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Tucson - Off the beaten track

Santa Catalina Mountains

The splendid Santa Catalinas, part of Arizona's expansive Coronado National Forest, are geographically sandwiched between Tucson and, appropriately, the Tortilla Mountains. An outdoor nirvana for the many Tucson residents who want to escape the pain of indoor office-work or domestics, this mountain range encourages such relaxing activities as hiking, horse riding, bird watching and navel gazing. The most popular access point from Tucson is Sabino Canyon, a water-sluiced cutting serviced by a scenic 4mi (6.5km) road, numerous riverside picnic grounds and lots of lengthy hiking trails leading to higher ground. At the canyon entrance is an information-stocked visitor centre and ranger station.

A more remote locale for hiking and camping is Catalina State Park, 15mi (24km) north of Tucson in the Santa Catalina's western foothills. The area offers a range of day and multi-day walks, and some of the trails have attractive added extras such as swimming holes. The highpoint of the mountain range - and a favoured getaway year-round - is Mt Lemmon, which stretches up to 9157ft (2750m). In summer you can spend several days walking up to the summit's great views, or alternatively drive there in a single hour, while in winter the mountainside is transformed into the southernmost ski resort in the USA.

Saguaro National Park

This national park is actually two parks, Saguaro East (also called the Rincon Mountain District) and Saguaro West(also called the Tucson Mountain District), which are separated by 30mi (48km) and the city of Tucson. The area is named after the indigenous saguaro cactus, which takes almost a century to grow into its distinctive, five-storey-high, multi-limbed adult shape, and is home to such varied birdlife as woodpeckers and cactus wrens. Desert-dwelling Indians also appropriate the cactus' fruit to make jam and wine. Saguaro National Park is riddled with secluded hiking trails, including the short Desert Ecology Nature Trail and the steep Tanque Verde Ridge Trail in the eastern section, and the King Canyon trailhead in the west.

Located off the road leading from Tucson into Saguaro West is the International Wildlife Museum, though the suffix 'life' is a little misleading. The museum is a professional monument to taxidermy, containing the stuffed and mounted remains of hundreds of animals from all over the world; documentaries are also screened here. A few kilometres further into the park are the resurrected Old Tucson Studios, once a bustling film set where hundreds of Westerns were produced from 1939 (as well as TV series like The High Chaparral), and now a popular theme park complete with stagecoach rides and rehearsed shootouts.

Mission San Xavier del Bac

On the San Xavier Indian Reservation 10mi (16km) south of downtown Tucson are the dazzling bleached walls of the Mission San Xavier del Bac, the finest example of Spanish colonial architecture in Arizona and also one of the state's oldest European buildings. The mission was built around 1700 by Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, but was mostly destroyed during a Pima Indian uprising in 1751. It was rebuilt in its current form in the late-18th century and is subject to ongoing restoration, with particular attention being paid to the interior frescoes. The mission is at its most colourful when religious ceremonies are held here, though note that no photography is allowed at these times.

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