Tucson: a Hiker’s Nirvana

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Photo by Rob Rachowiecki

Hot deserts and cool mountains provide year-round opportunities in Tucson

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The desert city of Tucson is great for hiking, with the distinction of having a National Park on both its east and west boundaries, and a cool 9000-foot high mountain range an hour’s drive to the north. Every day is a great day for hiking around “the old pueblo” if you follow the seasons and elevations. You have to be weather savvy to make the most of the outdoors and learning about the local climate will help you put your best foot forward.

If you need boots, maps, or other essentials, stop by Tucson’s original outdoor store, the Summit Hut. Avid hikers can pick up a copy of Five-Star Trails: Tucson for detailed information about 35 area hikes.

Hiking within Tucson

Just west of downtown, the City of Tucson maintains trails around Sentinel Peak – also known as “A” mountain for obvious reasons when you see it.  Hiking here gives the best views of the downtown area.

In mid-town Tucson (which refers to suburban growth east of downtown) the city’s Reid Park provides a three-mile urban circuit to stretch your legs.

Pima County Parks provide several developed multi-use areas both within and just around the city limits.  A favorite is the Rillito River Park along the (often bone-dry) Rillito River on the city’s north side – you could hike one to 20 miles in a semi-urban setting. Less well known is Agua Caliente Park on the far north-east side with short, easy loop trails around a lake. See the Pima County Parks link for more.

Saguaro National Park

Southern Arizona’s iconic yet comic, multi-limbed, giant saguaro cactus, found only here and in northern Mexico, is celebrated in two national park units. Both have informative visitor centers, driving tour roads, and numerous hiking trails.  Neither have lodges, restaurants, or RV campgrounds.

Saguaro National Park East (also known as the Rincon Mountain District) does allow tent camping, but this requires a long backpack into primitive campsites. Saguaro National Park West (also called the Tucson Mountain District) doesn’t have any camping at all, and almost all visitors to either district come on day trips. Detailed hiking information is available from the Visitor Center staff.

===> See the RELATED links below to explore local itineraries.

Coronado National Forest

The majority of the best hiking trails around Tucson fall under the auspices of the US Forest Service within the Coronado National Forest. Foremost among them is Sabino Canyon on the city’s northeast corner.  The Visitor Center here is also the Coronado Forest Ranger Station and is the best place to obtain maps and hiking information for all the places mentioned below..

Adjoining Sabino, and served by the same parking area, is Bear Canyon where a 5-mile out-and-back trail leads to Seven Falls. These are dry in midsummer but attract hikers after spring and monsoon rains. Other canyons tumble down from the Santa Catalina Mountains on Tucson’s northern boundaries and include Finger Rock Canyon, where a steep trail leads towards (but does not reach) the iconic rock which is a landmark on Tucson’s northern horizon.

These trails are excessively hot in summer, when you’ll find cooler hikes in the Santa Catalinas dominated by 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon reached by the scenic 28-mile Catalina Highway.

Madera Canyon, also part of the Coronado National Forest, is about 40 miles south of central Tucson and offers hikes, camping and picnicking at approximately a 5000 foot elevation.  Hikes range from wheel-chair accessible to strenuous ascents of 9,453-foot Mount Wrightson, southern Arizona’s highest peak.

Arizona State Parks

Two state parks are within an hour’s drive of Tucson and offer camping and hiking. Picacho Peak State Park features the most impressive landmark on I-10 driving north from Tucson to Phoenix, while Catalina State Park gives access to the west end of the Santa Catalinas.

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