. Outback is the gallows with ropes hanging off them as if they are daring you to attempt to lift something from the gift shop? Inside the Courthouse is the history of Tombstone along with the most extensive barbwire collection I have ever seen.

There were several horse drawn carriages going back and forth… in the muddy street. I have to say the mud made it seem more real. We had Lunch in a building that was rebuilt after one of Tombstone’s many fires. The giant mahogany bar complete with corbels and mirror looked as if the building was built up around it. My kids were just excited that they got to go in a bar (boys). On the walls were tons of old gambling memorabilia; a roulette wheel, old cards, and few contraptions that looked like Pachinko machines.

We walked down the side streets where there is a mine you can tour and a giant tree along with countless gift shops. We wanted the meat of Tombstone, we wanted to see how people lived, worked, and hey wait a minute where is boot hill? My husband informed me we passed it on the way into town. So as we headed out of town we stopped at boot hill. There is a huge sign at boot hill telling visitor to be respectful of the dead. At that point the reality of the old west hits you. Lots of people died. People died of illness, mining accidents, and a few from shoot-outs. We were standing on that hill thinking about all who had gone before, this wild town in the middle of nowhere.

Tombstone

Bird Cage Theater
Bird Cage Theater | Source
Carriage in the rain
Carriage in the rain | Source
Epitaph Newspaper
Epitaph Newspaper | Source
The Courthouse
The Courthouse | Source

San Xavier Mission

Our first day looking around in Tucson landed us at the San Xavier Bac Mission. Missions were built within a day’s ride of each other to assist travelers. Spanish colonists began the constructions of San Xavier in 1783. From the outside the mission is a grand building with two towers (one has lost its dome over the years). The mission still looks like it did in the 1800's. Built in the shape of the Latin cross, the walls are thick to keep out the desert sun. The beauty of the building is so overwhelmingly peaceful.

Once inside the church, there is an assault on the visual senses. The three points of the cross are all adorned with catholic symbols and icons. The pictures I took do not give credit to the extreme visual display that takes place inside the mission. I think that San Xavier reaches people in different ways. We were there on a Saturday. Mass was in session. Not being Catholic we toured the grounds until church let out. I loved the building for its architecture and history. The details were at every turn. For me it was a fantastic religious and cultural representation of the cross between the Spanish and the Natives of Mexico.

There are a few pueblo type buildings to the west that serve as a spot for tourists to get a drink or buy native art. Although this is a tourist attraction it is important to realize that it is also a place of worship. People should speak in whispers while in the chapel and remain of a reverent mind while touring the buildings surrounding the chapel.

San Xavier de Bac Mission

Source

Tucson's Barrio

One of Tucson's treasures is the barrio. The barrio is the historic buildings that were part of original Tucson. Some of this had been painted and redesigned to entice the tourists.The barrio looks a lot like you would expect a Mexican town to look like. There are shops, restaurants, as well as homes. Lots of imported art from Mexico is in this area. You can find day of the dead art, pottery, blankets, and religious art. Spanish guitar seems to follow you from one place to the next. You will find yourself taking pictures of doors and balconies, windows and walls.

Barrio

Barrio door
Barrio door | Source
Outdoor Market
Outdoor Market | Source

Tucson Museum of Art

One of our favorite stops was the Tucson Museum of Art. We are an artistic family so touring this museum was interesting for us. While this isn't everyone's cup of tea, the museum exhibits are thought provoking. When we were there one of the art installations was dead frogs in colored water. Is it art? Well, I will let you decide. There are also several galleries close to the museum. We were wandering around on foot a touring these galleries as well.

Art in Tucson

Yaquis Masks
Yaquis Masks | Source
When you are on foot, color is everywhere.
When you are on foot, color is everywhere. | Source

Cactus Drive In Movie

You read that correctly, if you go to Tucson at the right time, you could go to a drive in movie. To say this was nostalgic would be an understatement. Our kids had never experienced the gravely sound, the light picture quality and the joy of being at a drive in theater. Yes, we let our then nine year old son sit on top of our car to watch Journey to the Center of the Earth. He had the best seat in the place. Most people were sitting out in lawn chairs or in the back of trucks. It was an unexpected adventure that i recommend if you are going to be in Tucson.

Cactus Drive in

My kids at their first drive in movie.
My kids at their first drive in movie. | Source

Old Tucson Films

Source

Old Tucson Films

Locals directed us to "Old Tucson Films" a sort of theme park/tourist trap. We did not make it to this attraction until we were heading out of town and it was closed. I will say this, even closed we had fun taking photos and poking around. Sunday is not a good day to visit Old Tucson Films, any other day it looks like a blast.

Goodbye Tucson

It's been eight years since we took this trip to Tucson. My kids remember this as one of their favorite family vacations. When you set out with your kids to travel, let go of expectations. Do not micro manage the trip. Plan loosely and if you find something great do that instead. During part of this trip we were looking for El Tiradito a shrine dedicated to a sinner. It is the only shrine of it's kind in North America. We never found the shrine but we found amazing places instead. I guess that is just one more reason to return to Tucson.

© 2011 MD Jackson MSIOP

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