8 Fun Things to do in Tucson…BEFORE it’s TOO HOT

Things to do NOW before it’s a zillion degrees outside in Tucson

Two weeks ago, Tucson hit 90 degrees for the first time in 2022.

The 90-degree day came five days earlier than usual, according to National Weather Service Tucson meteorologist Gary Zell. Unfortunately for locals and visitors, the Climate Prediction Center is currently predicting above-average temperatures every month from now until September.

Obviously that does not mean everyday is going to be above normal but they’re talking monthly outlooks.

There’s currently no indication of when Tucson will welcome (or should I say reject?) its first 100-degree day. But on average, for the years between 1991 and 2020, Tucson sees its first 100-degree day on May 18. Historically though, from 1895 through 2020, that day has been May 25.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As for those brutal 105-degree days that nobody wants to think about right now: From 1991 to 2020, Tucson typically saw its first 105-degree day on June 6. Historically, that day has been June 11.

There is some promising news: The Climate Prediction Center says there’s a 50-60 percent of above-normal rainfall from July to September.

But before the arrival of summer and the 100-degree days that accompany it, let’s focus on the cooler days ahead.

Here are eight things to do outside—before it gets too hot. (But most of the places mentioned are open year-round and some even open their doors on summer nights for folks to enjoy the cooler temperatures after sunset.)

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Bask in the desert beauty at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum may not be a hidden gem, but it’s a gem no less.

Check out 1,200 kinds of plants, experience the touch of a stingray, walk through a reptile and amphibian hall, and see all kinds of desert animals—bobcats, a mountain lion, javelinas, prairie dogs, gila monsters, skunks, hummingbirds, and more.

If you visit in springtime, you may even spot colorful cactus blooms in the museum’s cactus garden. 

Hiking Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Put on your hiking shoes and head to your nearest trail

What would this list be if we didn’t include hiking?

Hiking trails are all over—short trails leading up to the top of “A” Mountain, the steep walk up Tumamoc Hill, plus there’s Enchanted Hills Trails Park, Sabino CanyonCatalina State ParkSaguaro National Park, and so many more nearby hiking areas.

While hiking in May is typically significantly cooler than hiking in June, it’s still important to hydrate and protect yourself from the sun with a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen! Heading out during the cooler morning hours might be best.

The Old Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Take a walking tour of the city

Tucson has a lot to see and a lot to love. The Presidio San Agustín del Tucson Museum knows that.

Each month, the museum hosts a series of walking tours around the downtown area—and they almost always sell out.

Guided walking tours include the Turquoise Trail where you’ll see historic buildings and learn a slice of Tucson history, the Mainly Murals Walking Tour which shows off some of downtown’s murals and discusses the artist behind the piece, the Public Art and Murals Walking Tour which explores public art pieces and murals, and the Barrio Viejo Walking Tour which takes you through the historic Barrio Viejo neighborhood.

Riding the tram at Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Ride the tram (and hike) at Sabino Canyon

At the northeast edge of Tucson along Sabino Creek lies Tucson’s worst-hidden secret! Sabino Canyon is a premier place to hike, picnic, or just take in Mother Nature at its 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.

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.

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. 

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Cool off at Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains

In the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains, one of southeast Arizona’s forested Sky Islands the cool refuge of Madera Canyon is just 25 miles south of Tucson and 12 miles east of Green Valley. This is part of the Coronado National Forest.

Madera Canyon with active springs and a seasonal creek is a lush oasis supporting an amazing diversity of life zones of the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Canyon. From Green Valley to the 9,453-foot summit of Mt. Wrightson, the mountains rise nearly 7,000 feet. Moisture increases and temperature decreases 3-5 degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, creating a succession of four life zones. Each life zone has communities of plants and animals adapted to the environmental conditions found in the zone.

A world-renowned location for bird watching, Madera Canyon is a major resting place for migrating species while the extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas.

Tubac Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Step back in time at the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

Just 45 miles south of Tucson down Interstate 19, this colorful, postage-stamp-size town is easily enjoyed as a day trip. If you come only to browse through the many galleries, you will be selling yourself short.

Any visit to Tubac is best begun at Arizona’s very first state park—the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. The site of the Presidio—the oldest Spanish fort in Arizona—is now a museum with fascinating insights into the local history. Visit the museum to learn how different cultures (from Native American Indian tribes to Spanish colonials, Mexicans, and pioneers) all made Tubac their home over the centuries. There is a good reason people settled here. Tours are self-guided so you can spend as long or as little time as you want here.

The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Take a historical walk on the Anza Trail

Having learned all about Juan Bautista de Anza at the museum, now is a good time to follow in his footsteps on the Anza Trail which is accessed near the Presidio and ends 1,200 miles later in San Francisco! A much more manageable 4-mile out-and-back trail is marked and for a single day trip (especially in the warmer months) just a mile out and a mile back may be enough to experience the diversity of this local environment.

It’s an easy trail that starts out wide and flat, meandering through open desert meadow before funneling into woodland. Grasses and trees line the trail. A sudden flash of green is a giveaway that water is near. The Santa Cruz River runs almost all year round.

Enjoy a Sonoran Desert sunset © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Take in the sunset

There is no better way to end a full and varied day than to watch the sun set gently over the desert landscape. Sunsets are particularly vibrant in Arizona due to the fine sand particles in the air. Check out sunset times and have your camera ready to end your picture-perfect day. 

