Flying Machines Plus Colorful Rocks and Murals in Tucson

We spent a couple of days visiting Tucson a few years ago (click here to read about it) and quickly realized we needed more time. A lot more time. So after a month in Tucson this year, I have much to share, and you can expect a series of articles. Let’s start here:

Pima Air & Space Museum

We are not airplane aficionados. In fact, I was sort of “meh” about the idea of visiting this popular Tucson attraction.

But we were quickly wowed by the experience – the glowing reviews for this major attraction are well-deserved.

I’ve rewritten this section multiple times and given up on trying to convey a clear picture of the museum’s collections without putting you to sleep. Here’s the bottom line:

  • It’s huge – over 250,000 square feet of indoor displays plus 80 acres of outdoor exhibits.
  • It features 400+ preserved and restored aircraft. You can find just about anything here – military, non-military, experimental, drones and space vehicles.
  • It includes interesting exhibits about aviation-related topics, such as uniforms, personalized flight jackets, airplane nose art, aircraft carriers, the restoration process and more.
  • There are also compelling human-interest exhibits – women in flight, African-American aviators and the Aviation Hall of Fame, just to name a few.
  • We couldn’t see it all in one day – go with the two-day ticket option.

I was interested in seeing three WWII-era planes that my dad had talked about.

A tiny sample of other military planes:

A couple of former presidential and VIP planes:

Tiny aircraft:

Planes on loan from “The Boneyard” at nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base:

The Boneyard consists of approximately 4,000 idle government aircraft that have undergone a rigorous preservation protocol in case they are called back into service.

Back at the museum, I loved seeing these Boneyard planes transformed into art.

Finally, there is a separate museum on the grounds (entry included with general admission) dedicated to the efforts of the Eighth Air Force’s 390th Bombardment Group during WWII. Based in England, they flew 301 combat missions against German military targets. We both took the time to tour these eye-opening and compelling exhibits, including sobering stories of crew members shot down and held as POWs by the Germans.

Downtown Tucson

Driving the main thoroughfares in Tucson, we were struck by the sorry state of the infrastructure – crumbling streets, endless strip malls looking tired and run down, and residential neighborhoods in need of serious TLC. Little in the way of neighborhood parks or new commercial development.

(In contrast, the University of Arizona campus appeared to be in good shape – lots of green space and newer construction – as well as some of the outlying areas of the metro area.)

Heading downtown, we weren’t sure what to expect – the vibrant heart of the city? Empty store fronts? We wanted to find out. Our first stop was the Visitor Center, which recently moved into the beautifully renovated Old Courthouse building.

We planned to snag a few brochures and make a quick exit, but instead found ourselves engaged in conversation with the friendly docents and immersed in the exhibits.

Like much of the southwest U.S., Arizona has a multi-cultural history dating back over 1,500 years with indigenous Native Americans. Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s, followed by Mexican and Anglo settlers in the 1800s. The road to statehood for Arizona was long and contentious but culminated with final approval in 1912 as the 48th state.

Southern Arizona in particular had an early reputation for lawlessness and criminal gangs (e.g. gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone). In 1864, writer and sometimes government official J. Ross Browne wrote that “Tucson is a quiet place of resort for traders, speculators, gamblers, horse thieves, murderers and vagrant politicians. If the world were searched over there could not be found so degraded a set of villains as form the principal society in Tucson . . . .” Ouch.

The Old Courthouse that houses the Visitor Center is also home to the courtroom where John Dillinger and his crew of bank-robbing outlaws were arraigned in 1934 before being extradited to Indiana to stand trial. We took a look.

We also learned that Clark Gable and Johnny Depp both had their day in court in this very place for lesser offenses – speeding tickets.

Gem and Mineral Museum

After ~130 years on campus, the University of Arizona’s gem and mineral collection recently relocated to a larger space in the Old Courthouse, so we checked it out. No particular expertise on the topic (I like my gemstones to be wearable, as in jewelry), but the docents at the Visitor Center made a convincing sales pitch.

This enjoyable attraction was a change of pace for us, and we learned a few things. Plus nice photo ops.

We’ll start in Arizona with a few of its more familiar minerals:

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Of the 900+ mineral species found in Arizona, many aren’t commonly known.

We learned that petrified wood is mostly quartz crystals, with the rainbow of colors caused by impurities such as iron, carbon and manganese. Two very different examples below:

And then there’s weddellite, which are crystals found in living saguaro cacti that turn into calcite 10-20 years after the plant dies.

Interesting fact – when humans transform weddellite into calcite, it’s called kidney stones.

The museum even had a display of moon rocks and meteorites, including a large specimen (as in several hundred pounds) expelled from the impact of the Canyon Diablo Meteorite near Winslow, Arizona around 50,000 years ago.

We saw amazing minerals from around the world.

There were several cases of phosphorescent minerals that glow in the dark.

And one final piece to share from the gemstone side of the museum – a dazzling, bejeweled tapestry:

This stunning work of art features 26,649 fine-cut gems sourced from around the world – diamond, pink sapphire, blue sapphire, yellow sapphire, ruby and emerald gemstones – all brilliant-cut ovals and size-matched. Combined with 18K gold, the tapestry weighs over 40 pounds.

Two thumbs up for this little gem of a museum (pun intended)!

Downtown Walking Tour

We’ve found that guided walking tours are a fun way to learn about a city – a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide shares little known facts and anecdotes that bring a place to life. Unfortunately, guided tours were already booked for Tucson, so we did the next best thing – a self-guided tour of downtown called the Turquoise Trail, where you literally follow a painted line on the sidewalk for 2.5 miles. Informational placards located at key points along the trail convey important historical information.

Here are a few of the places we visited on the tour:

And what about those colorful murals promised in the title of the article? A local news outlet has published a map with photos of 100+ murals across the Tucson metro area. I regret that we didn’t devote at least one day of our visit to exploring this unique collection of public art. Here are a few that we stumbled onto during our self-guided walking tour:

With the addition of a nice lunch and cocktails at the Hotel Congress, we had a most enjoyable experience in downtown Tucson. Hopefully we’ll go back at some point.

That wraps up the first article from our stay in Tucson. Another installment coming soon!

Categories: ArizonaTags: , , , ,


  1. The gemstone photos made my heart beat faster and faster with each photo. I’ve missed my calling. So good!!!


  2. Loved the Airplane museum! Looking at some of those chunky planes, I wonder how they ever got off the ground successfully! Also, for Marlene, there is a Gemstone show in February, or at least before Covid. My cousins, who live in Tucson, say it’s pretty spectacular. We didn’t make it back to Tucson after the shutdown.


    • Thanks for your comment, Mary! We were there during the gemstone show but didn’t really pay attention. Now I wish we would have checked it out. We will need to go back.


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