In Tucson, there’s plenty to do, naturally. You will find outdoor adventures for all ages and abilities. Hike or bike in Saguaro National Park, Catalina State Park, or Tucson Mountain Park. Experience the dramatic Sonoran Desert up close at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, or explore another galaxy at a world-renowned observatory. Venture out on a four-wheel-drive tour, or take a horseback ride into the Santa Catalina Foothills.
The city of Tucson is surrounded by five mountain ranges—the Santa Catalinas and Tortolitas to the north, the Rincons to the east, the Santa Ritas to the south and the Tucson Mountains to the west—which feature a wide variety of hiking trails for all skill levels. Ranging from nearly flat strolls through the cacti to steep scrambles up forest trails, Tucson’s hiking opportunities have something for everyone.
The giant saguaro cacti grows nowhere else. Growing very slowly, it may take 50 years or more for branching to begin. These symbols of the Southwest have lent their name to Saguaro National Park, its two units bracketing Tucson on the east and the west. The Rincon Mountain District is located to the East of Tucson and the Tucson Mountain District is located to the West. Both districts have their own visitor center, scenic drives, and hiking trail systems.
The 20,000 acre Tucson Mountain Park is a cacti-lovers wonderland with its sprawling forest of saguaro. An icon of the Sonoran Desert, the saguaro cactus can grow 60 feet tall and has an average life span of 150 years. There are other species of cactus here as well including fishhook barrel cactus, staghorn cactus, pink flowering hedgehog cactus, Engelman’s prickly pear cactus, teddy bear cholla, and chain-link cactus.
North of Saguaro Park’s East Unit and part of Coronado National Forest, Sabino Canyon is a popular recreation area. Carved into the Santa Catalina Mountains by its namesake stream, the canyon is a desert oasis supporting riparian habitat including willow, ash, oak, and Arizona sycamore. A paved road runs 3.8 miles into the canyon, crossing nine stone bridges over Sabino Creek. It begins at an altitude of 2,800 feet and rises to 3,300 feet at its end.
Sabino Canyon Tours offers two tram routes that provide access to Sabino and Bear Canyons. Along both routes riders are free to get off at any of the stops along the way. Sabino Canyon tram is a narrated, educational 45-minute, 3.8 mile tour into the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The trams have nine stops along the tour with several restroom facilities and picnic grounds located near Sabino Creek.
The extensive Santa Rita Mountains trail system is easily accessed from Madera Canyon’s campground and picnic areas. Detailed trail information and maps are available at the trailheads. Hiking trails vary from paved, handicap-accessible nature trails, and gentle walking paths in the lower canyon, to steep, expert trails leading to the top of 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson.
The challenging and popular Old Baldy Trail is a 10-mile trek (round trip) leads to the summit and climbs more than 4,000 vertical feet topping out on one of the most spectacular summits in the state. The views from the summit are, to say the least, breathtaking. The Super Trail is longer but has a more moderate gradient. The trails form a figure eight making it possible to put together a number of different loops using different portions of each.
Climbing more than 6,000 feet, the Sky Island Scenic Byway begins with forests of saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert and ends in a cool, coniferous forest in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Prepare yourself for breathtaking views and a climate change that would be similar to driving from Southern Arizona to Canada in a mere 27 miles. One of the most scenic drives in southern Arizona, the byway provides access to a fascinating land of great vistas, natural rock sculptures, cool mountain forests and deep canyons spilling out onto broad deserts.
The Forest Service has done a great job with the road and attractions along the route including campgrounds, picnic areas, trailheads, pullouts, vista points, and interpretive overlooks. Dozens of hiking trails offer access to the mountain’s backcountry canyons and ridges.
Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever. Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area. Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip “south”. There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.