Plan your trip to Tucson with these resources:

Worth Pondering…

Tucson had opened my eyes to the world and given me… a taste for the sensory extravagance of red hot chiles and five-alarm sunsets.

—Barbara Kingsolver

Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Phoenix and Tucson

To help you plan your family-friendly road trip through Arizona, I’ve put together this list of awesome road trip stops. Keep reading to learn about my favorite spots and campgrounds along the route.

With its vast landscapes and colorful topography, the American Southwest is one of the best regions in the country to take an old-fashioned road trip—in fact, that’s the only way to see most of it. Arizona, specifically, is home to the only Natural Wonder of the World in the U. S., numerous national parks, picturesque state parks, and 21 American Indian tribes. So, what better way to spend spring break this year than packing up the kids for a four family-friendly road trips through Arizona?

Phoenix from Hole in the Rock at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the possibilities for an Arizona road trip are endless, I’ve organized these family-friendly road trips into four paths. Each of these road trip routes includes a selection of my favorite stops. I’ve traveled along each of these paths—most more than once. There is truly something for every member of the family to be enjoyed in each of these road trips.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Earlier articles highlighted Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon and Sedona and the Verde Valley. Today we drive 115 miles south to Phoenix.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food and culture trails through Phoenix

The capital of Arizona, Phoenix is known for its resorts, golf courses, great food and wine, and fantastic desert views. While road-tripping through Arizona, stop here for some culture and tasty morsels.

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take in the art of Native Americans at the Heard Museum. Let the kids loose at the Arizona Science Center where STEM exhibits both teach and entertain. Race fans will love the Penske Racing Museum with its amazing collection of cars, trophies, and racing memorabilia chronicling the career of the Penske family one of the most successful race dynasties.

Related Article: Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix’s East Valley

Ring-necked duck at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, drive about 30 miles northeast of town to visit Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert sanctuary and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a stunning museum celebrating the genius of Wright’s architecture and design.

White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After taking in all those amazing places, visitors will have worked up an appetite. Phoenix’s dining scene is rich and varied with something for every taste.

Fountain Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Housed inside a 1950s bank building, the midcentury gem Federal Pizza serves up delicious wood-fired pizza in a relaxed atmosphere that’s perfect for families. Or try modern Mexican fare made with fresh local ingredients at Joyride Taco House with misters on the patio to keep you cool in the hot summer months.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Right across the street is Churn, a nostalgic candy and ice cream shop that will make all your kids’ dreams come true with shelves of retro toys and candy, artisan ice cream, and fresh-baked treats. Check out the Instagrammable wall of cassette tapes in the back (and have fun explaining what cassettes are to your kids).

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Filled with sandstone buttes that provide gentle but stimulating hiking trails and photogenic spots like the Hole in the Rock, Papago Park is a scenic wonder only 10 minutes from downtown Phoenix. Home of the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden, the park also offers many activities including an archery range, golf course, fishing lagoons, and an orienteering course. That little pyramid you’ll see is the tomb of Gov. George Wiley Paul Hunt.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are several good reasons for paying a visit to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, a 110-acre park in Gilbert. The astounding variety of cacti, probably varieties than you ever knew existed, is itself worth stopping by for. But there are also many other species of plant and animal life in and around this artificial wetland created with reclaimed water. You can view fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals of many different kinds on a pleasant little hiking trail. It’s an especially excellent place for bird watching. The picnic and playground areas are imaginatively and artistically designed and laid out.

Related Article: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another family-friendly adventure is Schnepf Farms, an organic farm where you can pick your own fruits and vegetables. With 300 acres, Schnepf Farms is the perfect place to enjoy fresh air and naturally grown, pesticide-free produce (peppers, cucumbers, kale, and green onions, among others). They are especially known for their peaches with picking season usually in May.

Queen Creek Olive Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re into clean eating, check out the Queen Creek Olive Mill. You can tour the grounds and learn how to make extra virgin olive oil, the best uses for it in the kitchen and why it’s so healthy.

Presidio-Old Pima County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eat your way through Tucson plus a dose of nature

Tucson is another Arizona destination worth repeat visits with history, culture, and outdoor activities galore. Plus, its food game is beyond your wildest expectations. Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, named in 2015 (the first in the U.S.). Tucson gave us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings.

Old Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson’s designation acknowledges that the chefs and residents of Tucson value the role food has historically played in the city. Many local chefs use ingredients that the Indigenous people of the area have used for thousands of years.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whatever else is on the agenda, save time to explore an area the city has designated “The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.” Start along Tucson’s 12th Avenue for an authentic taste of the Best 23 Miles and work your way from there. From street food to taquerias to fine dining, the Mexican food scene in Tucson is often described as the best outside of Mexico.

Related Article: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laying claim to being the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S. is El Charro, with a menu offering a mix of traditional dishes and Mexican favorites. This colorful eatery was established in 1922 by Monica Flin (credited with inventing the chimichanga) and has been in continuous operation by the same family ever since.

Tucson Mountain Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the historic Hotel Congress, the more than 100-year-old lobby restaurant Cup Cafe is something of a local legend. The food here is dependable and tasty — from French dip sandwiches with an interesting Southwest flavor twist to gargantuan breakfast-for-lunch omelets. For dessert, an old-fashioned spiraling glass display case shows guests a variety of sweet, homemade treats.

But this funky little town is chockablock with art, drawing from indigenous cultures, trippy desert landscape, and the fact that heat and desolation can really bring out the weirdness in people.

