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  • Writer's pictureSuperior, Arizona

Tucson to Superior on a Tank of Gas

We've had our sights set on Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior for quite some time.

Being new to Tucson, Arizona in the last year, we finally settled in and wanted to start exploring our surroundings outside of Tucson. Long on our list of places to visit was Boyce Thompson Arboretum (BTA) and the Town of Superior, Arizona. We are big fans of the Sonoran desert and of cultivating desert plants in our home garden. We were excited to see what kind of inspiration this trip would bring.

We waited until the low desert temperatures cooled off for this outing so we would be able to comfortably stroll the gardens. After doing a little research, we decided on an early morning departure (8am). We packed a light breakfast and figured after hiking through the arboretum, we could take a quick jaunt over to downtown Superior for lunch and some more exploring.

From Tucson, Boyce Thompson is 94 miles or about 2 hours northeast. We decided to stay off Interstate 10 for a more chill and scenic vibe and instead take AZ Route 77 to 79 to 60 to our destination. We jumped in our car and filled the tank up on our way out of Tucson ready for what we expected to be a fairly exciting day trip.

We were happy with the route we chose as it was a relaxed drive and we were able to see lots of untouched desert. We discovered Florence was a great midpoint if you did need to stop for any reason. It was interesting to watch the desert landscape change as we approached Superior as it went from the floor of low desert up through the mountains of Tonto National Forest. On entering BTA, a dramatic scene presented itself as the craggy Picketpost Mountain jutted out from behind the park. The setting itself reinforces BTA as a world class arboretum.

Upon arrival (10am) we noticed but a spattering of vehicles in the parking lot. Attentive staff greeted us at their outdoor ticket kiosk and informed us that we were fortunate as there were few visitors so early. We would have the park mostly to ourselves for a brief time. On our way into BTA, we noticed a plant sale with a wide variety of cactus specimens available to purchase. There was also metal cactus art displayed outside of a well stocked gift shop. We grabbed a map and headed in!

The mission of Boyce Thompson Arboretum is to inspire appreciation and stewardship of desert plants, wildlife and ecosystems through education research and conservation.

We were in for quite the treat as the arboretum holds desert plants from around the world including Madagascar, Australia, India, Japan, China, South America, the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean among other places. All told there are 135 acres of gardens in the park, expertly designed into gardens showcasing the highlighted region's flora. There is no way we were going to be able to see it all in a morning, but it's a good reason for a return trip.

Visitors stroll by enchanting yucca specimens of the Wallace Collection.

We started out on well maintained pathways that meander throughout the park. The signage was excellent, guiding us to the different exhibits. Presently, the newest addition at BTA is the Wallace collection. We headed in that direction. The path was easy (and wheelchair accessible) but there were more strenuous mountain trails to hike, if so desired. We are avid fans of the yucca genus, so we made a beeline for the yucca forest which sounded so enchanting. And indeed it was! I could basically live there if they would let me! The residents of Superior are lucky to live so close to the park. During our trip, we noticed what must have been regular visitors: some who came for their daily dog walks, friends walking for exercise and groups just lounging in conversation.

At 13 acres and with more than 5,000 new plantings, the addition of the Wallace collection moves Boyce Thompson Arboretum into the top tier of botanical gardens around the world.

Dreamy desert gardens hug well maintained pathways in the expansive park.

We were excited to see lots of blooming plants (looking at you Mr. Aloe!) alongside fall/winter foliage. A few of our highlights included the Australian gardens with all the lovely eucalyptus trees, the Chihuahuan Desert (the Sonoran Desert's friendly neighbor) exhibit and the adorable rock greenhouse showcasing a blooming desert rose specimen. Perhaps the most impressive sight of the day was the Boojum Cove! While we decided to take a relaxed self guided walk, the BTA offers a range of guided tours as well. From a plant walk to bird walk to even a geology tour check them out here.

Visitors walking through the otherworldly Boojum Cove.

After about 2 hours meandering around and with a hefty desert plant wish list for our very own garden, we were ready to head into downtown Superior for lunch and more exploring! We drove up through Main Street which is majestically hugged by rugged mountains. The mountains bestow a peaceful presence upon visitors. In fact, Superior doesn't look so much as it was built into the mountains as it was born from the mountains. Driving into downtown for the first time, one senses a return to a simpler time; a homecoming of sorts. Superior is small, but offers visitors plenty of shopping and dining in a quaint setting. We walked a few blocks, photographing some of the more historic looking buildings before settling on a place to eat. Miners on Main, recently renovated, had a classic diner atmosphere with an open kitchen, wrap around counter and vintage charm. A Miamisburg burger and a fabulously prepared reuben seemed to be keeping with the vibe of the place. A great choice for anyone!

Downtown Superior has that nostalgic mountain town charm.

Since it was only early afternoon, we decided to explore the shops and businesses of Superior. The small businesses here are unique and emanate a lot of pride. While holding on to its nostalgic charm, downtown Superior seems to have been reborn with new vibrant businesses. We found shopkeepers and their employees friendly, welcoming and engaging. The town had a mix of locals and travelers wandering the streets, a great many gathered at the new Silver King Smokehouse. With a smell this good, this seems our likely lunch destination on the next visit! Sun splashed and warm during our short visit, Superior offers clothing boutiques, art galleries, well stocked antique shops, a cute coffee joint, and opportunities for local wine enthusiasts to list a few. After walking and exploring this memorable little town for a few hours, we decided to start our trip back to Tucson; but not before doubling back to Felicia's Ice Cream Shop. With advanced notice from happy customers parked on the benches outside, we went inside to grab two cones!

Magma Avenue off Main Street offers more boutique shops.

The previous research when mapping our route showed the possibility of a loop instead of backtracking on 60/79/77. So on leaving Superior, we headed south on 177, farther up into the mountains on what can only be described as breathtaking. This route is spectacular in beauty, as you drive through high desert landscapes until reaching a mountain pass with the most amazing vistas. Be sure your vehicle's brakes are in working order! The scenic drive passed by a giant open-pit copper mine in Ray, the very small town of Kearny, some grazing cows and the Gila River as we talked about our day and our bucket list of what we want to do in Superior on our next visit. As we entered back into the city limits of Tucson, we were greeted with the busy rush of traffic, heads full of special memories and inspiration from our fruitful journey and lo and behold, a quarter tank of gas!



Matt & Bridget

Daytrippers, plant enthusiasts, writers



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