Our favorite spots to see stunning sunsets, as only Tucson makes them.
Conjure up your vision of the southwest and chances are it includes an Arizona sunset. In these magical moments between day and night, the mountains and desert are illuminated in otherworldly colors as the earth and sky intersect in ways that can be heart-stopping and unpredictable.
If you’re seeking the best spots around Lazydays Tucson to catch the sunset, here are five places that inspire us. From these locales, you can sit within the red glow and absorb the spirit of a perfect place. Take your pick, take your camera and start scurrying for spots. Time to watch the beauty above us.
1. Quiet Contrasts
: Saguaro National Park East
Saguaro National Park (www.nps.gov/sagu) is comprised of two districts, East and West, that preserve thousands of acres of this region’s most recognizable monarch of a cactus — the saguaro. Saguaro East and Saguaro West bookend Tucson; and while both have favored perches for viewing the sunset, the East district — with its sky-island Rincon Mountain backcountry and lush diversity of plants and wildlife — adds a unique dimension to Southern Arizona sunset-watching.
If you’re there early enough and want to make a day of it, check in at the Visitor Center for the park movie, exhibits, shopping and a detailed list of many special programs. Then head into the park via the Cactus Forest Loop drive for an eight-mile scenic tour of the Sonoran Desert. There are trailheads and pullouts to enjoy. As sunset approaches we suggest you stop at Mica View, a pullout complete with an easy desert trail and picnic area. There’s also a map to help put your viewing in perspective.
Arriving late afternoon will give you time to explore. What you’ll see to the west is an expanse of desert brimming with a sea of giant saguaros, many towering over 50 feet in this cactus forest. You’ll also see the Tucson Mountains in the distance. Be sure to look around at the other sky-island mountains — the Catalinas to the north and Rincons just behind you. As sunset approaches, the mountains offer up their nightly light show, transitioning from deep rose to bright pinks before ending in purple. Depending on the season, you’ll hear a variety of desert critters beginning their sunset calls. Savor the moment.
Getting There: Take I-10 to Houghton Road, heading north eight miles. Turn right on Escalante, then go two miles to Old Spanish Trail. Signs for the park will be on your left.
Side Attraction: Sunset-watching inspires the appetite. Pass a few horse stables and hills as you head out of the park north on Houghton to locate Tucson McGraw’s Cantina (www.tucsonmcgraws.com), a local hangout that’s family-owned and down-home. It’s perfect for burgers, fish and chips, bar food, dips and kid-friendly fare. A low-key, welcoming place, the cantina is where you can relax, watch great desert vistas and listen to cowboy music. Located at 4110 S. Houghton Rd; call 520.885.3088.
2. Grotto Grandeur: Mission San Xavier del Bac
You can see Mission San Xavier (www.sanxaviermission.org) as you drive south on I-19 — the white towers, the dome, the little black hill. It sits as a conspicuous and proud monument, visible from all directions in the Santa Cruz Valley. When the magic hour comes to San Xavier, the “White Dove of the Desert” will share with you its incandescent sunset, as it has for over 200 years.
Only nine miles from Tucson, this national historic landmark was founded as a Catholic Mission by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692. Church construction began in the late 1700s, making this one of the oldest intact structures in Arizona.
Visit early enough so that you’re able to tour the beautiful mission, grounds, original statuary and murals. But remember to hike up the nearby hill located to the east of the church when sunset time approaches. In the late afternoon, the setting sun glistens off the mission and casts a crimson glow everywhere. Even after the sun drops below the horizon, stay on the hill. Overhead, the enormous sky will seem deep and endless as the stars start to glitter with a new brilliance. It’s perhaps the most beautiful moment at San Xavier, and you’re there to appreciate it.
Getting There: Head south on I-19 to the San Xavier exit; you can’t miss it. Head toward the the mission you’ll see in distance, which is located at 1950 W. San Xavier Rd. The church is open until 5 p.m. daily and the hill is accessible for sunset viewing.
Side Attraction: Return to the interstate and drive back to Tucson, getting off in the downtown area of Congress Street. If you want to continue your meander through history, visit the historic Mercado San Agustin (www.mercadosanagustin.com), the site of Tucson’s first public market, which has been carefully restored with shops and eateries. The lovely and newly opened Agustin Brasserie serves wild-caught fish, free-range chicken and decadent deserts, and has an upstairs outdoor lounge for viewing the city. Located at 100 S. Avenida del Convento; call 520.461.1110, ext. 8.
3. It’s a Cliff-Hanger: Gates Pass
Ask any Tucson native where to catch the sunset, and one suggestion always will be Gates Pass. From this picturesque apex in Tucson Mountain Park (www.pima.gov/nrpr/parks/tmp), you’ll have a cliff-side seat to a dramatic Tucson sunset. If this one does not cause you to leap to your feet, we don’t know what will.
This is a premier viewing spot for the locals — which means you should get there early for a good seat to witness breathtaking sunsets that change with the season. All around you, the saguaro-studded hills and fantastic views of surrounding mountains will add to your experience.