Tucson Museum of Art © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home to the University of Arizona, the city nurtures a vibrant downtown arts scene with the contemporary Tucson Museum of Art forming the backbone of a flourishing community of painters, glass-blowers, and jewelers. When the heat drops at night, that same downtown comes alive with bars, breweries, and upscale restaurants embracing the uniquely Tucson convergence of Mexican and Arizona influences, a dose of green chiles, open-faced quesadillas (cheese crisps), and those exquisite hot dogs.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson also happens to host one of the country’s biggest annual gem and mineral shows each winter when the city is taken over by rockhounds from around the world.

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Two miles of paths lead through 21 acres of displays. Live demonstrations and tours daily. The museum is a zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden all rolled into one.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A desert oasis, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a hiker’s paradise. Tucked in a canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado Forest, it is easily accessible from Tucson. Ride the narrated shuttle bus and you can get off and back on at any of the stops for a picnic, hike, or a walk back. Trails off the main road explore the canyon or lead into the high country.

Related Article: Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The West is full of beautiful national parks but one of the most iconic symbols of the Old West is the saguaro cactus—and Saguaro National Park is full of them. These majestic plants are only found in this part of the U.S. and can live to be as much as 200 years old and grow up to 60 feet tall. Learn about cacti in the gardens on the east and west sides of the visitor center and take in beautiful sunsets on the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (a half-mile hike) from the Javelina Rocks pullout on the east or from the Gates Pass on the west side.

Tucson/Lazydays KOA © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Places to stay along this route

With so much to explore, you may want to book a campground or RV park along the route. Here are some recommendations for places to rest your weary heads:

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor

A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

No matter what season you visit, Tucson has a lot to offer

While Phoenix may offer a more metropolitan nightlife experience, Tucson can definitely hold its own when it comes to outdoor adventures and unique sights. In fact, in many ways, I prefer the relative quiet of this southwestern town over its larger cousin to the north.

Tucson is located less than two hours southeast of Phoenix and the Mexican border is roughly one hour to the south. Its proximity to Mexico has earned Tucson’s food scene major recognition—in 2015, UNESCO designated it the first “City of Gastronomy” in the United States.

The real, natural southwest captivates the imaginations of visitors fortunate enough to spend time in Tucson. Located in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson is the only place in the world the majestic saguaro cactus grows. The tall and stately cactus, stand like silent sentinels in the shadows of the five mountain ranges surrounding the Tucson valley. Tucson provides a stunning array of possibilities, satisfying culture seekers, outdoor adventurers, and fans of cowboys and cacti.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is a well-known Tucson attraction. The park is split into two by the city. 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. In the west part, you will see plenty of the namesake cacti—the saguaro. In the east part, you will see colorful red rocks and more rugged terrain.

I highly recommend choosing several Saguaro National Park hiking trails to make the most of your time. There are both short, paved, accessible trails and day hike out in the wilderness. It all depends on what you are looking for.

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one of the most popular attractions in town. A world-renowned zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden, all in one place, this is a solid introduction to plant and animal life as you’ll find in the region.

Related: Explore Tucson Naturally

Exhibits re-create the natural landscape of the Sonoran Desert Region so realistically you find yourself eye-to-eye with mountain lions and Gila monsters. Other species found here include prairie dogs, tarantulas, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Most of this museum is outdoors, so plan accordingly. Dress comfortably and bring a hat and sunscreen.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon

On the northeast edge of Tucson, Sabino Canyon offers a variety of terrain including a paved path for the lighter option, or miles of rugged ground to explore. Nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Sabino Canyon offers a wide range of hiking adventures for beginners and experts alike. Enjoy a relaxing stroll along the paved Sabino Canyon Trail or ride the tram along the wide, scenic path.

Sabino Canyon Tours offers 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 tram turns around at Stop #9 and heads back down to the Visitor’s Center, at which point riders may remain on board and hike back down. Trams arrive on average every 30 minutes.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park 

One of my personal favorite stops, Catalina State Park sits at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains in northwest Tucson. Catalina is chock-full of epic mountainous backdrops, lush landscapes, towering saguaros, and trails for horses and hikers. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. If you visit in early spring, bright Mexican poppies and colorful wildflowers will greet you.

The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.

Related: Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

Catalina Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Lemmon

Mount Lemmon is named after Sara Plummer Lemmon, a botanist who trekked to the 9,000-foot-plus summit with her husband in 1881. Today, it’s a great spot for outdoor adventures like hiking, camping, rock climbing, and even skiing. Yes, skiing in the Sonoran Desert.

Mount Lemmon is located in the Catalina Mountains. Follow Catalina Highway (Sky Island Scenic Byway) to explore the mountain to your heart’s content. One of the most scenic drives in southern Arizona, the paved road provides access to a fascinating land of great vistas, natural rock sculptures, cool mountain forests, and deep canyons spilling out onto broad deserts.

Tohono Chul Park

Translated from the Tohono O’odham language, Tohono Chul means “desert corner.” This 49-acre desert preserve is a leading Southwest center of desert nature, arts, and culture. This oasis in the desert provides an informative look at the region’s fascinating cultural traditions and its flora and fauna.

Old Tucson Studios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Tucson Studios

Plenty of cowboys can be found at Old Tucson Studios. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are among the Hollywood legends that starred in some of the 300-plus movies and TV projects that have been filmed at Old Tucson since 1939. Today it’s a movie studio and theme park.

