News Articles

Road Trip!
Sunland Visitor Center gets you on your way

By Lora Neu
Pinal Ways Editor

Those words ring out every summer or spring, winter or fall, the season doesn’t matter. But there is something about those carefree summer road trips that always create special memories.

While it may be rare to take off without a destination in mind, if you do, all that needs to be done is stop at the Sunland Visitor Center in Central Arizona in Pinal County. And if you do have a particular destination, the Center will have all the information you could possibly want.

Whether you know where you want the road to take you or not, the Sunland Visitor Center has the scoop on all the favorite Arizona destinations.

Not only do they have the information about where to go and how to get there, they’ve taken it a step further to help travelers have a successful, memorable trip.

Never been to Kartchner Caverns? Well Sunland Visitor Center has mapped out, for you, “Day Trip #12.” In one day, you can see Kartchner Caverns, Fort Huachuca’s U.S. Army Intelligence Museum, Sierra Vista, and the San Pedro Riparian Natural Conservation Area. If that’s not enough, the handmade packet for Day Trip 12 will extend your sightseeing into an overnight tour.

Spend the night at Sierra Vista, and continue your tour the next day to Ramsey Canyon Preserve (which is “The Hummingbird Capitol of the World”), then on to Coronado National Monument, continuing on to historic Bisbee, then Douglas, with a last stop at Chirichaua National Monument. That concludes just one of the tours the Sunland Visitor Center has dreamed up for you.

Each packet has a detailed itinerary with directions, and information about which areas might need prior reservations. The itinerary lists important facts about each stop and what to see and do when you get there. And, of course, directions to get back home. Each packet includes a custom map for the trip as well as brochures from all the sites on the itinerary.

The Visitor Center has information on birding, hiking, camping, events, Native American cultures and ruins, wineries, reptiles, coupons, agriculture, RV campgrounds, the local Eloy and Arizona City areas, as well as providing cotton and water tours in the cooler months.

Of course, what makes Sunland Visitor Center so special is that it takes experience to create these custom trips—the Visitor Center doesn’t actually just dream them up, but have experienced each trip themselves.

That is just what Cindy Yates, and Mardie Shager, both of them visitor center managers, have done.

They have created 15 self-guided day trips, and the Center boasts nearly 700 different brochures. “That’s what happens when you have a retired teacher interested in the history of the state,” Yates said.

She decided–why not share her interest. When attending state office of tourism seminars, Yates says she takes the opportunity to make stops along the way. She and Mardie “always bring a car full of brochures, books and maps” back with them to share at the Sunland Visitor Center she said.

And they don’t stint on promoting the “Golden Corridor” of Pinal County, mid-way between Phoenix and Tucson, either. Some of the day trips in Pinal County include Coolidge-Florence, Eloy-Casa Grande, Apache Junction, Superior-Globe-Miami, and Southeast Pinal County.

And all of the brochures, maps and information, are free.

The Visitor Center came about in 1987 to create a “central information center” for the Golden Corridor,” Cindy said. The center also promotes the Eloy and Arizona City areas. It is funded by the City of Eloy, and Pinal County. The Center does take donations, and Yates points out they are not funded by the State. Grants are available if the center can come up with matching funds, but the past few years of economic downturn have been difficult for raising funds. A state grant does pay for the highway signage.

They are regulated by the Arizona Office of Tourism, though they aren’t funded by them.
Some of the regulations governing the Center say that it must be within one mile of a freeway, provide ADA bathrooms, water, and be open specific hours per day.

The State really likes the Center, Mardie said, because they “advertise for attractions around the whole state,” not just Pinal County and the Golden Corridor, or Eloy and Arizona City, which are their focus areas.

Travel and tourism are important for Arizona and Pinal County. According to the Arizona Office of Tourism, in 2011 in Pinal County alone, visitors spent $507.4 million, the industry generated 5,070 jobs, generated earnings of $119.8 million and generated $30.2 million in tax revenue.

The Arizona Office of Tourism markets all of the Arizona counties by branding the state as a premier travel destination in order to bring in new money to the state and counties. More than 37 million visitors came to Arizona in 2011. Wonder how many of them stopped in at the Sunland Visitor Center?

The visitor center is proud of the service that they provide. “Tourism is the number one industry in Arizona,” Cindy said. “We’re here to serve,” Mardie says of their work at the Center.

Of the Visitor Center and its place in Eloy and Pinal County, Cindy explains that they represent the area. “I am proud of this area,” she said.

“It’s a prime place for people to spend the winter months and a wonderful place to retire,” Cindy said. ‘There’s lots to do.”

She points to the climate, amenities, mountain views, beautiful blue skies, lack of smog and 350 days of sunshine as selling points for the Eloy and Arizona City area as well as Pinal County.

Most people fly into Phoenix, Cindy said. And they either head south or north. If they head south, they’ll find the Sunrise Visitor Center in Eloy. Visitor centers are different than chambers of commerce, Cindy says, because they are often easier and more convenient to locate due to their proximity to the highway.

“That’s what separates us from all the other visitor centers in the state,” Cindy said. “We are a real visitor center, and not a chamber of commerce,” she explained.

Asked where they get all the info: “They don’t send it, we go get it,” Cindy said. They both laughed. “We’ve been to just about every visitor center in the state,” Cindy said. “I think we’ve just about seen them all,” Mardie added.

Between the two of them, Cindy said she and Mardie created all the brochures about three years ago.

Cindy explained that they both liked to travel and were both from Minnesota. She originally visited her parents in Arizona during summers while she taught, and that’s when she really learned to love Arizona.

“When I travel, I like to dig in,” Cindy says about her passion for learning all about her adopted state. “Why not travel the back roads and meet people.”

“You can really brag about Pinal County,” Mardie said. There are five State Parks, and three National Monuments.

Mardie went on: “Arizona has 28 State Parks—and we have brochures from all of them.” There are 26 National Parks and Monuments—more than any other state in the union. “We are a unique state.” She pointed out that Arizona also has “more boats per capita” than any other state as well. More than 130 lakes and rivers, and also has more golf courses than any other state.

“You meet the most interesting people here,” Mardie said. People from all over the world stop at Sunland Visitor Center.

If you visit the center, you will find that you are on the property of the Toltec School and that both the Sunland Visitor Center Board of Directors along with the Santa Cruz Valley Historical Museum Board of Directors are involved in restoring the historic buildings on the property.

The Visitor Center and Santa Cruz Valley Museum are “tied at the hip,” Cindy explained. Though they both are separate non-profits, the Visitor Center holds the lease to the property on which the Museum will be created.

In 2003 the Visitor Center moved out of the hotel across the street and now sits on the Toltec School property. When the renovations of the old school building are complete, it will house the Museum and the Visitor Center.

The Sunland Visitor’s Center, with its planned museum and park to welcome visitors to the city of Eloy, is destined to, and has already played, a huge part in preserving the history of the area.