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The Sonoran Desert: The Perfect End-of-Summer Destination

August 26, 2014

Don’t miss the vibrant colors and lively landscape of late summer in Tucson, Ariz.

For the perfect end-of-summer escape, it would be easy to imagine yourself on a sunny island in Greece or perhaps cruising gently down the Danube. But what if I told you that for this season’s last hurrah, you may actually want to soak up that sun on a desert, not a beach?

The Sonoran Desert, which covers parts of Arizona, California, and Mexico, is an anomaly among deserts. Drawing moisture from the Sea of Cortez, the unusually fertile land teems with life. A desert by name alone, the 110,000 square mile expanse is a rainbow patchwork of acacia trees, towering saguaros, prickly pear cactus, and rippling, deep-hued mountain ranges.

But here’s what most people don’t know: In late summer, prompted by the heavy monsoon rains of August, the lush green plains reach a dazzling climax. Locals in Tucson, Ariz., swoon over what they call the region’s “second spring,” a time to soak up the colors, smells, and tastes of the land before winter puts a kibosh on the whole thing.

Whether you’re showing up to watch butterflies dance among the wildflowers, to sample the region’s up-and-coming wineries, or to sip a cocktail made from a cactus, here are a few of the best places to see America’s prettiest desert come to life (again).

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A hummingbird takes advantage of Arizona’s second spring inside the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. (Photo: Joe Parks/Flickr)

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Panoramic views of Saguaro National Park and the Tucson Mountains surround the 21-acre Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is made up of an intricate network of paths that connect vibrant cactus gardens, a crystal cave, an aquarium, and a zoo inhabited by mountain lions, black bears, and a Mexican wolf. It’s enchanting any time of year, but come late August, the landscape literally explodes with greenery. See butterflies (attracted by the second blooming) and hummingbirds silently flit through the Pollination Gardens, or wander the Desert Loop Trail to find ocotillos full of shiny leaves and creosote bushes that are extra fragrant after the heavy rains.

After the sun goes down, the museum’s terrific late-night series, Cool Summer Nights, encourages visitors to stay past the usual closing hours to watch scorpions glow under black lights, or to try out a night photography class under the starry sky. For the last installment, over Labor Day weekend, there will even be a bat presentation with bat-themed cakes prepared by local bakeries.

Related: Yum-o-Rama! The 10 Best Farmers Markets in the Country

Prickly pear margarita
Prickly pear margarita

Prickly pear margarita (Photo: Tanque Verde Ranch/Facebook)

Desert Foods

Speaking of food, no ingredient says “desert” more than the sweet red, fleshy fruit of the prickly pear cactus, which is found throughout the Sonoran Desert. August marks the fruit’s peak harvest season, and Tanque Verde Ranch, where the cactus grows wild, has built a reputation based on their prickly pear margaritas, which are made with cold-pressed prickly pear syrup and served at the resort’s bar, Doghouse Saloon.

Alternatively, check out the popular Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market, a seasonal market held downtown every Thursday, for live demonstrations on how to properly prepare the native crop (which can also be used to make a tasty jelly).

Enchiladas in arizona
Enchiladas in arizona

Enchiladas filled with local, traditional sautéed squash. (Photo: Desert Rain Café/Facebook)

Meanwhile, at the Desert Rain Café, a laid-back eatery located on the Tohono O’odham reservation (an hour southwest of Tucson), traditional ingredients like cholla (pronounced “choya”) buds and tepary beans take center stage. The Monday night special — a mouth-watering plate of O’odham squash enchiladas with green salsa and white cheese — is alone worth the trek.

wine in arizona
wine in arizona

A beautiful night for a glass of wine under the stars (Photo: Sand Reckoner/Facebook)


The annual grape harvest (which runs from now through the end of October) has the local vineyards in nearby Wilcox and Sonoita working overtime. But for visitors, late summer can be a unique opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes peek at the region’s young, yet robust, wine industry. Among the top local wineries are Pillsbury Wine CompanySand-Reckoner (whose Malvasia the San Francisco Chronicle ranked as one of the top 100 wines in America), and Dos Cabezas (known for its stellar rosé). Show up on the right day, and your tasting might even be accompanied by a sampling of the grapes themselves, whose skin, sweet flesh, and spicy seeds help determine the complex, earthy flavors captured in each bottle.

Use this wine travel card to receive a discount on more than 30 winery visits.

Related: Napa, Shmapa! Jerome, Arizona Is the New Wine Country

JW Marriott Starr Resort arizona
JW Marriott Starr Resort arizona

The giant windows of the lobby at the JW Marriott Starr Resort overlook Arizona’s remarkable scenery. (Photo: David D’Agostino/Flickr)


Another great reason to hit up southern Arizona at this time of year? Hotel deals. Winter is the area’s peak tourism time, so sneak in a visit now, and you’ll wind up paying very decent rates at places like JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, which is offering a $100 daily resort credit on any stay through Sept. 30 (a good excuse to check out the hotel’s spa, golf course, or three restaurants).

At the 150-acre Canyon Ranch, a top-rated resort in the Sonoran Desert, there’s a current promotion granting free stays to boyfriends, husbands, and male friends who have never visited the resort before (valid from Sept. 14 through Oct. 31).

Loews Ventana Canyon arizona
Loews Ventana Canyon arizona

Lush fairway with panoramic vistas on the golf course at Loews Ventana Canyon (Photo: Josh Hallett/Flickr)

Golfers will love the “9 Holes In One” offer from Loews Ventana Canyon, which promises nine holes of morning golf free each day, plus a $10 daily dining credit to be used in the lounge (valid through Sept 12).

Located at the foot of the Catalina Mountains and equipped with a championship golf course and a spa, Omni Tucson National Resort is a top pick among nature lovers, and this summer, the resort is taking $25 off per day for any stay through Sept. 1.

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