It’s been just over a year since Old Tucson Studios closed its doors. The famous western attraction was shuttered because of the pandemic. Now, after a long process, Pima County is getting ready to announce who will take over the lease. Be sure to check the current status before planning a visit.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Fifteen minutes south of Tucson sits an important piece of the city’s history: Mission San Xavier del Bac. This is one of the most awe-inspiring of all of the area’s attractions and is definitely worth the short drive. Mission San Xavier del Bac, also known as the White Dove of the Desert, is a magnificent building that blends Moorish, Byzantine, and late Mexican Renaissance architecture.

In 1692 Father Kino, a Jesuit missionary came to the area. Eight years later he laid the foundation for the first church. This building was named for Francis Xavier, a pioneering Christian missionary. The current church, completed in 1797, serves an active parish. Today, this site is used as both a church and a school.

Titan Missile Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Titan Missile Museum

A National Historic Landmark known as Complex 571-7, the Titan Missile Museum is the only remaining Titan II missile site. On one-hour guided tours you’ll descend 35 feet below ground to marvel at the intercontinental ballistic missile that in about 30 minutes could have delivered a nine-megaton nuclear warhead to a location more than 6,000 miles away.

Related: 13 Weird and Wonderful Reasons to RV to Tucson

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish priest Eusebio Francisco Kino. Jesuit, and later Franciscan, priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.

A self-guiding tour booklet for the Tumacácori Mission grounds can be purchased or borrowed. The walking tour of the site leads through several interlinked rooms with open doorways, and to the enclosed courtyard garden, filled by mature trees and Sonoran desert plants.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac

A destination for the arts, Tubac features eclectic shops and world-class galleries. Clustered in the village plaza, old adobes, Spanish courtyards, and ocotillo fences blend with a handful of newer buildings. Meandering streets are punctuated by hidden courtyards and sparkling fountains.

This village of about 1,500 people has over 100 galleries, studios, and shops, all within easy walking distance of each other. You’ll find an eclectic and high-quality selection of art and artisan works that include paintings, sculpture, pottery, metalwork, hand-painted tiles, photography, jewelry, weaving, and hand-carved wooden furniture.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

Established as a Spanish presidio in 1752, Tubac was the first permanent European settlement in what later became Arizona. Those early ruins are visible in an underground exhibit at Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. Visitors also will see a museum that houses Arizona’s first printing press (demonstrations are offered), a furnished 1885 schoolhouse, and living-history exhibits.

Outdoor patio exhibits show how people lived, cooked, and worked in Spanish colonial times. The Park is home to three buildings on the National Register of Historic Places: an 1885 schoolhouse that is the third oldest in Arizona; Otero Hall, built as a community center in 1914 and now housing a collection of paintings; and a mid-20th century adobe vernacular row house.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails. The Mount Wrightson trailhead provides access to several trails including the Super Trail and Old Baldy trail where experienced hikers can climb to higher levels. These two trails to its summit cross one another twice and make a figure eight.

Related: Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

Madera Canyon is a famed wildlife location, in particular for birds with over 250 recorded species. The resident birds include hummingbirds, owls, sulfur flycatchers, wood warblers, elegant trogan, wild turkeys, and quails, as well as numerous migrating birds. Other notable wildlife includes coati, black bear, raccoon, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, bobcat, and ring-tailed cat.

Old Pueblo County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Pueblo

Tucson has preserved a flair of its American Indian and Spanish-Mexican past of a pueblo in the Sonoran Desert. The days of the Presidio de San Agustin del Tucson, the original fortress built by Spanish soldiers during the 18th century, seem not that long ago. Wandering through the recreated structure, it is easy to imagine what life was like when members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Native American people of the Sonoran Desert, mingled there with Spanish soldiers and early Territorial Period settlers.

The neighborhood surrounding the Presidio, the Presidio Historic District, is a charming, eclectic assembly of adobe and brick buildings in Spanish-Mexican, Anglo-American, and other architectural styles of the 1920s. Many houses have been restored to their former beauty, in brilliant colors of bright green, brick red, plum-purple, and hues of blue and yellow, and their original masonry.

Worth Pondering…

Once in a lifetime, you see a place, and you know, instinctively, this is paradise.

10 Amazing Places to RV in December

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in December

December is a popular time to travel, whether for a getaway before the holidays, a road trip to seasonal markets, or simply a city escape combined with some shopping for presents.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This month we’ve chosen to share an old-fashioned Christmas, two Sonoran Desert state parks, and a Cajun Christmas that just might give you the winter wonderland experience you need! Take a look and then plan a trip to one (or all) of these amazing destinations!

Homosassa Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in September, October, and November. Also, check out my recommendations from December 2020.

My Old Kentucky Home © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

My Old Kentucky Home Hosts an Old-Fashioned Christmas

Guides in Victorian hoop skirts and gentlemen in tailcoats sing the song “My Old Kentucky Home,” on your tour of Kentucky’s most famous landmark decorated for Christmas, My Old Kentucky Home! The mansion is adorned and decorated with six beautiful 12-foot tall Christmas trees each with a unique Kentucky theme.

My Old Kentucky Home © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Learn the origins of the Christmas tree, how mistletoe became famous for exchanging kisses, the tradition of the yule log, the history of the Christmas pickle, the legends of Father Christmas and Santa Claus.