Gates Pass is a quick ride from the city center. You’ll drive west on Speedway and up a long hill, which becomes Gates Pass Road. This road was built in the 1880s by Thomas Gates, a local pioneer, rancher and miner who wanted a shortcut between his land and the Tucson valley. Be aware that once you’re on Gates Pass Road, it becomes narrow and winding. There are several deep drop-offs, which is why the pass is not open to commercial traffic or vehicles more than 40 feet in length. There are several pullouts, but the main Gates Pass parking area will allow you to hike the nearby hills or hang out by the ramada for your guaranteed dramatic viewing spot. Thousands have captured their own version of this dazzling end-of-day event. Now it’s your turn.
Getting There: Follow I-10 to Speedway, heading west. Speedway turns into Gates Pass Road after passing North Camino de Oeste.
Side Attraction: If you continue along Gates Pass Road south of the Tucson Mountains, you’ll meet up with Kinney Road, the route to Old Tucson for evening fun. If dinner is your goal, we recommend you head back toward the Tucson Valley and Speedway, turning left onto Silverbell Road. Hidden behind a McDonald’s® just off the intersection with Greasewood (named after the southwest native shrub), you’ll find a gem of an eatery called Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe (www.mosaiccafes.com). Opened in 1984 by the Matais family, this restaurant offers delicious Mexican fare. From the handcrafted mosaic tables, you’ll enjoy beautiful views as well as jugs of fresh homemade lemonade and baskets of tortillas. Of course, you’ll want to try the Huevos Rancheros, which were featured in a throwdown with Food Network’s Bobby Flay. Located at 2455 N. Silverbell Rd.; call 520.624.4512.
4. Monument to Paradise:
Want to get an eyeful of the city? Follow the national Sky Island Scenic Byway up the Santa Catalina Mountains, through desert brush that changes to abundant forest. That’s where you’ll find Windy Point Vista, a pullout midway along this winding parkway through the Coronado National Forest (www.fs.usda.gov/coronado). The combination of city sights below you and distant mountain ranges are compounded as you watch the sunset from a pullout full of cathedral-like sculptured rock pinnacles worn by wind and time.
Views are everywhere in this choice spot tucked just above the city.
An ideal trip is to leave Tucson in late afternoon, taking a leisurely drive up the mountain along this 27-mile byway.
You’ll need to purchase a permit ($5) to make stops along this paved road to see the diverse plants and wildlife, spectacular views of forests and canyons, and fun recreational opportunities. The fee is worth it. You’re given a map highlighting the mile markers and their attractions. Each stop will take you to trail-heads or stopping points with picnic tables. Check out the Visitor’s Center and Ranger Station for a great exhibit, movie and shopping before the sunset. Just remember that Windy Point is a popular pullout (located about 14 miles up the highway at an elevation of over 6,000 feet), so you should get there early to claim your viewing spot.
Settle in at Windy Point as the city lights come on below, then watch the sun paint broad brushstrokes of color across the sky as it sets.
Getting There: From Tanque Verde Road, take the Catalina Highway about four miles to the base of the mountain range. Then drive up the paved national forest byway, which ascends over 9,000 feet up the rugged Santa Catalina Mountains to Mt. Lemmon. The Windy Point pullout is situated near the halfway point.
Side Attraction: Way up top on the mountain is a small Mt. Lemmon ski post and the tiny town of Summerhaven, which offers amenities as well as handmade fudge and wind chimes. Get dinner here at a great restaurant called Sawmill Run (www.sawmillrun.com). Offering tasty American fare, this eatery is a reincarnation of a beloved town landmark that burned down in 1977. Call for reservations and to check the daily specials on homemade pies. Located at 12976 N. Sabino Canyon Parkway; call 520.576.9147.
5. Field of Dreams: Arizona State Highway 83
It’s a slice of classic Western Americana, an area of rolling hills and waves of grasslands. Welcome to ranching country. From scenic State Highway 83, you’ll see roaming horses and livestock herds, and the lofty Santa Rita mountains slanting upward to graceful peaks. Although these mountains partially block a classic view-to-the-horizon sunset, the photo opportunities are amazing in this magnificent setting. You’ll want to see this spectacular view at last light, as the Santa Rita peaks get tipped in purple and scarlet by the setting sun.
Arizona State Route 83 traverses through mountain passes and an area still dotted with ranches and ghost towns. If you make a day of it, you can visit the Empire Ranch (www.empireranchfoundation.org), a protected national conservation area that contains a working cattle ranch, historic buildings and more than 45,000 acres now managed by the Bureau of Land Management in partnership with the Empire Ranch Foundation.
Sunset watchers will find a pullout on Highway 83 traveling south, about midway between the towns of Vail and Sonoita. On a lucky day, you’ll spot a band of pronghorn antelopes grazing in the distance. Red-tail hawks soar overhead as the sun sprays its brilliance into the oncoming night sky. The vista is priceless, and photogenic.
Getting There: Take exit 281 off of I-10 to find scenic State Route 83, also known as South Sonoita Mountain View Highway. Head south to find your spot anywhere along this road, or look for that pullout.
Side Attraction: You’re in cattle country, so after the sunset, continue south into Sonoita for some fine ranch-land food. Sonoita, a tiny town at the crossroads of State Routes 83 and 82, houses The Steak Out (www.azsteakout.com), one of the area’s great places for perfectly grilled steaks, chops and other western fare. Saddle up at the bar next to local ranchers still in their boots and stetsons, and enjoy a local brew along with the authentic memorabilia all around you. Located at 3200 S. Sonoita Highway; call 520.455.5205.