Tubac Road Trip

by Jeff Atwell | photos by Fred Schmiedeskamp

Friends from out of state had been in town for two days. We checked in on their Instagram to see how things were going. They had traipsed through the Catalina foothills on a sunset horseback ride, conquered vertigo on the zip lines out in Oracle, and discovered prickly pear margaritas at their resort. By all accounts, they were having the quintessential Southern Arizona getaway.

We were on the agenda for day three, and said we’re taking them to Mexico. Or, just 20 miles shy of the border to Tubac. Mid-May in Southern Arizona means 100˚ is here or near. But on this blessed day, cloud cover and a forecasted high of 79˚ made us feel like school kids on a snow day.

Good Fortune #1

Ten miles south of Tucson, Mission San Xavier creates a bright white pop just off I-19. We pulled in right at 11am. Mass had started and there was just enough room at the back of the mission to step in and get a look at the statues and murals inside the oldest European structure in Arizona, without disrupting the service.

We walked the grounds and got some pictures of the Spanish Colonial architecture and cactus gardens in full bloom. On the way back to the car, the Tohono O’odham frybread stand and curious ground squirrels provided two more things our friends from the East Coast had never seen.

Good Fortune #2

We had wanted to have lunch at Elvira’s, a 90-year-old restaurant from Mexico with satellites in Tubac and Tucson. All morning I had been thinking about their mole poblano. But it was Sunday and we were hunting food at lunchtime without a reservation.

When we found Habanero’s in another corner of the village of Tubac and snagged the last open table, we were back on our lucky streak. We started with a round of habanero mango margaritas and tore into a basket of chips with guacamole and salsa that was hot, hot, hot. After some hefty street tacos, we were back on our feet.

Good Fortune #3

Our covert motive for the Tubac trip came out when we started to stroll. Tubac’s shops sell art, jewelry, and all sorts of Mexican home decor. The last time we came down to Tubac, we wanted to get a tin star chandelier for the patio but could not decide on raw tin, patina, or painted. After stewing on it back home, we decided on yellow. Bright yellow.

As we popped in and out of import shops and art galleries, I tried to remember where that little place was that had the painted stars—down an alley off a side street, where the pavement turns to dirt. We walked through the village and searched many colorful shops before we found it. High gloss and cartoon yellow. And it was the last one!

Good Fortune #4

On the drive back to Tucson, a massive storm formed over the Catalinas. Our friends were used to rain, but not desert rain. We could see ribbons of downpour angling off the wall of grey that blocked out the mountain. We were barreling down 1-19 under a bright sky without a drop of rain on the road until we hit midtown.

We had hoped to stroll Fourth Avenue or the University of Arizona campus to show them a little more of our city, but everyone wanted to get back to the house and watch the storm from the patio. The yard smelled of wet creosote and the chill in the air was invigorating, the last we’d feel for a while. We hung the star, sat back, and watched the ground suck up the rain. When the storm let up, we asked what they’d like to do next and they chose another Southern Arizona phenomenon—they went back to their resort for a siesta.

A Summer Essential: Salt River Tubing

| By Amanda Oien

Tucson’s raspados and Mesa’s Salt River have two things in common: highly desired during the hot summer months and arguably, equally refreshing.

If you’re wanting to escape the scorching sun this summer or wanting to knock off Salt River Tubing from your summer bucket list, you’re in luck.

Tubers dressed in swim trunks and Hawaiian shirts, holding coolers board a tan and brown school bus, labeled Salt River Tubing and Recreation, headed to the Salt River in Arizona.

The Salt River Tubing season opened Saturday, May 1st. If you’ve never experienced this essential summer activity, we’re breaking it down with tips and tricks to help make your float down the river smooth and splashy.

New Covid-19 Requirements:

Everything you need to know:

The Lower Salt River is located in the Tonto National Forest in Mesa, Arizona and despite its name, is actually freshwater. What a catfish. Speaking of fish, you’ll be sharing the river with Rainbow Trout, Largemouth Bass, Sunfish and Catfish.

Salt River Tubing is open daily from 9:00am to 6:30pm. There are three float routes which vary in length. Be sure to get there as early as possible to avoid long lines.

It’ll cost you $19 + tax and fees per person or tube which includes tube rental, shuttle ride and parking at Salt River Tubing. Children must be at least eight years old and four feet tall.

While mostly smooth tubing, there are some rapids. The trick? Hold on tight and don’t let the rocks getcha by lifting your bum out of the tube.