My Old Kentucky Home © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you move forward to each room, experience a different era of Christmas starting from colonial times, the early and late Victorian periods, all the way to the roaring 20s when the mansion was last owned by the Rowan family. Tours are on the hour and the last tour begins at 4:00 p.m.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Holly Jolly Jekyll

From twinkling holiday lights to magical visits with Santa, escape to the coastal community of Jekyll Island on Georgia’s Golden Isles for an enchanted holiday season. You’ll find plenty of fun things to do, exciting celebrations, and hands-on experiences for everyone in the family.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Set among the Golden Isles, Jekyll Island was settled in 1733 as the Georgia Colony and was later known as the playground for the rich and famous. The Federal Reserve System was planned at the Jekyll Island Club which was also the site of the first transcontinental phone call. Club Members included such prominent figures as J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, William K. Vanderbilt, Marshall Field, and William Rockefeller. In 1904, Munsey’s Magazine called the Jekyll Island Club “the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible club in the world.”

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The island is home to more than half a million lights during the Holly Jolly Jekyll season. The Great Tree alone has more than 35,000 which is more per square foot than the New York City Rockefeller Center Christmas tree!

Related: Fruitcake: National Joke or Tasty Christmas Tradition

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan to attend the light parade on December 4, holiday fireworks on December 11 and 18, and a special drive-in movie presentation of Frosty the Snowman on December 12 and 19, 2021.

See holiday lights from November 26, 2021, through to January 2, 2022.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hop aboard Jekyll’s jolliest trolley with Holly Jolly Light Tours. The whole family can sit back, relax, and view festive displays from Beach Village to the Historic District. Along the way, sip on seasonal beverages and sing along to iconic carols and tunes.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon, Arizona

Looking for a place to get outdoors that offers easy and challenging trails? Sabino Canyon is that place. On the northeast edge of Tucson, Sabino Canyon offers a variety of terrain including a paved path for the lighter option or miles of rugged ground to explore.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the eastern foothills of the Santa Catalina mountain range, Sabino Canyon is a world of natural beauty. Stunning vistas, the freshness of the morning air, the tranquility of running creek water, and the rugged backdrop of Thimble Peak make this place so unique.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the rainy season, some trails will have you sloshing through creeks. But if you’re looking for something easy on the feet, there’s always the option of riding the narrated, educational tram tour, which affords visitors a close-up of the stunning canyon views.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home of the Manatee

Crystal River and Florida’s Citrus County, located on the Gulf of Mexico, are an easy drive from Orlando and Tampa yet a world away from Florida’s busy theme parks and beaches. This is Florida in its natural state and nothing quite defines the natural wonders of Florida like the manatee. Crystal River and Homosassa are among the only places in the world where you can swim with manatees in their natural habitat.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More manatees gather in the waters of Crystal River and nearby Homosassa than anywhere else in Florida giving it the name The Manatee Capital of the World. As many as 1,000 manatees—one-sixth of Florida’s manatee population—shelter in the 73 degree clear springs here each winter.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swim with Manatee Tours and “Dry” tours—tours where you don’t get in the water—get you close to these amazing mammals on the water while Three Sisters Springs Refuge and Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park provide an amazing up-close view from land.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three Sisters Springs is a preferred refuge of wintering manatees during Manatee Season (November 15 to March 31) with a record 528 manatees recorded on December 27, 2014. A boardwalk circling this one-acre springs complex allows for incredible views. The 57-acre site also features restored wetlands that attract birds and other wildlife.

Homosassa Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Manatees can be seen year-round at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park dedicated to Florida’s native wildlife. See manatees, Florida panthers, American alligators and crocodiles, and many other species of birds, reptiles, and mammals at this amazing Park centered around beautiful Homosassa Spring. An underwater observatory called “The Fish Bowl” presents an incredible underwater spectacle of manatees and swirling schools of fish.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colonial Williamsburg: Grand Illumination

Williamsburg will have holiday lights and decorations spread all over the city but a great place to get a walking tour filled with seasonal touches is to head to Colonial Williamsburg’s Dukes of Gloucester Street. Immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of what Franklin D. Roosevelt described as “the most historic avenue in all America.” This historic attraction serves festive treats at their colonial-era restaurants including warm spiced cider. The stately colonial homes are decked out in traditional holiday touches such as fresh greenery and fruit.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to classic decorations, Colonial Williamsburg hosts several historic seasonal events. Their biggest event, the Grand Illumination, celebrates the holiday season on three weekends, December 3-5, 10-12, and 17-19. Yuletide entertainment will include favorite holiday traditions as well as new additions to the festivities.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Friday evenings, join the new Procession of the Yule Log and enjoy holiday songs and stories on Market Square. Saturday evenings will include a dramatic presentation of an original holiday story, music, and appearance by Father Christmas, culminating in simultaneous Grand Illumination fireworks displays over the Governor’s Palace and Capitol building.

Lost Dutchman and the Superstition Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman

This Phoenix-metro adjacent park sits at the base of the fabled Superstition Mountains and offers a wide variety of outdoor recreation possibilities. Hike to your heart’s content into the wilderness, or kick back in a spacious campground and take in the picturesque views. The potential for an unforgettable outdoor experience is high here…Plan a trip this winter and see for yourself!

