Acura ILX Drive: Gates Pass & Old Tucson Studios

Odometer (Legend):  521,637


Odometer (ILX):  34,590


Trip Distance:  241 Miles


The Phoenix-to-Tucson Interstate 10 corridor is already a familiar route for my Acura ILX 6-speed.  I’ve driven those 120 miles many times — it’s nice to escape the big city (Phoenix metro area is home to 4 million) for a smaller town feel.  Tucson has just over 500,000 residents and affords great attractions — and more importantly, great roads.

Many months ago, I learned about a must-see “driver’s road” called Gates Pass that existed in the mountains west of the Tucson valley.  It wasn’t until today that I was able to actually experience it.

Making my way out of the Phoenix area, I veered east on Interstate 10 from Loop 202.



About 96 miles after hopping on the 10, I exited Speedway Boulevard in Tucson and noticed that there were signs guiding me to Old Tucson to the west.


Saguaro cacti thrive in this dry, desert environment.  Speedway Boulevard soon slimmed down to 2 lanes from 4, and I started seeing warning signs for Gates Pass.




Gates Pass is a scenic stretch of road that was named after Thomas Gates.  It originally dates back to 1883 when he wanted a shortcut through the mountains.  The road officially starts 7 miles west of Tucson after exiting Interstate 10 at Speedway Boulevard.  Though only a very short 6 miles in length, it’s notorious for being dangerous.

Gates Pass is one of the most dangerous areas to drive around Tucson. The road is narrow and winds around the edge of a large mountain with just a few feet space between the edge of the road and a deep drop off to the valley below. Because of this driving danger, Gates Pass is not open to commercial and large vehicles over 40-50 feet long.

Well, here we go!


Entering Tucson Mountain Park, which encompasses about 20,000 acres of land and established in 1929.



Getting creative with camera angles.  I took it slow and enjoyed the scenery.  Thankfully, there was very little traffic.



I pit stopped at a pullout to enjoy the view for a few minutes.


And soon thereafter, I descended the cut of road seen in the background here.  No guardrail, just some 10 mph curves that have to be handled very carefully – especially when bicyclists are encountered (which is what happened to me!).


I met a very nice couple who took this picture for me.  I asked, “Make sure the car’s in the picture too,” which of course led them to ask why.  I ended up spending about 15 minutes telling them everything about the car and the blog.  They loved it!  And I did, too.


Continuing on Gates where the terrain leveled out a bit.  There were a few more pullouts for photo-ops.


After my drive through Gates, I made a stop at Old Tucson.  This is an old movie set dating back to 1938.  It was first used as a backdrop in the movie “Arizona” (1940) but has since been used in over 400 movies, TV shows, or other features, most of them Westerns.


Entry is $17 for adults but Arizona residents get a $3 discount.  I arrived just in time for the doors to open at 10:00 a.m.


When I set foot into Old Tucson, I truly felt like I was teleporting myself 150 years into the past.  Dirt streets surround over 60 buildings that have been created as part of movie sets over the years.  Even the employees wear period-correct clothing and ride around on horses.  I had to be mindful to watch the ground for horse droppings!

Here’s a (poor quality) video that I shot with my iPhone while wandering around.  The soundtrack that I added seemed very fitting.


I took a 30-minute walking tour with about 25 other people.  Old Tucson gets its name because it’s actually modeled after the original Tucson, Arizona from the year 1863.  When Old Tucson first opened, Gates Pass was only a 1.5-lane dirt road and was very treacherous.  Still, 15,000 people attended opening day and paid 25 cents each for admission.


This original 1939 adobe building is modeled after the first school house in Tucson, built in 1868.  In some films, though, this building was used as a bar instead.


John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Elizabeth Taylor, and Kurt Russell are just a few of the stars who have walked these streets.  This taxidermy shop is one of the original 1939 adobe buildings as well.


Here I am standing in front of the Hotel Del Toro.  This was used in the 1986 movie “Three Amigos.”  That film was supposed to be set in Mexico — thus the reason for the Spanish looking architecture seen here.


I could almost feel the presence of Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short!  The mountain behind them in this picture is clearly visible while standing on the main street in Old Tucson.


Here are a few other shots from around the town.  There are various shops throughout the grounds.


The Saloon and Hotel below doubles as a 13,000-square-foot sound stage and it was built in 1968.


In the distance below, the Mission can be seen.  Unlike most of the other buildings in Old Tucson, this is not a “four-sided” building – it’s only a facade.  The original Mission burned down in a 1994 fire and the replica didn’t have an interior.




Stagecoach rides were available at the O.K. Corral for $3.  I didn’t take the time to do this, nor the (free) 7-minute train tour, but the next time I go back I will definitely check them out!


Speaking of trains, on display at the north end of the facility is this 1872 steam locomotive.  It was used in the film Union Pacific in the late 1930’s, as well as the Clint Eastwood film “Joe Kidd.”  At one point during this locomotive’s life, it was even shipped to Switzerland to appear in a movie there.


Here’s a look inside the courthouse, furnished and ready for its next film debut.


No Acuras allowed.  We travel by horse & carriage around here!


