Desert not-so-solitaire

Sublime scenery and a dash of culture and history spice up a weekend in bustling, sprawling Tucson. Here's what to see and where to stay

Seasoned Tucsonans will tell you that exploring the city is like peeling back the layers of an onion: it reveals the cultural curvature of a city that has been shaped by its Native American and Hispanic origins and its dramatic natural setting.

Sometimes the layering is amusing but stagy, as in the rattlesnake-sculpture pedestrian bridge across Broadway Blvd., where you amble between fangs and through the belly of the beast. Sometimes it is surprising, such as an encounter with urban wildlife ― coyotes trot through the city's network of arroyos, and javelinas nibble gardens in the Tucson Mountain foothills. And occasionally it's simply sublime, like walking through a mountain canyon suddenly alive with the unlikely music of a seasonal stream.

A three-day Tucson weekend neatly divides into explorations of the mountains, desert, and city ― though none of these is fully distinct from the other. That's the secret of the place: the way the layers all fit together. ― Sam Negri

Friday
Fuel up with a filling Gallic breakfast at Ghini's French Caffé (1803 E. Prince Rd.; 520/326-9095). Coralie Satta-Williams scrambles up her eggs with garlic and tomatoes and serves them with sourdough.

PACK A PICNIC: On your way out of town, grab a fresh sandwich to go at Sausage Deli (2334 N. First Ave.; 520/623-8182).

CLIMB HIGH: Tucson's mountains could occupy a lifetime's exploration, but the ambitious can squeeze several peaks and canyons into a day. Start at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area ($5; 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Rd.; 520/749-8700), where a shuttle ($6; 520/749-2327) takes you 3 3/4 miles into the canyon along a sycamore-shaded creek. The best desert day-hike in the region is on Blacketts Ridge Trail (moderate to strenuous; 6 miles round trip), which terminates on a rocky saddle looking 1,500 feet straight down into Sabino Canyon on one flank and Bear Canyon on the other. Back at the trailhead, a separate, easy trek into Bear Canyon bags Seven Falls, but the fickle waterfalls show only if there's been recent snow or rain in the Santa Catalinas.

DRIVE HIGHER: The Catalina Highway through Coronado National Forest (520/749-8700) leads 25 miles through six distinct biological zones to the snowy conifers and skiing at Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley ($32 for all-day lift tickets; 520/576-1321) near the 9,157-foot cap of the Santa Catalina range.

SUNSET COCKTAILS: End the day in the Santa Catalina foothills with civilized drinks and haute cuisine at swank Loews Ventana Canyon Resort (7000 N. Resort Dr.; 520/299-2020).

Saturday
Breakfast with downtown artists at The Grill (100 E. Congress St.; 520/623-7621), a 24-hour diner painted deep purple.

SONORAN TOTEMS: Drive out West Speedway Boulevard and Gates Pass Road at dawn to the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park (2700 N. Kinney Rd.; 520/733-5158), where the 6-mile Bajada Loop Drive winds through hills studded with the giant cactus. A short trek up Signal Hill reveals petroglyphs. For a moderately steep hike with great views, take the 3 1/2-mile Sendero Esperanza Trail.

DESERT REVEALED: Have lunch (there are several restaurants to choose from) at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum ($9.95; 2021 N. Kinney; 520/883-2702) and spend the afternoon at this world-class zoo, arboretum, and museum dedicated to the Sonoran Desert.

VIEW POINT: Take a leisurely drive back toward town, timing your crest at Gates Pass (at the west end of W. Speedway Blvd.) for the sunset.

ITALIAN DINING: Reserve a patio table and order the seafood-and-spinach lasagnette at Vivace Restaurant (4310 N. Campbell Ave.; 520/795-7221), a convivial Italian bistro.

AFTER DARK: Head downtown to Club Congress (311 E. Congress; 520/622-8848) in the historic Hotel Congress (John Dillinger slept here) for live music by alternative-rock bands.

Sunday
Begin with huevos rancheros at Teresa's Mosaic Cafe (2455 N. Silverbell Rd.; 520/624-4512), which serves possibly the best Mexican breakfast in a city with plenty of competition.

RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE: Visit the restored mission church of San Xavier del Bac (1950 W. San Xavier Rd.; 520/294-2624) and attend Mass (no picture-taking allowed) at 8, 11, or 12:30 alongside native Tohono O'odham parishioners ― a spiritual and cultural experience to be savored. For lunch try the spicy red or green chili and beef that Tohono O'odham women grill over mesquite fires around the church.

CLASSIC TUCSON: Otherwise, head back downtown to El Presidio district for lunch at El Charro (311 N. Court Ave.; 520/622-1922), whose carne seca ― sun-dried beef brought to life with green chilies ― is alone worth a pilgrimage to Tucson. Walk south past the convention center to see the adobe row houses of the Barrio Historico and stop at El Tiradito (221 S. Main St.), a wishing shrine dedicated to an adulterous sinner.

CULTURAL EXHIBITS: Spend the rest of the afternoon around the University of Arizona (main gate: University Blvd. and Park Ave.), where four specialized museums lie within a 10-minute walk of each other: the University of Arizona Museum of Art (near Speedway and Park; 520/621-7567), the Center for Creative Photography (on Park at Speedway, opposite the art museum; 520/621-7968), the Arizona Historical Society Museum (949 E. Second St.; 520/628-5774), and, for anthropology, the Arizona State Museum (1013 E. University; 520/621-6302). All are open Sunday afternoons.

MORE MEX: South Tucson's most famous Mexican restaurant (Bill Clinton ate here) is Mi Nidito (1813 S. Fourth Ave.; 520/622-5081).

LODGING

Tucson has a full range of accommodations; contact the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau ( www.visittucson.org or 800/638-8350).

Arizona Inn. Pretty in pink as always, this Southwest-style hotel near the university has been a Tucson landmark since 1930. Its 14 acres of grounds include tennis courts and a pool. 86 rooms from $239. 2200 E. Elm St.; www.arizonainn.com, (800) 933-1093, or (520) 325-1541.

Elysian Grove Market Bed & Breakfast. Rustic Mexican antiques and art fill an old grocery in the Barrio Historico. The 1920s adobe has a lush garden of desert trees and fountains. 5 rooms from $85. 400 W. Simpson St.; (520) 628-1522.

Ghost Ranch Lodge. This 1941 motor court has 83 rooms and cottages with landscaped yards, some with kitchenettes; dogs welcome. From $104. 801 W. Miracle Mile; (800) 456-7565 or (520) 791-7565.