Related: Legend, History & Intrigue of the Superstitions

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster State Park

Entering the enchanting Okefenokee Swamp—one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders—through Stephen C. Foster State Park presents an incredible display of diverse wildlife, unique scenic views, and rousing outdoor adventure. Canoeing or kayaking through the swamp is the park’s main attraction.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s an otherworldly experience gliding through the reflections of Spanish moss dangling from the trees above. Turtles, deer, wood storks, herons, and black bears are a few of the countless creatures you may see here but the most frequent sighting is the American Alligator. Nearly 12,000 are estimated to live in the area.

Daytime, nighttime, and sunset guided boat tours of the swamp are available and you can rent canoes, kayaks, or Jon boats at the park office.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster State Park is Georgia’s first International Dark Sky Park. So you can gaze up at the stars and see the Milky Way with minimal light interference. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a meteor dashing across the sky. The park offers 66 RV and tent campsites as well as nine two-bedroom cottages that can hold 6 to 8 people. Stays at the Suwannee River Eco-Lodge are also popular, with full kitchen cottages that have screened porches and beautiful views of the forest. 

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park

Tucson’s answer to a metro-adjacent park experience is Catalina State Park. It’s so easy to enjoy the desert beauty here for a day, or even more, after booking a spot in the campground! Pick a trail and start exploring…There are plenty of options for beginning and experienced hikers to find adventure within this Sonoran Desert icon. Winter months bring a ton of migratory birds to Catalina and recently this park was internationally recognized as an Important Birding Area!

Related: I’m Dreaming of a State Park Christmas…

Cajun Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cajun Country Christmas

Cajun Country in Louisiana celebrates the holidays just like the rest of the nation however they like to throw in some Cajun holiday traditions that make for a merry ol’ time!

Cajun Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lafayette rings of zydeco beats throughout the holiday season at their annual Cajun & Creole Christmas Celebrations. The celebrations include everything from Christmas markets, concerts, local eats, holiday window displays, caroling, and a Movies in the Parc season finale.

Cajun Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll want to check out Noel Acadien au Village in Lafayette to view more than 500,000 lights illuminating the night, lighted displays, carnival rides, local cuisine, and photos with Santa.

Cajun Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The historic living history village of Vermilionville hosts Old Time Winter at Vermilionville, an event where families can see what winter traditions in the Cajun Country of yesteryear looked like. Meet Papa Noël, decorate cookies, and make bousillage ornaments.

Related: Cool-As-Hell Louisiana Towns You Need to Visit (Besides New Orleans)

Watch Vermilionville’s artisans as they demonstrate winter traditions of the Acadian, Creole, and Native American cultures such as open-hearth cooking and making candles, soap, and natural decorations.

SAvannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah

Head to Savannah—Georgia’s first city, founded in 1733—and succumb to the Gothic charms (iron gates, massive, moss-covered oak trees) that have enchanted writers such as Flannery O’Connor and John Berendt (You can tour the sites made famous from his book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, such as the Mercer Williams House and the Bonaventure Cemetery).

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spend a few nights at CreekFire Motor Ranch, Savannah’s newest RV park, and take your time wandering this many-storied city. About 20 minutes west of downtown Savannah, you can have fun and excitement when you want it—and relaxation and solitude when you need it.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Taking a tour around Savannah in a horse-drawn carriage is a fun way to see the city. It’s one of the most popular Savannah tourist attractions. They also have a guide that will tell you about the unique landmarks and about all of the historic homes you pass.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you tack an additional 20 minutes onto your journey, you can check out laid-back Tybee Island with its tiny cottages, five miles of tidal beaches, the tallest lighthouse in Georgia, and camping at River’s End Campground.

Worth Pondering…

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

― T.S. Eliot

10 Amazing Places to RV in October

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in October

October, a month that brings to mind fall festivals, leaves changing, and cooler weather is also a fantastic time for RV travel. Head to places like the Bavarian village of Helen or the New River Gorge for Bridge Day where fall foliage is at its best during this time of year. If you’d rather escape the sometimes chilly weather and head someplace warmer such as Savannah or Tucson.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in August and September. Also, check out my recommendations from October 2020.

Helen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helen, Georgia

A Bavarian-inspired village with alpine charm in spades, Helen has heaps of character and enchanting architecture. Given its Germanic roots, you’ll be hardly shocked to learn that Oktoberfest is hugely popular. Vineyards, breweries, and an array of shops attract year-round travelers. For a sweet treat, stock up on confections at Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen. Speaking of food, the köstlich (German for delicious) and authentic dining scene also deserves a shout-out. Nearby Unicoi State Park offers 53 acres of forested trails plus numerous campsites and a lake.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon, Arizona

The saguaro-draped foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson harbor countless scenic ravines but two of the prettiest 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 cacti, and other Sonoran Desert plants with rocky peaks rising high above. 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

Trams leave the visitor center every 30 minutes for the journey into Sabino Canyon, stopping at nine places along the way. The full trip takes about 45 minutes, crosses the creek nine times on sturdy stone bridges, and is made to the accompaniment of narration from a tour guide who gives details of the local wildlife, plant life, geology, and history. The trams are certainly the most popular way to visit though some prefer to walk or cycle.  Bear Canyon and the Seven Falls trailhead can be explored by a relatively easy 5-mile round trip hike beginning at the end of the side road, reachable by tram—or 8.5 miles if starting from the visitor center.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most-visited national park, this protected area spans more than 520,000 acres straddling North Carolina and Tennessee. Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts more than 850 hiking trails and is considered the most biodiverse park in the national park system. What’s more, it’s home to some of the tallest peaks in the eastern United States. One of those peaks is the 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome which wows visitors with 360-degree views of the Smokies (on a clear day, visitors can see for 100 miles).