This was my favorite place in all of Old Tucson:  Rx Elixir.  It’s a sandwich shop and soda counter.


Peeking out from above that colorful Mexican blanket is Sharon, the operator of the Rx Elixir.  I went with the Cold Turkey & Cheese Sandwich for $9.  It was a huge sandwich!  Sharon fixed it up with sourdough bread and some homemade pesto mayonnaise.  I highly recommend it.


Here I am about to indulge in my delicious and wholesome lunch.  That ice cold Sioux City Sasparilla root beer really hit the spot to wash it all down.


On my way out, I went inside another of the buildings and saw this prop cannon that was used in the John Wayne 1960 film “The Alamo.”


Last shot with the ILX next to an original lift on display out front.


From Old Tucson, I headed north on the curvy, two-lane Kinney Road.  This was a great driving environment for the ILX with its tight suspension and 6-speed transmission.  I drove past the western region of Saguaro National Park.

That’s a wide road!


This small wooden sign caught my eye in a tiny town called Picture Rocks (population:  8,139).


The Community Center, as it turns out, is that trailer in the background below.  It’s no wonder the sign says “Donations Needed.”  This place has seen better days!


Just a bit further up the road at the intersection of Sandario & Picture Rocks, I found a very special place.


Ladies and gentlemen, I think I’ve found my next auto mechanic: Titan Tire & Wheel.  Just to be sure you won’t miss it, it’s painted bright red and yellow.


But wait!  There’s more.  They also have and “sale” railroad ties, in case I’m ever looking for any!  Talk about one-stop shopping.


Batteries too!  Well, I’ll be darned.


Whoa!  HELLO!!  They do oil changes.  Think they’ve got 0W20 oil in stock for my ILX scheduled maintenance?


Kidding aside, I love places like this.  And I’d happily let them work on my ILX.  Maybe just for a tire rotation.


The ILX flew past this lineup of mailboxes so quickly that I didn’t have time to count them, so I promptly pulled over and looped back.  There were 37 of them in a row!  Some in decent shape, others barely standing.


There was just one more place that I wanted to check out on today’s adventure:  Nickerson Farms Restaurant in Picacho, Arizona off Interstate 10.  After having inhaled that turkey sandwich at Old Tucson not long before, I was far from hungry.  But Nickerson isn’t the place I’d go to satisfy my appetite anyway.  You see, the restaurant’s been closed for over 30 years.


That old boot next to the sign presumably used to have another one next to it.


This particular Nickerson Farms is believed to be the best-preserved of of all the Nickerson “hulks” that are still standing today.  It was in operation from the early 1960’s until 1979.  Since then, it’s been completely abandoned.


In the below picture, see the vehicle parked in the shade underneath the arch that’s farthest away?  That is a blue 1980’s Pontiac Sunbird.  When I pulled up behind it in the ILX, a young man shot up lightning-fast in the driver seat.  He’d been napping in there.  I think I gave him the scare of his life this afternoon!  After parking, I assured him that I was “nobody,” and that I didn’t care if he was catching some shuteye on the shade.  It looked like he’d been living in his Pontiac for some time.


Since the building is clearly visible from Interstate 10, it’s become the victim of plenty of acts of vandalism over the years.  Windows are boarded up.  The brick facade on the exterior has crumbled entirely.


The dual glass doors at the entry way were broken out.  I ducked underneath the handle and let myself inside the building to take a look around.  I was glad to be wearing tennis shoes instead of flip flops due to all the glass on the floor.


The creepiest part about this place was that the original red Naugahyde diner booths are still there, covered in over 3 decades worth of dust.  There were enough holes in the walls to allow a little bit of natural light inside the building, but I relied on my camera’s flash to capture the scene better than my eyes could.


Books and garbage littered the floor.  I looked down and saw this little gem:  A 1990 Buying Guide Issue from Consumer Reports.  I couldn’t resist flipping to the section on Acura vehicles.  Page 165 has the comments on the Acura Legend, which at the time was still in its first generation:

The Acura Legend felt sporty.  Handling was precise and acceleration strong.  Seating was roomy and very comfortable.  The Legend has an excellent repair record.  Bumper test damage:  None.


Time to get out of there – this place was giving me the creeps. Back out the broken glass door I went.


And homeward bound with yet another fun Acura adventure under my belt.  Thanks for coming along as always!

5 Responses to “Acura ILX Drive: Gates Pass & Old Tucson Studios”

  1. Saddle up cowboy!!

    Reminds me of Rawhide just North of Scottsdale.

    This would be a great place to check out while in the SW!

    • SOUTH of Scottsdale, sorry about that!

      • Dave, I had actually never heard of Rawhide before, but I did some mapping and that’s really close by! It’s right off I-10 south of town and near Firebird Int’l Raceway where I’ve been many times before. I’m definitely going to have to check it out sometime. Biggest question though: Is the food at the Steakhouse any good? I know you’re a foodie!

  2. Great write up, very interesting. Loved the music with your video, very appropriate.

    • Thanks Terry! Yeah, I think I was whistling that tune the whole way home from Tucson. My dad’s a huge Clint Eastwood fan so he appreciated the soundtrack, too. Have a great weekend!

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