What to bring:

Don’t dismiss Arizona’s hot sun unless you want to be sporting a lobster-like glow by the end of the day. Bring lots of water, sunscreen (don’t forget to reapply!), a hat and sunnies.

A sheet. Yes, that’s right, a sheet. Thrift a sheet from Goodwill or grab the one you cover your plants with in the winter, in case you lose it down the river. The tubes are black and made of rubber which means it’ll get hot...really hot. Do your skin a favor and don’t let it burn.

A sign along the Salt River in Arizona urges tubers to move left and exit.

Get ready to embark on your floating picnic. Bring food and snacks that can be sealed in a water-tight container. ProTip: Unlike Pringles that come in a cardboard-like cylinder, destined to get soggy, opt for Lays Staxs instead, in a plastic cylinder.

Protect your toes and wear shoes. The river can get shallow in some areas and you won’t want to hit your feet on any rocks. Plus, are you really going to walk on sizzling asphalt in the parking lot? Drag your old tennies out of the closet or channel your inner 90’s child and get some glitter jelly sandals; just stay away from flip-flops. They’ll probably come off.

Bring an ID, cash or card, and your old-fashioned car key. Just expect everything to get wet. ProTip: Keep your ID, phone and car keys on you.  A waterproof phone holder is always handy.

What NOT to bring:

Glass. It’s against the law to bring glass to the Salt River and they will check your cooler before boarding the shuttles.

Valuables. If it any items are lost to the depths, there’s a good chance you won’t ever see it again.

Styrofoam coolers. They’re not allowed on the river either.  

Tubers float along the Salt River in Arizona with greenery and mountains in the background.

The Lower Salt River is home to wild horses. As you float along the river, keep an eye on the banks, you might see a few. With this in mind, remember you’re not the only one enjoying the river. It is a habitat for many creatures that call the Salt River home. Don’t litter and remember to pack out what you pack in.

Whiskey del Bac: a True Tucson Classic

Tucson's Hamilton Distillers, makers of real craft whiskey, harness the power of mesquite to capture the true flavor of Tucson

|By Louie Christensen


Tucson’s youth didn’t grow up with friendly oaks and maternal willow trees to climb. No, in the desert we climbed Mesquite trees. We scrambled up that dusty bark, pushed our way through the thorns, to climb up to that plank of wood crudely tied to a sturdy branch. So, to a Tucsonan…mesquite is the smell of adventure.

It’s also the smell of memories, of gathering the people we love around a fire pit filled with glowing mesquite embers. The smell of mesquite smoke takes us back to our past; to when we snuck that first kiss, laughed with friends, or listened to our family’s stories that we’ve heard a thousand times but couldn’t wait to hear again.

It’s the smell of food, of great food; locally sourced and created with quality in mind. From our newest steak houses, to our favorite spot to grab a carne asada street taco; that sweet and savory smoke bridges cultures and brings us together around the table.

So when Tucson’s Hamilton Distillers released a mesquite smoked single malt whiskey, it captured the city’s heart.

Now, when you hear “Tucson whiskey,” you may be tempted to envision a dusty Old Tucson saloon set piece, with old timey bottles filled with warm, over-proofed XXX whiskey. But, you won’t find any wild-west shootout tropes, cowboy silhouettes, or cattle brand logos anywhere near Hamilton Distillers. No, Hamilton Distillers isn’t chasing after snowbird souvenir sales, they are chasing after creating amazing whiskey, and people have taken notice.

This year, Whiskey Advocate named Whiskey Del Bac’s Dorado (their flagship mesquite smoked option) one of their “Six Great Under-the-Radar-Whiskies”, Esquire Magazine named it the 7th best whiskey in the US, and it took home a gold medal from American Craft Spirits Association in 2018. They’re distributing as far as New York City, and have been making a huge splash across online whiskey review channels and circles.

Hamilton Distillers represents the best of Tucson. Why? Because their Whiskey Del Bac line isn’t worth buying simply because it’s from Tucson and it’s nice to support our local purveyors, it’s worth buying because it is flat out, leave-your-qualifiers-at-home, delicious. Tucson has entered a new era. We no longer need to rely on southwest kitsch, or dude ranch clichés to draw people in. We are a city of creators, of tastemakers, of craftsmen, and their work speaks for itself.

Try a glass of Whiskey Del Bac Dorado, you’ll see.