If you enjoy hiking, you’ll love Tucson, Arizona. It’s just about as simple as that. Since the city is surrounded by five mountain ranges and bordered by two halves of a national park, there are seemingly endless opportunities to get out and experience nature, whether that’s 9,000 feet above sea level on Mt. Lemmon or a few steps away from a luxury resort. Here are ten of the best places to go hiking in Tucson, for both experienced hikers and those who are lacing up their boots for the first time.
Located in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, the moderate hike to and from Seven Falls is accessed through the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area approximately 30 minutes from downtown Tucson, but also only a few minutes from restaurants and hotels. Yes, there’s a $5 day pass needed to enter the recreation area (this is true of nearly everything in the Catalinas), but you get a convenient parking lot and visitor’s centre at the beginning of your journey in exchange. The “Falls” part of this area’s name does refer to waterfalls, which run most of the year. Start up the Bear Canyon trail, turn at the sign and enjoy a half-day hike with a break for splashing in cool pools of water.
In the Tucson Mountains, Tumamoc Hill calls to city-dwellers looking for a relatively easy quick hike up a gently sloped paved road. There are a few catches: the path is closed between 7:30am and 5:30pm Monday through Friday (there’s a research station at the top that needs the road) and you can’t bring your pets. However, the 3.1 mile round trip offers a spectacular view of the city and – if timed right – a great vista for sunrises and sunsets.
Located in the beautiful Tucson Mountain Park (also the home of movie studio Old Tucson and spectacular zoo Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum), the Yetman Train offers a moderately difficult hiking experience of about 12 miles round-trip on a well-maintained path. While you’re just a few minutes west of Tucson, there’s a distinct feeling of seclusion and quietness on the Yetman Trail among thousands of saguaro cacti.
Also located off the Bear Canyon Trail, Blackett’s Ridge is a more challenging excursion, but one that pays off with breathtaking views in nearly every direction of both the city, Sabino and Bear Canyons and the Santa Catalinas. While you do have to prepare yourself (and your calves) for the 1700 feet in elevation gain over six miles, this is the sort of hike that inspires great memories – and great Instagram photos, too.
First, a warning: walking through the trails around the various pools of Tanque Verde Falls, you might see some unexpected sights. The Reddington Pass area in the Rincon Mountains east of the city is a haven for nudists, so the sight of someone wearing a hat, hiking boots and nothing else (although let’s hope lots of sunscreen) isn’t particularly uncommon. Even if you’d prefer to keep your clothes on, the pools of this area are a great sight and some of the waterfalls are around 100 feet tall. A more serious warning: jumping from adjacent rocks into the pools is a bad idea due to unexpected submerged rocks and surprising currents.
The low elevations of the Tucson Mountains mean that the trails of this area aren’t ideal during Tucson’s summer months, but the rest of the year – especially in the winter – the hike to Wasson Peak is a spectacular opportunity to experience the best of the Sonoran Desert. Majestic saguaro are abundant on your trip to the 4687 feet height of Wasson Peak, and while it’s not an easy hike over some rocky hillsides and through sandy washes, the Red Hills to the west of Tucson are worth the effort.
Yes, it’s a little strange that the trailhead for the Ventana Trail starts in the employee parking lot of the Loews Ventana Canyon, and of the trails on this list, this might be the most challenging with some steep switchbacks, but the payoff is well worth it. The last section is possibly the most difficult, but when you get to “The Window,” in front of a hundred-foot drop, the view is unparalleled, expanding towards the city below. If you’re staying at the hotel, the tough journey will be rewarded with a tasty cocktail.
With the word “mountain” in the name, you’d imagine the end of this hike would be the best part, but getting to the summit is almost an anti-climax. It’s the journey that’s the point of this trail, as you wind through forests, canyons and a far greener environment than you’d expect from a desert. Make the trip in March or April and you’ll likely get the treat of some snow on the ground.
This is one of the easy ones and provides a nice leisurely trip for all ages through the eastern portion of Saguaro National Park from a trailhead at the end of Speedway Boulevard, one of Tucson’s major streets. If you want to get outside, experience the surprising amount of green, and hopefully finish with a running waterfall at the end of your walk, Douglas Springs is for you. It’s well marked, has a nice mix of terrain and is good for the whole family.
If you can find a way to get to the peak of Mt. Wrightson, the highest peak in the Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson, you should do so. With thick ponderosa pines, oaks, ferns and an environment that seems very out of place with the desert (yet still very green) biomes of the majority of Tucson area hiking trails, the Old Baldy Trail is about 11 miles round-trip and worth every step.
A helpful Tucson hiking tip:
If you need some help or supplies for your hiking adventure, try the locally owned Summit Hut, with two locations in Tucson. They carry the obvious items and stuff you never knew you needed, plus maps. Staff here are always happy to share their suggestions of how you can best enjoy hiking in Tucson.
Header image © iStock/Skyak
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Written by Dan Gibson