Tubac, AZ: The Poor Man’s Santa Fe

We journeyed to far southern Arizona, indeed just 30 miles shy of the Mexican border, to explore Tubac AZ, founded 1752, a historic/bohemian/artsy community “where art and history meet” but which we prompted re-tagged as “The Poor Man’s Santa Fe.” Here we attended the Tubac Festival of the Arts, southern Arizona’s largest art fair, held annually in February since 1959.

Exhibiting and demonstrating artists line the streets, with a friendly and welcoming atmosphere between the attendees, the artists, and the town itself.

The “old west” feel is promoted throughout, with a focus on Southwestern and Mexican art, horse-drawn trolleys moving thousands of art lovers amongst the various areas, and visitors on horseback mingling with visitors on foot.

Beyond the festival itself, we explored the related communities of Tubac, Amado, and Tumacacori. Tubac is very small but the largest of the three by far, interwoven with existing art galleries, specialty shops and restaurants. Our strolling was interrupted by a little sipping at the one and only tasting room in town, by Flying Leap Vineyards in nearby Elgin, AZ, which we visited on a previous RV trip in 2014.

There are a surprising number of restaurants in the area, for such small towns. Many of them give a nod to the ranching history of the area, and many of them — like Wisdom’s Mexican Cafe, circa 1944, famous for its fruit burros (??!!?? ok) — have been around for a really long time.

The most upscale restaurant in the area is Elvira’s, in business at various locations (including Nogales, Mexico, where it originated) since 1923. The food was outstanding, and the margaritas were strong, but the breath-taking interiors really stole the show. One reviewer said “entering the restaurant is like pulling back the curtain of Lawrence of Arabia’s majestic desert abode” and I just couldn’t say it any better than that.

The Tubac Golf Resort is famous for the filming of many of the scenes in the early Kevin Costner golfing movie Tin Cup. Here, the Stables Ranch Grille is set in the original stable of the Otero Ranch, settled in 1789. To this day, tranquil cows graze under mountain views, and the old west charm pervades.

A few miles south of Tubac, Abe’s Old Tumacacori Bar is the oldest in Arizona and the place to find all the locals warming by the fire, shooting pool, talking up city-folk visitors, and chatting with Abe’s super outgoing granddaughter, who has run the bar since his passing, and is as likely as not to be wearing a bathrobe behind the bar while telling fascinating stories of the area.

Abe raised her from the time she was 2 years old and her favorite memory was of him throwing a handful of change over the bar top each night and telling her to go sweep the floors and find the coins. If she came back with any less than the amount he had thrown out, it was back to the floors until she found them all, ensuring a thorough job. John Wayne frequently hung out at Abe’s when frequently in Southern Arizona working on Western films.

The Anza Trail commemorates the path of Spanish explorer Juan Batista De Anza, who led a group north from this area in 1775. There were undoubtedly others, but this guy did it better than most, landing on a tiny patch of oceanfront property that came to be known as San Francisco. We hiked on this trail with the dogs almost every day.

Southern Arizona experienced a rare February snowstorm during our weeklong visit, making nearby Madera Canyon (30 minutes north of Tubac) and Mount Wrightson a winter wonderland. This is a highly recommended recreation area for hiking, picknicking and birdwatching. Finn frolicked in the white stuff and Sprinkles watched with alarm as a parade of a dozen wild turkeys sauntered by.

We also found some non-snowy desert hiking in Desert Trails West, a mining property opened up for hiking, and were rewarded with gorgeous blooming cacti, and, surprisingly, a small cougar crossing our path.

Back in town, Tubac Presidio State Park preserves a tiny speck of ruins of an old presidio, the original (working) printing press of Arizona’s first newspaper, an old schoolhouse, and so forth. This state park celebrates being in apparently everything, including1st state park of Arizona, 1st Spanish land grant in Arizona, 1st printing press and newspaper in Arizona, 1st European settlement in Arizona, 1st commercial enterprise from the Gadsden Purchase, and (really reaching here) 1st grave marker for a revolutionary war patriot in Arizona.

Tumacacori National Historic Park preserves the ruins of a Spanish mission church and associated community. At its height, a few hundred people lived here in the late 1840s. The guided tour is recommended to really bring this partially-reconstructed, special 360-acre place to life.

The people who lived here suffered from Mexican wars and unrelenting Apache Indian raids. A snowy December in 1848 was the final straw, and the last few families moved away, walking 40 miles north to Mission San Xavier del Bac.

Affectionately called the “White Dove of the Desert,” it is still an active Catholic parish ministering to Native Americans. it was originally founded in 1692 with construction completed in 1797, and is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, filled with original artwork and statues. We had heard there were guided tours (there were not) and Indian frybread for sale in the parking lot (there was not) but it was still a cool place to see.

Also of note north of Tubac, the Titan Missile Museum houses the only Titan II Missile still available to tour in the US. A relic of the cold war, sites like this housed nuclear warheads from 1963 to 1987, and were basically run by just a couple of (albeit super-smart and presumably responsible) 20 and 21 year-olds. The Titan II is the largest ballistic missile developed by the US. It could carry a warhead equivalent to nine millions tons of TNT, the amount of which would require a boxcar train of 1,534 miles long to haul. So, really scary.

The excellent underground guided tour, and humorous simulated launch of the mission from the launch control center, really gives you a feel of the gravity and magnitude of the entire underground missile complex. The mere existence of the Titan, even though it ever only sat silently waiting for its moment in the sun, served to prevent a massively destructive war between the US and the Soviet Union before being decommissioned in the 1980s.

To get to and fro, we traveled along Highway 19, the only complete highway in the US to still have signs in metric, a relic from when it was chosen in the 60’s by the Highway Board to be the first highway with only metric signage, as a pilot program for converting the whole nation to metric. Obviously, that failed, and the US failed, remaining to this day one of only three lame countries (United States, Myanmar, and Liberia) which have NOT adopted the metric standard.

Please excuse the blurry, rainy photo

We stayed at DeAnza RV Resort, built on the former location of the circa-1960’s Amado Greyhound Park. It was a wonderful week in this laid-back, interesting little corner of Arizona … another “pot at the end of the rainbow” of charming destinations!

Our next trip will be a long weekend in Wickenburg, Arizona, where we’ll attend the Party In The Desert 2024 country-music festival!

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