Around Tucson: Discover More Than Gem Shows

People travel from across the country and around the world to visit the many gem, bead, fossil, mineral shows that take over the city of Tucson in late January and early February. If you’re planning a visit to Tucson, be sure to set aside time to take in some local flavor. The gorgeous desert landscape, inspiring architecture, and delicious food are worth the visit—plus, the shows are a major bonus! Just remember, your visit to the Southwest will be more complete if you stop and smell the saguaros.

Desert Walk at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum; courtesy of Visit Tucson

Desert Walk at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum; courtesy of Visit Tucson

Desert Treasures at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

It’s high time I went back. I haven’t set foot in the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in years, but the exhibits that wowed me before are well worth revisiting. Besides, I can’t wait to see what’s new.

Tightly focused on the region with a broad look at what’s in it, the museum’s scope makes for a fascinating visit. The mineral collection includes outstanding examples the area is famous for, such as rich orange wulfenite, deep blue azurite, and native copper. The collection is also part of the museum’s Earth Sciences Center, which examines ways that different natural science disciplines interact with each other in the real world. Dramatic stalactites and stalagmites hang or rise up to greet you in the specially built cave walk. Animals who inhabit such environments are represented, too, but don’t worry, they won’t come at you! Earth from Space takes advantage of NASA’s accomplishments to show not just Earth as a whole but the forces of nature that have sculpted and continue to sculpt our planet today.

You’ll also find a desert walk showcasing cacti, the crowd-pleasing hummingbird aviary, a botanical garden, an aquarium, many more exhibits of local flora and fauna, and a regionally focused art gallery, too. It’s about 12 miles from Tucson city limits. Interested? Check out for more details, then enjoy this one-stop desert display when you go.

Merle White
Editor, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist

Mission San Xavier, courtesy of Visit Tucson

Mission San Xavier, courtesy of Visit Tucson

The White Church in the Desert

Near the end of my first trip to Tucson, Arizona, someone asked, “Did you see the white church in the desert?” I didn’t see it or even know about it! Not wanting to sound like a total newbie, I replied, “Not this time, maybe next year.” The next year came and I looked for the white church, thinking it would stand out and be soooo obvious! Another total newbie move, so again, I went home without seeing the Mission San Xavier. As the years have passed and my time in Tucson during the Gem Shows so buttoned up, I still have not seen the church or any other off-the-beaten path attractions. This year, I’m going in a day early and will enjoy some of the sites, and this one is at the top of the list!

A Little About this Treasure

Construction of Mission San Xavier began in 1783 when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain. Following Mexican Independence in 1821, San Xavier became part of Mexico. Through the Gadsden purchase in 1854, the Mission became part of the United States. The mission is a National Historic Landmark and an amazing example of Mexican Baroque architecture.

To this day, San Xavier remains a working parish, serving the local and surrounding communities; over 200,000 people visit annually from all over the world. In addition to the church, on site there is a school run by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, a convent where the sisters live, a museum, and a gift shop. The mission has been named to the global World Monuments Fund which includes 50 cultural at-risk landmarks and it is currently undergoing restoration.

If you’re ever in the Tucson area – don’t get so busy you pass up seeing this National Treasure. It’s only about 20 minutes from downtown. Take some time to also see some of the other off-the-beaten path attractions the area has to offer. And be sure to enjoy the food – it’s some of the best I’ve had!

Tamara Honaman
Group Editorial Director, Jewelry; Editor, Beadwork

Reenactment shootout in Tombstone, Arizona, courtesy of Visit Tucson

Reenactment shootout in Tombstone, Arizona, courtesy of Visit Tucson

Tombstone, Arizona

As a history buff and a lover of the old American West (thanks to my western-loving grandfather), I love to visit Tombstone, Arizona whenever I get the chance. Tombstone was the site of the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral between Wyatt Earp, his brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton gang. (Full disclosure — I discovered that I’m distantly related by marriage to Johnny Ringo, an outlaw who was supposedly gunned down by Wyatt Earp in the desert outside Tombstone sometime after the gunfight. Cool, huh?) Tombstone is a great place to visit. You can tour the actual corral — which looks nothing like it does in the movies. It’s more of an alley between buildings. Then you can hit Big Nose Kate’s saloon, check out the mercantile, catch a show at the Birdcage Theater, and watch street performers recreate the days of Wyatt Earp and his “associates.”