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For more spectacular mountain vistas travelers can hike the 3.6-mile round-trip Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald which starts from the parking lot at Clingmans Dome. Boasting an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet, Andrews Bald is the highest grassy bald in the park. For travelers who don’t want to rough it in one of the park’s campsites, there are full-service RV parks available in Bryson City and Cherokee, North Carolina, and Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Entry to the national park is free.

New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fayetteville & Bridge Day

With the official designation earlier this year of America’s newest national park, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, neighboring Fayetteville has been buzzing. However, this laid-back, tight-knit community (named for American Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette) has long been a place where adventure reigns. The nearby New and Gauley Rivers offer world-class whitewater rafting and the Fayetteville area is home to some of the best rock climbing in the East. It’s also a prime spot for mountain biking.

Adventure pursuit aside, Fayetteville’s natural scenery is stunning with cascading waterfalls, scenic parks, and breathtaking views that overlook the New River Gorge. The region is also home to a wealth of Appalachian history including a Civil War Trail and nearby mining towns like Nuttallburg and Thurmond.

New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Downtown is chock full of quirky shops like Wild Art Wonderful Things where you can pick up Appalachian-made products like state-shaped embroideries and bottles of River Rat Hot Sauce. Fayetteville is home to the original Pies and Pints, a stone hearth pizza place with a decidedly cult following. (The gorgonzola and grape pie is a fan favorite.) The Wood Iron Eatery whips up made-from-scratch dishes in Fayetteville’s historic Ankrom-Dickerson House.

While the town’s landmark New River Gorge Bridge—an 876-foot-high single-span arch bridge that’s also one of the world’s longest—is impressive on any day, it’s especially so each third Saturday in October (October 13, 2021). This is Bridge Day, the only time that it’s legal to BASE jump in a national park (and professional BASE jumpers take full advantage of it). Bridge Walk offers a heart-thumping adventure of a different kind: guided tours beneath the bridge, along its 24-inch-wide catwalk.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway, North Carolina and Tennessee

The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name “Cherohala” comes from the names of the two National Forests: “Chero” from the Cherokee and “hala” from the Nantahala. The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are several spectacular scenic vistas on the Tennessee side. Brushy Ridge and Turkey Creek overlooks are good picnic spots. You’ll pass the turn-off for Indian Boundary Waters which offers great camping and back road dual sport/jeep explorations.

On the North Carolina side, Huckleberry Knob (near MM 8) is one of the favorite stops for visitors. At 5,560 feet, it’s the highest peak in the Unicoi Mountains and Graham County. It’s an easy 2.4-mile roundtrip hike in the Nantahala National Forest with only a 400-foot elevation gain along a former forest service road.

Boston Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boston in the Fall

It’s leaf-peeping time in New England and you don’t have to go any further than Boston Common to see fall colors. Boston is at its most beautiful in the fall. As the leaves turn, Boston’s parks put on an unforgettable show complementing the historic architecture. While you’re there, walk the Freedom Trail to explore some of the city’s historic sites—walk the 2.5-mile red line leading to 16 nationally significant historic sites. 

Two centuries separate the creation of the Boston Common and the Public Garden and what a difference that period made. In 1634 the Common was created as America’s first public park; it was practical and pastoral with walkways built for crosstown travel. In contrast, the Public Garden was the first public botanical garden in America. It was decorative and flowery from its inception featuring meandering pathways for strolling.

Boston Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual Fall Pumpkin Float in the Boston Common Frog Pond is planned for Friday, October 15, setting the stage for Halloween with jack-o-lanterns and spooky activities. The Head of the Charles Regatta, the world’s largest two-day rowing event, will be held October 22-24. Since its inception in 1965, The Head Of The Charles Regatta has attracted hundreds of thousands of rowers to the banks of the Charles River. The Boston Marathon returns on October 11 with a reduced field of 20,000 runners.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park, Georgia

One of Georgia’s oldest and most beloved state parks, Vogel is located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Driving from the south, visitors pass through Neel Gap, a beautiful mountain pass near Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia. Vogel is particularly popular during the fall when the Blue Ridge Mountains transform into a rolling blanket of red, yellow, and gold leaves. Hikers can choose from a variety of trails, including the popular 4-mile Bear Hair Gap loop, an easy lake loop that leads to Trahlyta Falls, and the challenging 13-mile Coosa Backcountry Trail. Cottages, campsites, and primitive backpacking sites provide a range of overnight accommodations. RV campers can choose from 90 campsites with electric hookups.

Chippewa Square © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah’s Squares

The best way to see Savannah is to set out on foot to walk its squares. Each one of these lush green spaces comes complete with businesses, homes, and churches. Some of these neighborhoods are tiny; others are huge. Some rest amid urban bustling while others sit quietly, disturbed only by the occasional thrasher or mockingbird.

Savannah’s squares are an invitation to stroll or simply relax and listen to the breeze stirring the oak trees and the clippity-clop of horse-drawn carriages wending around the roads. They’re the ideal jumping-off places to explore the walkable historic district.

First Baptist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I love Chippewa Square. It sits adjacent to the First Baptist Church and among beautiful townhomes. I never tire of seeking out its architectural secrets such as the charming fish-shaped caps on the downspouts that grace the homes facing the square.

