Writer/Photographer Alyssa Mattei explored Benson, AZ and compiled a list of things to do and see during your time there.
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We weren’t even supposed to be there. At least it wasn’t exactly on our list of places to go. Because of a mix-up at our previously booked campground in Tucson, we were forced to seek other accommodations immediately, after having already driven most of the day. Luckily, we are a member of the Escapees RV organisation and there was a co-op campground just over an hour drive, in Benson.
Benson, Arizona is a small, somewhat economically-downtrodden, town outside of the bustling, widespread city of Tucson. It has one main strip abutting the highway, with its perimeters marked by a large Walmart and open road. If you were just driving by you may only notice the “Open” signs hanging in the windows of boarded up buildings; it’s not exactly what one would call a destination town, unlike its neighbouring historic and touristy, Tombstone, or the Capitol city to the north. But Benson holds a quiet charm that will enchant any passerby who stays more than a few hours... it certainly cast a spell upon us, as we ended up staying in this town longer than any other on our trip thus far.
We dry camped (camping without hook-ups; i.e. Electricity, water, sewer) for a few days before a camp site opened up. Originally, we thought we might leave before we even got a place since at night it was getting down to the twenties and we had no heat. Once we did we just booked a week. In the end, we extended our stay for almost a month. Although the community and amenities (one of the best wii connections, a clubhouse with a book and a movie library, and a gym) were the main attraction, and we spent plenty of time socialising and attending movie nights, karaoke, and ice cream socials, there is also a fair amount to do within the area.
ARIZONA-SONORA DESERT MUSEUM Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, will come up on the top of any of your searches for attractions near Tucson, and for good reason. Combining zoo, museum, and natural landscape, the Desert Museum expertly weaves exhibits with education to learn about the local terrain. The zoo highlights (literally in the case of the fluorescent bark scorpions) a selection of native animals, while also providing natural habitat for wildlife, such as lizards basking on the artificial rocks of enclosures. The hummingbird aviary is a popular attraction to see the creatures up close, while the beautifully-maintained cactus garden attracts wild hummingbirds, and other pollinators that are drawn to the colorful blooms. Where the gardens present a variety of different species, the desert loop immerses you directly into the native outdoors (the museum is located directly across from the West section of Saguaro National Park) providing vistas of the mountains and towering Saguaro cactuses. Another impressive spectacle includes a walk-through cave exhibit, and while everything is artificial, the dark lighting, tight passages, and low ceilings complete with stalactites make for an authentic-feeling spelunking experience. To get a taste of the diversity of the Southern Arizona desert all in one area, this is the place for your introduction to the area.
SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
Saguaro National Park is the 17th (I think- it’s hard to keep track at this point) National Park we have explored on this journey. Saguaro (pronounced here: saw-waar-row) protects the large cactus of the same name, which can grow over 50 ft tall and can weigh several tons. While it wasn’t quite the season for wildlife spotting, we did get to see a tiny “horny toad” (the horned lizards are nicknamed toads because of their round lat bodies). Top travel tip: Bring a fine-tooth comb when hiking in the desert, in case you get too close to the “jumping” cholla cactus; it’s a way to remove the spikes without getting more stuck in your fingers.
FOREVER HOME DONKEY RESCUE
If it were ever a dream of yours to stand in an open desert surrounded by a herd of friendly donkeys looking for a scratch (or more likely searching pockets for a treat) this is the place to go. The rescue started with BlackJack, and grew to capacity at about 20-25 donkeys from all walks of life. The sanctuary doesn’t have regular business hours but call ahead before you drive down and everyone will be happy to introduce you to the resident donkeys, and share their stories.
An artistically revamped mining town captures attention with its unique decorations and colourful architecture. The revamped old buildings of the main street are now sprinkled with local shops and restaurants. Although the main draw is the mine tour (book ahead, as tours can sell out early) you could easily spend an afternoon here just wandering around the history-filled streets. Take a look around the haunted Copper Queen Hotel, test your endurance up some of the lengthy lights of stairs, and don’t be afraid to make a turn down a side street- you never know what you might find.
