Arizona has three national parks, one that most Americans have heard of—the Grand Canyon—and two lesser-known parks (Petrified Forest and Saguaro).
Saguaro is the only National park split into two locations—its east and west branches flank Tucson’s downtown and are almost 30 miles apart. At just a 15- to 30-minute drive, each is easily accessible from downtown Tucson. Or you could take a day trip from Phoenix or Scottsdale, just a three- or four-hour round trip.
My partner and I were lucky enough to spend three weeks in Tucson while visiting my father-in-law. Fortunately, hiking was the perfect socially distanced activity to do while isolating before we saw him—and Arizona was the perfect place for it.
A few things to keep in mind if you are planning a hiking trip to the Tucson area.
- Flash floods are common throughout the American west. This is especially true during the monsoon season, which runs from June to September. If you are planning on a gorge or riverside hike, check the weather forecast for any chance of rain. Keep your eyes open for changing skies, water changing from clear to muddy, or debris in the river. Keep your ears open to an increasing “roar” from upstream, or thunder indicating an approaching storm. If you notice any of these signs, seek higher ground immediately; even a few feet could save your life.
- The main thing to keep in mind when hiking in Tucson is the heat. Although you can comfortably hike year-round in Arizona—there’s very little humidity, so even at 90°F (32°C) the heat isn’t stifling—it’s always important to be prepared with sufficient water and sun protection. Mount Wrightson and the Catalina Mountains around Mt. Lemmon are great choices, as there are loads of high-altitude hikes (which are naturally cooler, even in summer) with shade along the trails.
- There is an entrance fee for Saguaro National Park. Once paid, it’s good for seven days for the west and east locations. Payment options include honor/self-pay stations, mobile apps and online portals; you can also pay in person at the Red Hills Visitor Center and Rincon Mountain Entrance station.
- If you’re headed to a specific hike within Saguaro, make sure to use the trailhead in your driving directions rather than the name of the park. The parks are large; you can drive 45 minutes and still be inside!
Saguaro National Park West
Best for: cacti
Saguaro West is about as picturesque as it gets when it comes to cacti! We chose the Picture Rocks Trailhead at the north end of the park because we weren’t sure how long of a hike we would feel up to. Picture Rocks Trail is 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) out and back, estimated to take a relatively quick 80 minutes. At the halfway turnaround point, you can choose to either return, or continue on to Coyote Pass Loop, a two-hour, 40-minute loop—including the 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) you’ve already done.
We felt that well-known sense of hiker camaraderie at the very beginning of our hike, when someone passing us in the opposite direction told us that there was a rattlesnake ahead on the right of the trail. We were nervous, but it was a great experience stopping and listening to its rattle from a distance. We waited it out, until it ultimately slithered across the path, disappearing under the brush.
We waited another minute, leaving what we felt was a reasonable distance. Even then, our first step forward was greeted with an immediate distant rattle. We were still too close for comfort for the rattler—and therefore for us! If you encounter any wildlife like this on the trails, make sure to alert other hikers you pass for the next few minutes, as they’ll do the same for you.
Mica View Trail at Saguaro East
Best for: accessible trails and interestingly shaped cacti
The beauty of Tucson is that you can find the perfect hike for outdoor lovers of all abilities and skill levels. The hike we chose at Saguaro National Park East was a low-key loop with wide trails and minimal elevation change. It would be perfect for someone with limited mobility, or with a stroller. The trailhead parking lot is also outside the official national park, so there is easy access.
Tanque Verde Falls
Best for: swimming and scrambling
My favorite hike during the three weeks I spent in Tucson was Tanque Verde. It starts with a descent down the side of a gorge from the trailhead before following a small river as the gorge gradually narrows. Quickly you realize why this two-mile round-trip hike is a few hours’ endeavor because the majority of it requires you to scramble—use your hands to assist you on the trail, usually around and over large boulders. Kind of a half crawl, half climb, half hike.
I love the scrambling style of hiking because it means there is no defined trail, and you get to choose your own adventure around different obstacles on the route. At Tanque Verde, that means traversing streams, boulders, and waterfalls. If you make the wrong choices, you will either have to backtrack or take off your socks and shoes to wade in!
The journey itself was fun enough, but towards the end you reach the series of waterfalls, each of which have an area where you can swim or set up a towel and relax for a while. I highly recommend planning at least a half day here so you can take your time on the route and enjoy the viewpoints. I couldn’t believe that I got in to swim at the end despite the frigid water temperatures, but it was too beautiful not to. One of the main challenges with hiking in Tucson is the heat, so these pools would be great for cooling off in the summer.
Best for: escaping the heat
It’s hard to believe Mt. Wrightson is in the same city as the rest of the cactus-strewn desert hikes on this list. The jewel of this beautiful peak is the shade along the trail (something a cactus just can’t offer!). As you ascend the 9,452-foot (2,880-meter) peak—up from Tucson’s 2,400 feet (731 meters)—you will feel the temperature drop. We were there in April and even experienced a brief snowfall.
The mountain is great for spotting wildlife, and if you get lucky you could see mountain lions, bobcats, bears, jaguars, and coati. It’s also a popular destination for birders. If you don’t feel up to the whole 11.6-mile (18.6-kilometer) hike, you can turn off at the Josephine Saddle as we did, and take an alternate route down, greeted with beautiful views through the foliage.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
Best for: options and river views
A nature lover’s playground when it comes to hiking options, Sabino Canyon is a three-mile gorge located inside Coronado National Forest, at the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. It’s somewhere easy to arrive without a plan, as most of the side trails start from the paved Upper Sabino Canyon Road.
Sentinel Peak Park (“A” Mountain) and Tumamoc Hill
Best for: panoramic views
These downtown-adjacent peaks have 360-degree views of the skyline and surrounding mountains. There are many quicker one- to two-hour hikes, and you will find yourself in the company of many students from Tucson’s University of Arizona, locals and other visitors.
With just three weeks in Arizona, the time and hikes absolutely flew by. I spoke with local Sahuarita resident Steve Wahman to get a few recommendations for hikes to try the next time we return to the Copper State.
Seven Falls Waterfall
This nine-mile round-trip hike is a relatively relaxed half-day hike that will take you down well-mapped and well-traveled trails. Keep in mind my tip about flash floods above, as the presence of water on the trail means an increased chance of sudden torrents.
If you have an eye for crazy landscapes, this peak is for you. It is also more challenging, involving chains and ropes as you ascend straight up the peak. (Gloves are nice-to-have.) It’s located a bit outside of Tucson proper, a 40-minute drive in the direction of Phoenix.
If you want to do a bit of research on your own, and have your choice of trails, Mt. Lemmon sits just northeast of Tucson in the Coronado National Forest. It’s also a great choice in summer, as it’s 9,159-foot (2,791-meter) elevation means cooler temperatures.