Be sure to seek out the different squares and find a favorite of your own. There you may simply want to sit and let the lovely green park envelop you with its whisperings of centuries of life in this delightful city.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sand Surfing Monahans

As a winter sport, snowboarding is particularly ill-suited to the Texas climate. But if you’re willing to use a little imagination, you may find the next best thing waiting for you in the deserts of West Texas. True, there’s no white powder but powder-soft sand abounds at Monahans Sandhills State Park, the perfect place for sliding downhills. With entrance fees an affordable $4 per adult, it’s a lot cheaper than a ski lift ticket.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t have your own gear? No problem! You can rent a sand disc at the park’s head­quarters. There are endless sandhills to climb, jump or surf down. Pick a few and have fun! Boarding or sledding the dunes is more fun on the cool sand, so mornings and evenings are best. Midday, picnic at one of the park’s covered shelters or build a sandcastle, the Monahans equivalent of a snowman!

After playing in the sand all day, rinse off at one of the park’s watering stations before heading to your RV in the 26-site campground. Each site offers water and electric hookups, a picnic table, shade shelter, and a waist-high grill. Each site rents for $15 nightly plus a daily entrance fee.

Museum of Appalachia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where the Past Touches Your Soul

The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee, is a living history museum where you can “let the past touch your soul.” Visit a pioneer farm village that channels the voice of the South Appalachian folk through the artifacts and stories they left behind. Roam the 65-acres of picturesque land and experience a rural Appalachian community complete with 35 log cabins, barns, farm animals, churches, schools, and gardens. Discover a vast collection of folk art, musical instruments, baskets, quilts, and Native American artifacts.

John Rice Irwin collected artifacts and buildings over the course of 50 years assembling a typical early Appalachian village with barns, homes, and businesses. Musicians play traditional music, and a restaurant serves Southern home-style meals with ingredients from the museum’s gardens.

Worth Pondering…

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.

―L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

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

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon

Feel the magic of nature as you ride a comfortable shuttle through the wonders of Sabino Canyon

Ringed by four mountain ranges with magical names—the Santa Catalina to the north, the Santa Rita to the south, the Rincon to the east, and the Tucson to the west—the city of Tucson is surrounded by trails. Each one winds through the rugged and sometimes otherworldly landscape of the Sonoran Desert, where saguaro cacti stand like sentinels in the sand and ancient canyons await exploration.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many trails from which to choose, but the ones most beloved by Tucsonians are those that run through Sabino Canyon. Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas, Sabino has long been an oasis in the desert. In the era before air-conditioned houses and cars, people went to the canyon to cool off in the waters of Sabino Creek, or to rest in the shade of a sycamore tree.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each year more than a million visitors hike, bike, and experience nature in the canyon. And they do it all year round, because Sabino has something to offer in every season.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the exception of U.S. Forest Service vehicles, cars are not allowed in Sabino; overnight camping is prohibited, too. A tram takes visitors along a road paved by the federal Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. There are several stops along the way, and riders can get off where they choose. At the top of the road, you can reach such popular hikes as the Blackett’s Ridge and Telephone Line trails, as well as a swimming hole called Hutch’s Pool. A number of pleasant picnic areas are scattered throughout the canyon.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the creek is shallow and allows only for wading, there’s deeper water at Sabino Dam. Located in the lower canyon, the dam is an easy hike from the parking lot, and the swimming hole it creates is a local favorite. The creek flows almost year-round, but in May and June one runs the risk of not seeing water at all.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because of the desert’s large creek and unique microclimate—two rainy seasons make it moister than most others—Sabino is full of diverse plants and wildlife. For as long as humans have lived in this area, the canyon has been beloved for its rugged beauty and life-giving waters.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In fact, Sabino Creek is the largest on the south slope of the Santa Catalinas. The nearby trees provide cover for many birds. In addition to birds, one could easily see deer, javelina or even cougars. This place abounds with rodents and has more types of reptiles than you can count. Gila monsters, the largest lizards in the U.S., live in the canyon, and I suggest not touching them. They are venomous and move much faster than you’d expect.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert flora thrives here, especially the saguaros. The white flowers of these giant plants bloom in May and June. If you get the chance to smell them, the fragrance will remind you of watermelons.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And be on the lookout for the smaller, more obscure fishhook cacti, which bloom in July and August. In general, the best time to see wildflowers is March and April, though some varieties extend their bloom to October.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you plan to visit, pay close attention to the weather. Expect hot, humid conditions from July to the end of September, which is also the summer rainy season; around here they call it the monsoon. Beware of flash flooding, especially in the afternoon, when the heat is at its peak.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are so many miles of hiking trails in this canyon, we haven’t found most of them yet.

So come see Sabino Canyon—it never disappoints.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Favorite Stops Near Sabino Canyon

After exploring the natural beauty of Sabino Canyon, check out some of our favorite places around Tucson.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Xavier del Bac: Known as the White Dove of the Desert, this beautiful baroque church was completed in 1797 by Franciscan missionaries.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: Learn about all the mammals, birds, and native plants of the Sonoran Desert. It’s a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium all rolled into one.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park: Divided into eastern (Rincon Mountain) and western (Tucson Mountain) districts, this park is full of beautiful flora, especially in the late spring when the saguaro cacti are in bloom.

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers