Just 35 miles north of downtown Tucson sits Oracle, the namesake road lined with yuccas on your way to the small town.
Oracle is where lavender blooms at a local farm in the heat of June. It’s where you can step into a rainforest, amid the heat and humidity, at the incredible Biosphere 2. It’s where you can enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich with guava jam alongside a glass of wine on the patio of the Oracle Patio Cafe. It’s a little cooler than Tucson in the summer — and sometimes gets snow in winter.
But Jodi Criser's favorite part about Oracle is the community.
“They band together through everything. Somebody needs help, they take care of each other,” says Criser, who has lived in Oracle for four years and runs social media for Visit Oracle, in addition to owning her own business, Imagination Plaza.
If you happen to be in the area to visit Biosphere 2, the lavender farm or to stargaze in Oracle State Park, here are some other spots to visit in Oracle and the nearby town of Catalina while you're there. Most were suggested by area residents — Criser, plus Life Under the Oaks Lavender Farm owner Carolyn Blair and ice cream shop Licks Catalina owner Jill Perez.
Where to eat
Licks Catalina — Owned by Perez, Licks is home to ice cream that can be infused with cereal. There are bubble waffle cones, Italian sodas and a whole menu of decadent signature desserts. Check out rotating flavors like maple walnut, strawberry shortcake, and honey fig bacon. Blair says the ice cream is amazing — and I agree. It's worth the trip to Catalina.
Oracle Patio Cafe & Market — The Oracle Patio Cafe is home to amazing food, Blair says — breakfast, sandwiches, soups, salads and pizza. She raves about the pies. “They also have a market where you can pick up sandwiches, wine, amazing cheeses,” she says. Criser says the deli is delicious and says their peach pie is dubbed the best in Arizona.
Nonna Maria’s Ristorante & Pizzeria — Blair says this Italian restaurant is delicious, owned by the “kindest people you will ever meet.” Criser likes their pizza — “We have really great Italian food here,” she says.
Claire’s Cafe & Art Gallery — “Make yourself at home,” a server said to a diner who walked in. Perez says this is a staple in Catalina and describes it as quirky, hippie and artsy. The space has artwork on the walls, and a case of jewelry you can purchase. The menu is filled with traditional diner food but what really makes this place special is the familial atmosphere. Everyone seems to know everyone.
Peppersauce Kitchen — Located at Arizona Zipline Adventures, the restaurant boasts the “best darn burgers around.” Criser says it's delicious.
Casa Rivera's Taco Express — This Mexican American restaurant is where former #ThisIsTucson food writer Andi Berlin stopped on her way through Oracle a couple years ago. “The name makes it sound like a fast-food taqueria, but Casa Rivera’s is actually a homey Mexican restaurant with a first-rate breakfast menu,” she wrote.
Ore House Hilltop Tavern — This reader-recommended spot is home to burgers, pizza, street tacos and smoked meats by the pound. There are more than a dozen beers on tap, plus yard games in the outdoor area.
Things to do
Biosphere 2 — Owned by the University of Arizona, Biosphere 2 is dubbed “the world’s largest controlled environment dedicated to understanding the impacts of climate change.” You'll take a self-directed tour, guided by a phone app that teaches you about the scientific research you're walking through. You'll see a room that a Biospherian lived in, the world's largest experimental ocean, a rainforest (yes, humidity and all), and more environmental biomes.
Arizona Zipline Adventures — If you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous to add to your itinerary, this is it. Criser says it's the longest zipline in the state and it's “so cool,” she says, also mentioning the scenic views. “They have the Peppersauce Kitchen with it and it's delicious food, so you can go on the zip and go eat.”
Life Under the Oaks Lavender Farm — Come June, you can walk amid blooming lavender and take in the earthy scents on open farm days. When lavender season rolls around each summer, Blair hosts a number of workshops — lavender wreaths, lavender wands — and events — a fairy festival, lavender dinners. Although the bloom season is over at the moment, the farm's next event is Sept. 24 — a barbecue and bluegrass dinner.
Oracle State Park — Bask in the outdoors at this park where you can tour the historic Kannally Ranch House, enjoy a picnic and explore 15 trails. It's also an International Dark Sky Park, which makes it a great spot for stargazing. I also imagine it's a picturesque place to watch the sunset. Bonus outdoorsy activity: Peppersauce Campground!
Sue & Jerry’s Trading Post — Drive east on American Avenue and on your right, you'll see a giant yard with metal art and quirky fixtures out front. That's Sue & Jerry’s Trading Post, where you can shop from an explosion of antiques, home goods, clothing, DVDs and more. Blair, whose boutique is at the trading post, says it’s “so fun to visit!”
Golden Goose Thrift Shop — Perez says this thrift shop is often busy and is one of her favorite spots in the area. According to the shop’s website, Golden Goose benefits both Saddlebrooke Community Outreach and Impact of Southern Arizona.
Imagination Plaza — Owned by Criser, this spot is a “fusion of art and metaphysics.” On one hand, they can engrave your grandmother's handwritten recipe onto a cutting board. Then there's the wellness center, with items like crystals and sage, and services like reiki.
Absolutely Art Gallery & Gifts — “Definitely go see Pam at Absolutely Art! It’s fantastic,” Perez says about the store’s owner. The space is home to artwork by Arizona makers, from paintings to ceramics to jewelry.
Oracle Farmers Market — Every Wednesday, a local farmers market takes over Sue & Jerry's Trading Post, complete with live music, food and shopping. Both Perez and Criser recommend it. “It is unlike anything I have ever witnessed,” Criser says.
Dark Sky Party — Come Sept. 21-25, Oracle will be throwing a Dark Sky Party. There will be presentations and workshops, plus four telescopes set up throughout Oracle on Sept. 23. Each of the four spots will also have live music and food. A party at Oracle State Park will follow the next day, Sept. 24.
GLOW! — Head to Triangle L Art Ranch for illuminated art experience “GLOW!” Wander through 10 acres of trails filled with glowing artwork, performances and art installations. Tickets are $65 per carload and the experience takes place Oct. 7-8.
Oracle Artist Studio Tours — In November, area artists will open up their studios. Criser says about 40 artists usually participate, allowing guests to drive through town and talk to makers about their creations and their inspiration behind each piece. “We have artists who have shown in museums and if you love art, it's a great thing to check out,” she says.