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Tucson

At Saguaro National Park, you can marvel at the massive saguaro cacti that have come to symbolize the desert Southwest. (©BruceGriffin/Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau) At Saguaro National Park, you can marvel at the massive saguaro cacti that have come to symbolize the desert Southwest. (©BruceGriffin/Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Encircled by mountain ranges and bookended by the two units of Saguaro National Park, Tucson is Arizona's second-largest city, and for the vacationer it has everything that Phoenix has to offer, plus a bit more. There are world-class golf resorts, excellent restaurants, art museums and galleries, an active cultural life, and, of course, plenty of great weather. Tucson also has a long history that melds Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo roots. And with a national park, a national forest, and other natural areas just beyond the city limits, Tucson is a city that celebrates its Sonoran Desert setting.

At Saguaro National Park, you can marvel at the massive saguaro cacti that have come to symbolize the desert Southwest, while at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (actually a zoo), you can acquaint yourself with the myriad flora and fauna of this region. Take a hike or a horseback ride up one of the trails that leads into the wilderness from the edge of the city, and you may even meet up with a few desert denizens on their own turf. Look beyond the saguaros and prickly pears, and you can find a desert oasis, complete with waterfalls and swimming holes, and, a short drive from the city, a pine forest that's home to the southernmost ski area in the country.

Founded by the Spanish in 1775, Tucson was built on the site of a much older Native American village, and the city's name comes from the Pima Indian word chukeson, which means "spring at the base of black mountain," a reference to the peak now known simply as "A Mountain." From 1867 to 1877, Tucson was the territorial capital of Arizona, but eventually the capital was moved to Phoenix. Consequently, Tucson did not develop as quickly as Phoenix and still holds on to some of its Hispanic and Western heritage.

Tucson has a history of valuing quality of life over development, which sets it apart from the Phoenix area. Back in the days of urban renewal, its citizens turned back the bulldozers and managed to preserve at least some of the city's old Mexican character. Likewise, today, in the face of the sort of sprawl that has given Phoenix the feel of a landlocked Los Angeles, advocates for controlled growth are fighting hard to preserve both Tucson's desert environment and the city's unique character. However, the seemingly inevitable sprawl has now ringed much of Tucson with vast suburbs, though as yet, the city is far from becoming another Phoenix.

The struggle to retain an identity distinct from other Southwestern cities is ongoing, and despite long, drawn-out attempts to breathe life into the city's core, downtown Tucson has little to offer visitors other than an art museum, a convention center, a few historic neighborhoods, and a couple of good restaurants. There are currently plans for a major downtown renaissance project known as Rio Nuevo that, it is hoped, will reinvigorate downtown Tucson.

Despite this minor shortcoming, Tucson remains Arizona's most beautiful and most livable city. With the Santa Catalina Mountains for a backdrop, Tucson boasts one of the most dramatic settings in the Southwest, and whether you're taking in the mountain vistas from the tee box of the 12th hole, the saddle of a palomino, or a table for two, I'm sure you'll agree that Tucson makes a superb vacation destination.

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