A few weeks ago I spent a few days in Tucson, enjoying the heat and sun of the Sonoran Desert. I’d only been to Tucson once, previously, but I quickly found that I preferred it to the Phoenix area. Among other things, there are a lot of outdoor recreational opportunities. With Saguaro National Park, the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, and a swath of Coronado National Forest all at the city’s doorstep, there isn’t a short supply of great hiking. Here are five of the best Tucson area hikes I’ve enjoyed:
Wasson Peak is the highest point in the western section of Saguaro National Park and makes for an excellent day hike. Although it’s a climb of nearly 2,000 feet in elevation gain, you’re rewarded with excellent views of Tucson to the east and the Avra Valley to the west. There are plenty of saguaro to enjoy, and you’ll likely see some of the native fauna as well. I spotted some deer and a few rabbits during my ascent. There isn’t much shade, so be prepared to stop frequently on the way up and bring plenty of water.
You have a couple of options for hiking to the summit. You can stick to the King Canyon Trail, hiking it as an out and back. A second out-and-back option is possible from the same trailhead, taking the Gould Mine Trail and Connecting to the Hugh Norris Trail up to the top. This is a longer route than King Canyon. I suggest simply making it a loop, and this is the route I provide below.
As with most desert hiking, hitting the trail as early as possible is ideal to miss the desert heat. I actually hiked this late in the day, though, and did not find it all that bad. Departing from the trailhead at 4:00 PM allowed me to reach the summit with about an hour until sunset. I arrived back at the trailhead after sunset, but before it was truly dark.
Starting Point: King Canyon Trailhead (just beyond the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum)
Length: 7.8 miles
Bear Canyon to Seven Falls
The trail to Seven Falls is one of the most popular hikes in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area and will make any list of the best Tucson area hikes. The out-and-back hike is moderate, winding slowly up the canyon at a gentle incline until the final climb and descent to the falls itself. You’ll be treated to a series of falls and pools naturally carved into the stone of the desert. Well…that may be overselling it. At least in May. The pools are certainly cool and refreshing, but the falls were barely a trickle.
The hike is still solidly worth it, though, even as summer approaches. You’ve trekked all the way up here, and pulling off your boots and sticking your toes in the water is wonderfully refreshing. I got as early a start as I could to beat the heat, but I still didn’t make it back to the trailhead until nearly 11:00 AM.
During the spring, the creek within the canyon will likely be running. The trail crosses seven times, which is easy to remember, as you’re headed to Seven Falls. Be cautious crossing, and do consider the weather, as you’re hiking in a desert canyon and there is always the potential for flash floods during or after rain. In the late spring to early summer, the water is low. I had no issues hopping rocks across the creek each time the trail passed through it.
I came within several feet of a rattlesnake during the hike. Make sure you keep your eyes peeled as you’re walking!
Starting Point: Sabino Canyon Recreation Area Parking Lot
Length: 8.5 miles
Route: Bear Canyon Trail (note: the first section parallels the southern edge of the Recreation Area)
Phoneline – Rattlesnake – Esperero Loop
This is the first hike I enjoyed during my recent trip. I’d intended to do a longer one in Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, but I got up too late and missed the ideal window to do Blackett’s Ridge or Sabino Canyon Trail. I didn’t want to do any steep ascents during the heat of the day, so I settled on this instead. Turns out it was a fine choice, as you’re treated to some nice views of the valley and you can even enjoy some shaded spots depending on when you hike.
The trail climbs gently at first, increasing as you get further up the Phoneline Trail. I’d recommend hiking it counter-clockwise like I did, as the Phoneline Link trail to the Rattlesnake Trail is the steepest part, and you’ll head down this section rather than up. This one is a bit shorter, and if you hike quickly, you’ll be done in two hours or so. But take your time and enjoy the desert!
Starting Point: Sabino Canyon Recreation Area Parking Lot
Length: 4.4 miles
Route: Check Out the AllTrails Map
Green Mountain – Brush Corral Loop
At the suggestion of a retiree who has been living in Tucson for several years, I headed up to Mt. Lemmon for my last day in town. The views on the drive up are incredible, and the weather is cooler the higher you climb. This is the main plus for choosing to hike hear as summer approaches, as many of the other trails will become unbearable in the heat.
Without a ton of time to explore, I chose to hike the Green Mountain – Brush Corral loop trail, starting from the San Pedro Vista point. It’s a moderately strenuous hike, as you wind down the ridge to another below and have to climb back out. But the views are amazing, and the hike is very enjoyable. Take the ascent slow, however. It’s quite a climb no matter which way you decide to hike the loop, and hiking at 7,000 feet will leave you quickly winded.
Don’t miss the Windy Point Vista or Babad Do’ag Overlook while driving up or down the mountain!
Starting Point: San Pedro Vista
Length: 4.1 miles
Route: AllTrails Loop Map
Hidden Canyon – Bowen Loop
This is a short hike that makes for a fun hour. It’s easy, with a moderate incline for a short stretch, but overall not a lot of elevation gain. You’ll see some saguaro and be able to look down the hill toward downtown Tucson below. If you don’t like hiking much and just want to enjoy a quick excursion in the desert, this is an easy recommendation. I encountered a few other people out in the evening on the Bowen Trail, but I had the Hidden Canyon Trail all to myself.
If you’re staying at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort, the loop trail is literally steps away. You can see the trailhead from the sidewalk in front of the main entrance.
Starting Point: Parking Spaces Near the Hidden Canyon Trailhead
Length: 2.1 miles
Hiking and walking are my favorite thing to do while traveling. Traipsing around a new city on foot with plenty of time to stop, sit, smell, and savor some food at times gives you the best first taste of what it has to offer. For more natural wonders, hiking cannot be outdone. It’s easy, inexpensive, and great exercise. While these are just five of the best Tucson area hikes, this desert destination has plenty more to offer.