Ribbon of Green: Sabino Canyon Offers Desert Beauty

The wonders of the desert foothills and rocky gorges of the Santa Catalina Mountains are marvelous and accessible

Hello again. I am really glad to see you and just want to say: thank you for being here.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the northeast edge of Tucson along Sabino Creek lies Tucson’s worst-hidden secret! Sabino Canyon is a premiere place to hike, picnic, or just take in Mother Nature at her finest. The saguaro-draped foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson offer numerous scenic ravines but two of the most scenic are Sabino Canyon and Bear Canyon, ten miles northeast of the city center. Both feature a stream that forms seasonal pools and waterfalls, steep-sided slopes bearing many saguaro, and other Sonoran Desert cacti and plants with rocky peaks rising high above.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The soaring mountains, deep canyons, and the unique plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert found here draw over a million visitors a year to the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. Of the two, Sabino is more developed and more visited, having a paved road running 3.8 miles up the lower section along which are various picnic sites, trailheads, and viewpoints.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino is believed to have formed some 12 million years ago. Then, an earthquake in 1887 dislodged massive boulders lining the canyon walls which crashed down to the valley below. Sabino Canyon was carved out by Sabino Creek which flows with water intermittently during the year including across the roadway in several locations. Water features that can be accessed in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area include Seven Falls, Hutches Pool, Sabino Dam, and Lake Sycamore Reservoir.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another paved road reaches the mouth of Bear Canyon then a trail continues upstream and although the landscape in both is similar, Sabino Canyon receives more water so is generally a greener, cooler place as the streamway is more shaded and the pools persist longer. The single most impressive feature in Bear Canyon is Seven Falls where the waters cascade down a steep ravine creating an enchanting sequence of waterfalls and pools. Both canyons are usually dry by mid-summer.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Feel the magic of nature as you ride the Sabino Canyon Crawler, a convenient, narrated shuttle through the wonders of Sabino Canyon. The electric shuttle journey begins at the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area Visitor Center and carries passengers on a one-hour round trip allowing them to exit the shuttle at Stops 1 through 9 to soak in the grandeur of the canyon at their own pace. The tram turns around at Stop 9 and heads back down to the Visitor’s Center at which point riders may remain on board or hike back down. Several restroom facilities are located near Sabino Creek. Sabino Canyon also features a dozen picnic areas including at the Visitor Center, Lower Sabino Canyon, Sabino Dam East, Cactus Picnic Area, and Bear Canyon Overlook.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bear Canyon leads to the gorgeous Seven Falls, an intermittent series of waterfalls just east of Sabino Canyon. The hike (moderate to difficult) to Seven Falls is 8.4 miles round trip from the Visitor Center. Hop on the tram to shorten the hike.

Sabino Canyon Tours’ Bear Canyon Trail tram is a non-narrated 2 mile ride that travels to the trailhead of Seven Fall. The 30-minute shuttle round trip in Bear Canyon currently has three stops where hikers can access a myriad of trails including the popular Seven Falls Trail. Visitors may get off the tram at any of the stops and re-board later. Trams arrive on average every hour.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If riding the tram does not stir your sense of adventure, there are miles of hiking trails that wander throughout the area and lead deeper into the Santa Catalina backcountry. Admire towering saguaros, listen for the trickle of Sabino Creek, enjoy the many wildflowers, or watch for glimpses of wildlife activity from coyotes to mountain lions, hawks to rattlesnakes, and hummingbirds to lizards.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The trailhead for numerous trails in Sabino Canyon and Bear Canyon are accessible by riding the shuttle. Once you hop off the shuttle to explore the canyon you can hike back to the Visitor Center or simply show your ticket to the driver at any stop to get back on board any shuttle with available seats for a comfortable ride to the drop-off area.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of the various trails in the area, one starts next to the parking area—a short, self-guided Desert Nature Trail with informative signage about local plants and animals. Other trails are found along the Sabino Canyon Road. The Phoneline Trail (#27) is perhaps the most popular; starting 1.4 miles from the visitor center it climbs up the south side of the canyon then follows it for several miles before descending to the far end of the road where it intersects the Sabino Canyon Trail (#23), a route that continues further north into the mountains. Another short path, the Sabino Lake Trail (#30), leads to a seasonal reservoir along Sabino Creek, a good location for bird watching.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes