I-8 is by far the fastest way east from Gila Bend to Tucson and beyond, but if you have the time and inclination to follow the old road, it took the long way around: From Gila Bend, US-80 veers north across the usually dry Gila River along what’s now an unmarked county road, then east through the towns of Arlington, Palo Verde, and Buckeye, where a 25-odd-foot statue of “Hobo Joe” stands along East Monroe Avenue downtown.
US-80 runs through downtown Phoenix on Van Buren Street (which was also US-60 and US-70) before heading south to Tucson.
West Saguaro National Park
Northwest of Tucson, the more popular half of Saguaro National Park protects extensive stands of saguaro cactus as well as ancient petroglyphs, spring wildflowers, and generally gorgeous desert scenery. From I-10 at Cortaro (exit 246), a loop road runs southwest, then back east through rugged mountainous terrain, which, though popular, is a great place to get a feel for the Sonora Desert landscape. A visitor center (520/733-5158, daily, $15 per vehicle) has details of the many hikes here, like the popular Hugh Norris Trail, which winds along a mountain ridge to the 4,687-foot summit of Wasson Peak.
There’s more hiking, plus camping and the excellent Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (520/883-2702, daily, $21) in the adjacent Tucson Mountain Park.
From the north and west, the best old road introduction to Tucson is the so-called Miracle Mile, a few blocks of slightly seedy old neon-signed motels, right off the I-10 freeway at exit 255. From here, old US-80 follows a series of one-way surface streets into compact downtown Tucson, first following 5th Avenue, then 6th Avenue, the pre-interstate main highway.
East Saguaro National Park
About a dozen miles east of Tucson, on the slopes of the Tanque Verde and Rincon Mountains, the eastern half of Saguaro National Park covers nearly 58,000 acres of rolling desert landscape. Named in honor of the anthropomorphic saguaro cactus, which here reaches heights up to 60 feet and lives as long as 175 years, the park is best seen by following eight-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, along which numerous hiking trails give close-up looks at the multilimbed succulents. For more information and details of hiking opportunities, stop at the visitors center (520/733-5153).
Beyond the Rincon Mountains section of Saguaro National Park, 25 miles or so from downtown Tucson via the Old Spanish Trail, Colossal Cave (520/647-7275, daily, $5 per car, plus $16 and up per tour) is another great place to stop. A huge old limestone cavern that offers a cool (in every sense of the word!) escape from the sweltering summer heat, this is one of the state’s most enduring tourist attractions. (Avid cavers will appreciate comparing Colossal Cave, a “dry” cave, with the newly opened Kartchner Caverns, a “wet” cave where the humidity will have you dripping with perspiration.) Colossal Cave was used in Wild West times by train robbers who escaped here with $72,000 in gold and currency. Most of the limited “development” here (footpaths, a museum, and a gift shop) was done as a Civilian Conservation Corps project during the New Deal 1930s.
The surrounding ranch land has been opened as a nature reserve with hiking, horseback riding, and mountain-bike trails. The ranch buildings have been preserved as a museum of early Arizona life.