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Explore Marana, Arizona

A city steeped in gastronomic and Hollywood history By Marguerite Cleveland

explore Marana, Arizona

You’ve probably never heard of the town of Marana, and that is its charm. Located about a 30-minute drive northwest from Tucson, Arizona, it has a rich and diverse history. Stunningly beautiful, this desert getaway is a hidden gem that you will love to discover. The town borders the northeast corner of Saguaro National Park West. Giant Saguaro cactus dominate the scenery in the park and throughout Marana. This iconic symbol of the desert is quite a sight to see and brings back memories of Western movies—many of which were filmed in the area.

Tucson was designated the first U.S. city to be a UNESCO City of Gastronomy for its local food markets and restaurants that utilize ancient and heritage foods. Marana and the Santa Cruz Valley, with its rich agricultural history, is the breadbasket that feeds the food culture of Tucson. You’ll find an active foodie scene where restaurants source ingredients from local farmers, growers and purveyors.

Where to Stay The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain is a very special place and Southern Arizona’s only Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond hotel. This oasis in the desert is tucked away in the Tortolita Mountains with architecture that blends into a lush Saguaro forest that surrounds the resort. Once the tribal lands of the Hohokam people, the natural beauty of the land is highlighted throughout the hotel with many open-air spaces. The gorgeous resort pool has beautiful mountain views. World-class hiking trails are easily accessed right out the door, along with an onsite citrus orchard.

Steeped in history, the White Stallion Ranch is a traditional dude ranch, but this has all the amenities of a luxury resort. Surrounded by unspoiled desert, views of craggy mountain peaks and the iconic Saguaro cactus, it is easy to see what brought Hollywood filmmakers to the ranch. The full American Plan rates include all your meals as well as a variety of adventure activities. Feel like you’re in a Western movie by horseback riding through the desert or taking a hike. Try rock climbing, fat tire bikes or shooting. The resort has a variety of amenities to include a movie theater, game room, pool, sauna, a Redwood hot tub and so much more. There is even entertainment in the evening.

Where to Eat In an area known for its gastronomy, you know there will be some great places to eat. The Marana food scene has everything from casual patios to fine dining. Local beef, White Sonoran wheat (a heritage grain) and many other locally sourced ingredients are a key component to the local cuisine.

Li’l Abner’s Steakhouse got its start when Larry Lewis and wife Duchess opened a bar here in 1947 and named it after their dog, Abner. It was popular with the Hollywood crowd filming movies in the area. Owned since 1981 by David S. Hoffman, he has kept the ambience of the place he loved to eat at. Offering indoor and outdoor seating, the meats are grilled over mesquite and served with all-you-can-eat family style sides of ranch beans and garlic toast.

The CORE Kitchen & Wine Bar is an innovative culinary experience influenced by the Sonoran Desert and the rich agricultural heritage of the region. The menu is focused on sustainable cuisine with ingredients sourced from local growers. Located in the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain, it has its own citrus orchard with oranges, Minneola tangelos and red grapefruit trees. When in season, guests can enjoy fresh juices from fruit they pick themselves. Great food needs great wine, and the wine sommelier is sure to recommend a good wine from their extensive wine list and cellar—with more than 2,800 bottles of wine.

The Baja Café is a casual place in a strip mall, but it has a cult following among locals. This is the place to go for breakfast. The menu and its portion sizes are huge. Anything you could possibly want for breakfast can be ordered here. Make sure to try their famous Snickerdoodle Pancake, which takes the classic cookie and turns it into a breakfast treat.

What to Do There are so many things to see and do in the area. The winter is a great time to get outdoors without the extreme temperatures of the summer.

The giant Saguaro cactus is the iconic symbol of the American West, and the best place to see them is in their natural habitat at Saguaro National Park, which is in two locations—east and west of Tucson. The west park is closest to Marana. Start your visit at the Red Hills Visitor Center, an architectural gem. The sights from the patio offer spectacular views of the Saguaro Forest, the Red Hills and the Tucson Mountains. Friendly park rangers can help you plan your day. Don’t miss the Signal Hill Petroglyph Area. The small hill is just 40 feet in elevation, but the desert views are breathtaking. There are over 200 prehistoric Native American petroglyphs, which were created from 550 to 1,550 years ago. The rock art can be easily viewed from the trail that ascends the hill.

Just a mile past the national park is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Described as a fusion experience, your visit includes a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, a natural history museum and an aquarium. The museum is 85 percent outdoors with lots of walking through the authentically landscaped grounds. Wear good shoes, bring water, sunscreen and a good hat. Most days it is sunny. The 21 acres are explored over 2 miles of walking paths through a variety of habitats. You will get to see 1,200 types of plants and 230 animal species. The Desert Loop Trail is more rugged, and during the ½-mile hike you will traverse downhill and then back up again. Keep your eyes peeled for coyotes and javelinas, which can be tricky to see in their natural enclosures. There are two gift shops to shop and a great way to support a nonprofit with your souvenir purchases.

If you saw the documentary “Spaceship Earth” on Netflix about the scientific experiment known as Biosphere 2, you will want to take a day trip out to Oracle to visit. Tours allow you to walk inside, what is basically, a giant terrarium attempting to replicate the Earth’s ecosystem. Self-guided tours utilize the Biosphere 2 Experience app. Through interviews, stories, and never-seen photos and videos, you will learn about the fascinating history of this experiment.

Marana is a great escape from the cold winter weather of the Inland Northwest while offering its sunny, mild days. You can stay as busy as you want exploring the wonders of the Sonoran Desert or just sipping a craft cocktail while you enjoy some pool time.

The Specifics

Where To Stay

White Stallion Ranch -

Where To Eat

Li’l Abner’s Steakhouse -

Baja Café -

What To Do

Saguaro National Park -

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum -

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