A historically-renowned town, mostly known for the O.K. corral shootout, is now a tourist-driven revamp of the wild west culture. You can still make a day out of the visit without spending the money for shows/tours by just walking around: the exterior boasts a living time capsule of the past and the interior supplies a plethora of selection for buying cheap postcards. If you’re looking to fit in with the locals, many of the stores sell costumes, and cowboy attire, so you can try on a hat before hitting up a local saloon. Check out the Bird Cage Theatre, learn the history of the bullet-dented walls and be sure to look both ways before you cross the street- it may be closed to car traffic, but you never know when a horse-drawn coach might come clopping through.
CHIRICAHUA NATIONAL MONUMENT
If you do nothing else in the Cochise Valley, do this. By far the highlight of natural attractions, Chiricahua (cheer-ah-cow-wah) may even make the cut for one of the best hikes of the trip. If the fantastical terms written on introductory signs, like “sky island” and “wonderland of rocks”, don’t prepare you, the scenic rocks and short intro hike will immerse you into the otherworldly as quickly as a white hare down a rabbit hole. Photographs fail to capture the immensity of the landscape with its columnar pinnacles towering like monolithic skyscrapers of the ancient world, and rocks that jut out of the wilderness like a medieval geological fortress. The lens lacks the ability to inscribe the scramble through the shadowed grotto rocks, or the feeling of being completely engulfed into a new dimension as you smash your knee into a boulder or scramble up a pinnacle on a rescue mission to grab the lunch bag from a panicking, height-fearing, dad. Even so each unique form begs to be photographed in a new light but the impossibility of capturing the landscape fails in the sense of scale. While everyone has seen the same pictures of the National Parks hundreds of times this understudy of a national monument, remains a hidden gem of the Grand Canyon state.
For a small town, with only few open local joints, the options for food are surprisingly good.
CAFE 86 (★★★½☆)
If you’re looking for a family-friendly restaurant with casual digs, this is the place for you. From Mexican classics to giant burgers, the varied menu is sure to have something for everyone. The chips and salsa were a welcome intro filler and the cheese enchiladas had a memorably flavourful sauce. Although we got the impression it wasn’t the most authentic as all the dishes seemed a bit heavy handed on the shredded cheese (is it really necessary on rice?) the food was still well prepared and seasoned. Overall, I’d recommend this place as a cheap eats meal for a quick lunch.
HORSESHOE CAFE (★★★★☆)
This place is exactly what you picture when you think of a local diner joint, from the pie counter at the entrance to the teal booths and curtains. Although there is a variety to the menu it lacked options for vegetarians. I had been looking at the catfish dinner for weeks (as the large neon signs on the main drag had been inviting us to eat there since our first night in town) and although reluctant when the waitress said it wasn’t her favourite dish, I was happy to stick with my order. It was exactly what I had been hoping for. Including a side of mashed potatoes and peas (as well as a salad), the two pieces of fried fish were lightly seasoned in a crunchy batter and cooked to be delightfully moist and flaky. With all the extra sides, you could skip the pies; the slices are huge, and didn’t stand out on flavor. Bonus points for the horse-themed decor, including murals and even a large neon horseshoe on the ceiling.
MI CASA (★★★★½)
It’s both hard, and easy, to miss this if you’re looking for the place to eat in Benson. Rated in the high 4s on every review sight and featured in local papers, this restaurant is known for being good, despite the fact the building is a tiny house tucked behind a rock store. The decor inside is modest, but they don’t skip on presentation of their dishes, complete with sauce and herb garnishes. There’s lots to choose from; even two choices for chimichangas- whatever you pick you can’t go wrong.
As I begin to write this article I am laying in bed, but pause and rise for a moment as I listen to a pair of owls hooting outside. I open the window to hear better. The weather is temperate, and the sky is dark enough that the stars shine clearly over the tiny houses and motor homes of the park. Benson isn’t a town you’ll find on many maps, but if you just drive by you’ll never know what you might discover if you stop and stay for a while.