Some years ago, droning along near Tucson, Arizona, on our way back from Alabama to our then-home in Southern California, we spotted an astounding sight. Below us were literally thousands of military airplanes lined up, row after row, neatly arranged by aircraft type. Dozens of gigantic B-52 bombers sat with their wings cut off. Other rows held intact B-1 bombers, C-130s, huge Galaxies, AWACs, and squadron after squadron of F-4s, F-14s, and other fighters. Enough air power to lay waste to entire continents, all just sitting in broad daylight. “We have to go see that!” I exclaimed, and so we did, landing a few minutes later at Tucson International Airport—once again demonstrating the freedom general aviation pilots have in the United States to fly and land almost anywhere at will. Over subsequent visits we discovered how much Tucson has to offer the visitor, especially in the winter months, starting in early November with America’s largest Dia de los Muertos procession.
AMARC bus tours depart from and are conducted by the Pima Air and Space Museum, just south of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. One of the world’s largest nongovernment-funded aerospace museums, Pima displays nearly 300 aircraft outdoors and in four large hangars. Most prominent are the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Boeing B-29 Superfortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator, Martin PBM Mariner, and North American F-107. In 2015, Boeing donated the second 787 Dreamliner ever built for display at the museum.
But the museum that made the biggest impression was the Titan Missile Museum, about 25 miles south of Tucson. You’ll stand right above the monstrous ICBM, loaded in its silo. You can’t help but imagine that giant rocket being launched to rain destruction on the other side of the world, and breathe a sigh of relief that it never did. Next, descend belowground in a hardened facility designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Open a door that weighs 3 tons by pressing with one finger—it’s hung in such perfect balance. You’ll see the red safe, instruction manual, and the two keys that would have been turned to launch the missile. Those keys were placed on the table, but not in the switches, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, because it wasn’t immediately known if the Soviet Union had committed an act of war. The only Titan II operational silo that has not been demolished, it is now a National Historic Landmark.
Dia de los Muertos is the Mexican festival where people honor and remember loved ones who have died. During the All Souls Procession Weekend in early November, you can join 150,000 participants on the streets of downtown Tucson for a two-mile-long, human-powered procession that ends in the ceremonial burning of a large urn filled with the hopes, offerings, and wishes of the public for those who have passed.
Just north of Tucson, one of Arizona’s most important wildlife repositories, Aravaipa Canyon, is a pleasure to hike in cooler months. Among many other animals, we’ve seen bobcats and coatimundi there, attracted to the always flowing creek. Visit the Biosphere 2, originally meant to demonstrate the viability of closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life in outer space and still used for a variety of experiments. See bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and other wildlife at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a highly rated zoo and one of southern Arizona’s most-visited attractions.
Visit Saguaro National Park to walk among the giant cacti that are synonymous with the West. You can camp in the wilderness or stay at the luxurious Lodge at Ventana Canyon. Or, make a great winter escape at Tanque Verde, one of America’s most venerable cattle and guest ranches. This perennial award-winner is a short, free shuttle ride from Tucson International.
As we discovered, Tucson is a great destination for pilots and others interested in military aviation and history. But there’s plenty for nature lovers as well, and with mild temperatures in the 60s and 70s degrees Fahrenheit, November through March is the best time to visit.
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