If you’re wondering about what to see and/or where to hike in Southern Arizona, I have two off-the-beaten-path destinations for you. These are Coronado National Memorial and Tumacacori National Historic Park. Taking a weekend Southern Arizona trip to see these will take you through Sierra Vista, and small town AZ. It will also introduce you to some beautiful Southern AZ trails and the unique history of the South West.
We have a weekend itinerary for you guys at the end of the post. If you need more ideas for what to see in Arizona, check out our Guide to Arizona.
Coronado National Memorial
This National Park Unit is just south of Sierra Vista, right on the border between the US and Mexico. It is home to the rolling hills and mountains of grasslands and forests that I love in southern Arizona. As the name suggests, this beautiful spot on the southern edge of the United States had been preserved due to its historic significance, particularly, the entry of the Coronado expedition into the US.
If you remember the story, Coronado, his soldiers, employees, and slaves, were on an epic journey in search of the famed Seven Golden Cities. All they knew was that these treasure troves were across a desert to the north, and thus, they travel north! And more north… and more… north… all the way up from Mexico to what is now Kansas. Sadly, as you might guess (or know), they did not find any cities of gold, but they did start the movement of Spanish colonization up into the Southwest.
It’s easy to imagine the awe and trepidation that the people in Coronado’s expedition would have as they worked their way up into unknown lands when visiting the national memorial. And the park does a great job of educating you on aspects of Spanish exploration that you likely didn’t know. For instance, they had people counting their steps every day, just so that they knew how far they had gone. (Any one hiring for a step counter these days?).
If you aren’t interested in the history, no fear, Coronado National Memorial has plenty of Southern Arizona hiking and a very cool little cave that you can explore. One of the trails goes up to the highpoint of the Huachuca Mountains (Miller Peak), another will take you down to a memorial on the border, and you have an option to hike the length of the park, and through the low grasslands too.
For the cave, all you need to explore is a good pair of shoes, a trusty headlamp (plus a back up light source), and some caution (it’s a bit of a steep climb in if you aren’t used to hiking). It won’t be fascinating to the cavers among you, but for the rest of us, it’s a great place to organically explore the subterranean world.
Entrance Fee: Free
Suggested Trails: Coronado Cave Trail, Coronado Peak Trail, Yaqui Ridge Trail
Hours from Phoenix: ~3.5 hours
Visitor Center Address:
4101 W Montezuma Canyon Rd, Hereford, AZ 85615
Tumacacori National Historic Park
A few hours from Sierra Vista, to the west, is the Tumacacori Mission where you can learn about Arizona’s mission past, and hike the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. This Southern Arizona hike commemorates another Spanish exploration party and is a great area to see some desert riparian, or river, ecosystems.
After Coronado led the way up north from modern-day Mexico, it wasn’t long until other Europeans began exploring Arizona. One of these early colonists was Father Kino, a Jesuit priest, who established the Tumacacori mission in 1691 with the help of the local Tohono O’odham people, who built the sanctum that still remains to this day.
Missions are a mainstay of southwestern US history, and they are inextricably tied to the subjugation of native peoples like those of the O’odham. At face value, they were a way for Spain to hold the northern frontier, and for Jesuits and Catholics to convert Native American people to European religions. However, many missions were also places where native peoples were forced to work, hunted down when they tried to leave, and it was also a system used to dismantle indigenous cultures.
As with many tragedies, places of contemplation, about the wrongs of the past, are key to understanding the kinds of futures that we want to live in. For me, Tumacacori is one such place.
The mission is beautiful, although the NPS modus operandi of maintenance not reconstruction is apparent here. You can see the brick-work under the stucco. But there is still faded paint in the nave, and the inspiration of European cathedrals is obvious in the design and architecture. When I went, there was a flowered cross where the priest would have preached, looking out on beautiful wooden doors. There were flowers in the old graveyard too.
It’s a peaceful place now, the perfect spot to remember, and continue the journey that the Spanish made up through United States. If you want to know about the history of the US, this is definitely a place that you should visit, because the story of the missions is not one that we should forget.
Entrance Fee: Free
Suggested Trails: Juan Bautista de Anza Historic Trail
Hours from Phoenix: ~2.5 hours
Visitor Center Address:
1891 I-19 Frontage Rd, Tumacacori, AZ 85640
History and nature are inextricably linked, and if you hike in southern Arizona, you won’t be disappointed in the stories that you create and discover.
Suggested Weekend Itinerary
Friday Night: Drive to Sierra Vista (~3 hours)
I highly recommend getting dinner at La Casita Mexican ; the food is great and their mango/chili margarita is delicious.
Saturday: Explore Coronado National Memorial.
Drive towards Tumacacori (~2 hrs from Coronado), and consider staying in one of the smaller towns in between, like Patagonia.
Sunday: Explore Tumacacori.
Drive back to Phoenix (~2.5 hrs), and consider stopping at Tubac on the way home for lunch and art.
Please visit the park visitor centers to ask questions and learn more about safety and the difficulty of the trails. Rangers will help you find the perfect path for you!
Nightborn Travel covers some off-the-beaten path locations, sometimes focuses on solo travel, and often includes outdoor exploration such as hiking. So, please be aware of the following (adapted from HikeArizona.com): Hiking, traveling and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends. It is your responsibility to travel and explore responsibly and take care of your own safety.