But my favorite part of Tombstone? It’s definitely Boothill. Yes, I mean the cemetery. Not only can you visit the graves of the Clantons who died in the gunfight (if you’re so inclined), but the awesome epitaphs on some of the other tombstones are delightful. The one I like best says, “Here’s lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a .44, No Les no more.” Okay, that one’s actually fake, but it’s still a hoot.

Tombstone is a bit of a drive from Tucson — about 70 miles to the southeast. But it’s well worth the drive to spend a day reliving the halcyon days of the Old West.

Karla Rosenbusch
Managing Editor, Tucson Show Guide and Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist

Colorful Tubac, courtesy of Brenda Schweder

Colorful Tubac, courtesy of Brenda Schweder

Hit the Road to Tubac

Quite a juxtaposition to the Gem Shows verve and a short trip to the south is Tubac. This quiet little Southwest gem of a town is just minutes from the Mexican border. A meld of historic experience and artist enclave-slash-shopping destination, it’s worth the fabulous mountain-lined drive down I-19.

For the History Buff: The area has been home to three different Indian tribes since 300AD, the Hohokam, Pima and O’odham. If you want a deeper dive into the past, visit the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park in Old Town for a peek at the state’s first printing press!

For the Beader: New in town is Viola Jo Studio, owned by Lisa Dixon. This adorable shop is not to be dismissed! Dixon carries quite a variety of beads (seed to gemstone) and all the trappings, plus a smattering of yarn and art supplies to boot!

For the Art Admirer/Collector: Tubac is Art Central for the works of regional artists. Choose from several galleries for metalsmithing, painting, ceramics and even woven rugs and textiles. And if you’re up for more art and your stay extends through their five-day run, definitely check out the 61st Festival of the Arts through February 9.

For the Shopper: Southwest handicrafts are chockablock in its shops and yards–think Talavera dishware, tin luminaries, pottery, metal sculpture and garden art. My personal faves are: La Paloma de Tubac tucked back a bit at 1 Presidio Dr.; Mas Y Mas, a lovely gallery with a mix of gift and home decor; and Old Presidio Traders, my dad’s favorite haunt for new and pawned sterling and turquoise.

For the Foodie: You’d expect Mexican food galore, but this town rounds out its eats with an amazing variety of yummy food. I recommend The Italian Peasant; Tuback Deli & Coffee Co. for sandwiches, ice cream and lattes; Shelby’s Bistro (you’ll cross a short footbridge for sandwiches and salads); and Wisdom’s ¡Dos! for Mexican fare. But, watch out for their margarita–it packs a punch!

For the Architectural Aficionado: A bit more obscure, but my very favorite Sunday drive is the historic residential Spanish and Mexican architecture at the Tubac Golf Resort. Take a slow and respectful meander through the old part of the resort, but don’t tell ‘em Brenda sent you!

Guest Blogger Brenda Schweder
Jewelry artist, author, influencer, and inventor of Now That’s a Hammer! and Now That’s a Jig!, Brenda will be selling her tools at Jewelry Craft & Design Expo in Tucson, 2/5-2/9 and online at

Saguaro selfie with Katie Hacker and Beads of Courage founder, Jean Gribbon

Saguaro selfie with Katie Hacker and Beads of Courage founder, Jean Gribbon

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area

“Love me or hate me, the desert seems to say, this is what I am, and this is what I shall remain.” – Joseph Wood Krutch

When you’re shopping the gem shows, meeting with industry friends and partners, taking classes, and cramming as much as you can into each day in Tucson, it’s nice to take a break and appreciate the beauty of the Sonoran Desert.

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a short drive from the gem shows and the perfect place to recharge your batteries. Soak up serenity among the saguaros and the desert landscape. You might spot the famous road runner or even a javelina (similar to a wild boar) in the canyon.

Trails range from easy to rugged, so you can choose the one that suits your style. Or, you can take the narrated tram ride. There are pools of water throughout the canyon, with sweet little picnicking spots. There are lots of beautiful backdrops for your Instagram pix! Stop into the visitor center for educational information and mementos.

Last time I visited Sabino Canyon, Beads of Courage founder Jean Gribbon and I strolled among the saguaros and talked about our next big ideas. It’s the perfect place to take a moment and breathe it all in.

Katie Hacker
Managing Editor, Beadwork

Make the Most of Your Tucson Time with the Tucson Show Guide!

Tucson is a whirlwind! Plan your trip in advance to make the most of your time at the shows. Get information about show times and dates, vendors at each show, shuttles, special events, and much more with the 2020 Tucson Show Guide! Leave  your information below and we’ll let you know as soon as its available.

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