5 Best Photo Opportunities in Tucson

Photo Opportunities Tucson

Lee Van Grack

If you've only driven through Tucson on Interstate 10 on your way to or from somewhere else, you may not have realized that there is some great travel photography in the Tucson area. If you get off the beaten path a bit, you'll find there are more than enough options to capture any shutterbug's imagination. Here's a list of photo opportunities Tucson has to offer.

Best Romantic Photo Op

Nothing says romance like rocks and dust and scraggly, thorny plants. So maybe the desert that dominates Tucson isn't exactly the best backdrop for your romantic photographs. But luckily, Tucson has a real life desert oasis complete with water, grass and majestic palm trees. Agua Caliente Regional Park is located on the northeast side of Tucson. Agua Caliente means "hot water" in Spanish, and the park occupies a patch of land with a long history having served as a ranch, a farm, and even a former hot springs resort (hence the name). The resort is long gone, but the water keeps on flowing and feeds the centerpiece of this park, which is a large lake that exists year-round, surrounded by lush palm trees and verdant grassy areas. The park is leafy, green, and photogenic any time of year, but sunset provides the perfect photography landscape with magic golden light that photographers value. Prime spots for couples are available right along the edge of the lake with palm trees all around. For larger groups, there are expansive grassy areas that will accommodate even the largest wedding parties. And always in the deep background are the surrounding rocky and craggy mountains that provide a sharp contrast to the lush life of this true desert oasis.

Agua Caliente Park, 12325 E Roger Rd, Tucson, AZ 85749; 520-877-6000; 7AM-sunset

Best Quirky Photo Op

This next spot is well-known around the world thanks to satellite imagery, but you can also get some pretty good shots of it from the ground. It's the sprawling military airplane graveyard located at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, or as the Tucson locals call it, the "boneyard." Officially known as the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARG), it is currently home to about 4,000 airplanes lined up nose to nose and wingtip to wingtip in various stages of dismemberment or indefinite storage. Since it is located on a military installation, most of your photo ops will be from one side of a large chain-link fence topped with razor wire. There are some great spots along Irvington Road east of Kolb Road, as well as Escalante Road west of Kolb, where you can get out of your car and go right up to the fence and capture the planes on film. However, if you'd like the opportunity to get a little more up close and personal with the planes, you can take a bus tour of the AMARG that originates at the Pima Air and Space Museum. You won't be able to get off of the bus during the tour, but you can click away from the safe, climate-controlled comfort of your tour bus. While not quite quirky, when you return to the museum, you can also get as close as you want to about 300 museum-quality airplanes at one of the largest air and space museums in the world.

Pima Air and Space Museum, 6000 E Valencia Rd, Tucson, AZ 85756; 520-574-0262; 9AM-5PM daily; Adults (13+) $7, Children (12 & under) $4

Best Fun Family Spot

Tourists often envision Tucson as the epitome of the old west: dusty roads, seedy saloons, gunfights in the streets at high noon – you know, just like in the movies. First-time visitors expecting to see the wild west are sometimes disappointed that most of modern-day Tucson looks basically like any other major city in America – widely paved boulevards lined with fast food restaurants and strip malls. So, if you want to get some of the best photo ops in Tucson that capture the spirit of the old west, where else can you turn but to a western movie studio! Old Tucson Studios on the west side of the Tucson Mountains started as a working film set in 1939 and over the years has served as the backdrop for hundreds of films, television shows and commercials. While still a working studio, it is also open to the public as an entertainment destination, featuring Wild West shows, western-themed rides and games, and much more. You and your family can get dressed up in your own western gear or just request a photo with one of the costumed characters roaming the grounds. Even the orneriest outlaw will usually oblige and grin with his remaining teeth for one of the best family photo opportunities Tucson affords. You can tell your friends back home that you went to a real live western town, but they may think some of the buildings in the background of your photos look strangely familiar.

Old Tucson Studios, 201 S Kinney Rd, Tucson, AZ 85735; 520-883-0100; Adults $16.95, Children (4-11) $10.95, Under 3 free

Best Scenic Spot

If you're just about anywhere in Tucson and look around, you're bound to see one of the many scenic mountain ranges that surround the city. The various ranges all have their majestic qualities, but for my money there's nothing more striking than Pusch Ridge. Located at the southwestern corner of the Santa Catalina mountain range, this dramatic ridge features sheer rock cliffs that seem to launch themselves straight into the sky from the desert floor. Just head north on Oracle Road from its intersection with Ina Road, and within a few miles you'll get a great view of Pusch Ridge just off to your east – don't worry, you can't miss it. You can actually see this mountain feature from just about anywhere in Oro Valley, the incorporated town just to the north of Tucson. From Oracle Road, if you head north on 1st Avenue up to its intersection with Tangerine, look back towards the mountains and you'll find you've got a great perspective of the spectacular rocky cliffs. While many people sing the praises of the picturesque sunsets here in Tucson, I've always preferred to turn around and watch how the sunset light plays across the mountains and transforms them into unusual colors. For the most memorable shots, set up your tripod right around sunset and click away until all the light is gone – you're sure to get some winners.

Best Classic / Iconic Photo Op

Most cities have a man-made building or structure that really stands out – the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Statue of Liberty in New York, or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. While Tucson lacks any such man-made iconic structure, it does have a natural symbol that is immediately associated with the desert southwest: the saguaro cactus. While watching old Western movies might lead you to believe otherwise, the saguaro (the tall, thin cactus that has arms sticking out at its sides) only occurs naturally in the Sonoran Desert, which covers a good chunk of southern Arizona – and that's it. You won't even find them at the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. You can find saguaros just about anywhere around town, but if you want to photograph them in their natural habitat, you should definitely go to the national park named after this stately succulent, Saguaro National Park East. Whether you drive, bike or hike into the park, you'll immediately be surrounded by thousands of these large cacti. Cactus Forest Drive is a loop road through the park that gives you an opportunity to see a wide variety of these regal giants of the plant kingdom. You may even be lucky enough to catch a still-standing saguaro skeleton. If you stay in the park long enough, you'll realize that each cactus, like a snowflake, is unique, and each one has its own character and personality. They may even start to talk to you – then again, that could just be the heat, and it might mean you need to find some shade and drink some water. Other options for photographing the saguaros include Saguaro Park West and along the first few miles of Catalina Highway.

Saguaro National Park East, 3693 S Old Spanish Trl, Tucson, AZ 85730; 520-733-5153; Open daily 7AM-sunset

So when you come to visit Tucson, bring your sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, cool clothes, and plenty of water, but also be sure to bring your camera so you can capture all that the Old Pueblo has to offer.

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