It's one heck of a show this time of year in the Sonoran Desert, with a grandstand seat to other-worldly desert grasslands and cragged mountains that frame its farthest edges. It's also a good time to head out along Arizona State Route 86, where, just southwest of Tucson, you'll find an entertaining day-long ramble or a weekend adventure that traverses 150 miles of the region's rugged wilderness.
Unique Views and Landscapes
About 40 miles into your SR 86 adventure is Junction 386, a turnoff for the internationally renowned Kitt Peak National Observatory. Not many go past this popular, top-of-the-world sky-watching showcase, but this time, keep going. About 20 miles beyond the Kitt Peak turnoff is Sells, capital of the Tohono O'odham Nation, the third-largest reservation in the United States, on 2.8-million desert acres that straddle the United States–Mexico border.
Pick up on Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Route 19 in Sells to continue southward on a twisty, 8-mile drive to the town of Topawa, where you'll turn left onto Baboquiuari Mountain Road to reach the Tohono O'odham Nation's Cultural Center and Museum.
This remote, yet well-planned, museum offers the tribal perspective on the O'odham history, foods, and language. The museum, also known as Himdag Ki, or "way of life house," is built with impressive sustainability features and incorporates exhibition spaces, as well as artist studios, education areas, archives, a veterans' hall, and rooms for tribal members to meet in privacy. Tours are available, and courtyards enable visitors to enjoy solitude as well as majestic views of Baboquivari Peak, the most sacred mountain to the O'odham, central to their culture.
As you return to Sells, turn off BIA Route 19 to the tiny St. Catherine Mission Church, the main Franciscan residence for the San Solano Missions. This sturdy stone church, completed in 1925 by O'odham villagers, is now in some disrepair, but a respectful peek at the church interior uncovers interesting statuary, native paintings, and symbology.
Wilderness watchers may want to journey farther west approximately 60 more miles on SR 86 to enjoy untouched spectacles of nature and small O'odham towns along the way. When the road forks abruptly at the town of Why, a right turn takes you to Ajo—the headquarters for the next stage of this weekend adventure.