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TRAVEL COLUMN: Tumacacori, a national park without the crowds

  • 3 min to read
Kay and David Scott

Kay and David Scott in front of the mission church at Tumacacori National Historical Park.

The National Park Service manages 417 units including national parks, national monuments, national seashores, national historic sites and more.

visitor center

The visitor center houses a museum with excellent displays and offers a film on the history of the mission.

While major national parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia and the Grand Canyon tend to garner the most visitation and public attention, visits to smaller units can be especially enjoyable. These lesser-known units attract smaller crowds and visitors tend to receive more personal attention.

A mid-December drive through southern Arizona included a stop at one of the smaller units managed by the National Park Service.

On a beautiful Saturday morning, Tumacacori National Historical Park had fewer than a dozen visitors upon our arrival.

After talking with a volunteer at the reception desk, we joined NPS Ranger Richard Collins and six other visitors for a guided walk through the park.

The mission

The mission at Tumacacori National Historical Park took two decades to build and originally had walls surrounding the courtyards and connecting the buildings.

We learned facts about the mission’s history and its impact on the local culture. Afterward, we explored the museum and strolled through the old orchard.

There were no crowds, no parking problem, and we had much of the park to ourselves. Before departing, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch at one of the park's picnic tables.​

Tumacacori, located 45 miles south of Tucson, is one of numerous Spanish missions established in the Southwest by Catholic priests. One of the earliest of the earliest arrivals, Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino, entered the O’odham settlement near present-day Tumacacori in January 1691.

Here, he founded the first mission in present-day Arizona before moving upriver to establish another mission that would serve as his headquarters.

Spain’s king in 1751 replaced the Jesuits with Franciscans who moved the Tumacacori mission across the river to its current location. A variety of factors including disease and Apache raids resulted in several nearby missions being abandoned in 1767. Tumacacori lost its last resident priest in 1828 and all of its residents by 1848.

burial ground

The entire served as a burial ground. It is estimated that 600 people are buried there with some on top of each other.

The historical park’s centerpiece is the church where construction started around 1800 as a replacement for a smaller church built by the Franciscans.

The new church was utilized by residents but never fully completed.

Following Tumacacori’s abandonment of in the mid-1800s, weather and vandalism resulted in significant deterioration of what was once a beautiful and colorful building. Still, when entering the church during our guided walk, it was easy to imagine what a grand place this must have been.

Ranger Collins offered a description of activities that had taken place as he led us through various rooms.

Although the church was central to the mission, other areas and structures were important to the everyday life of residents. These include the storehouse for foodstuffs and the Convento where the priest lived. Visitors can also tour the orchard and view portions of the irrigation ditch that diverted water from the Santa Cruz River.

round mortuary chapel

The round mortuary chapel was built in the 18th century to contain diseases. A body was buried the day the person died.

The cemetery includes graves and a circular mortuary chapel where funeral masses were held.

The guided walk covered all these areas of the mission other than the orchard that we explored later.

A small booklet at the reception desk is available for visitors who wish to tour the mission on their own. However, we recommend trying to schedule a visit on a day and time when a guided tour is offered.

Check the park’s schedule for living history programs.

Rosa Iniguez

Rosa Iniguez is frequently at the mission during weekends making fresh tortillas for visitors.

During the weekend of our visit, Rosa Iniguez was in the visitor center courtyard rolling and grilling tortillas.

Iniguez added refried beans and salsa to the finished tortilla for one of the best treats of our trip.

Tumacacori proved an enjoyable and leisurely stop at one of the numerous small and uncrowded units managed by the National Park Service. We’re hoping to tell you about more of these gems in future columns.

David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at The Scotts live in Valdosta, Ga.

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