Today, it is hard to believe that Tucson was at one point a sleepy little desert town. These days are long gone, and consequently, real estate prices continue to climb as more and more 2nd home owners flock to the area for a mild winter escape. New restaurants and businesses continually open their doors. Winter resorts are often booked months in advance as Midwesterners whom are tired of the cold flock to the sunshine of the Southwest.
With the increase in tourism comes pricier resorts, attractions, and restaurants. Luckily, there are still tons of freebies lurking about courtesy of Tucson’s beautiful natural location in the Sonoran Desert. If you are an avid hiker, cyclist, and in general, a nature lover, you will have no shortage of fun, free recreational activities.
While many find the desert landscapes boring and barren, others find it enchanting and peaceful. If you fall into the latter, then you will definitely appreciate the uniqueness of the trails found throughout the region. Much of the beauty found at pricey national & state parks can be enjoyed via community parks and trails for free.
Whether you are a local looking for a budget friendly weekend activity, or a tourist looking to keep activity costs low, the following free activities & attractions should keep you more than busy.
1. Hike the Linda Vista trail
The Linda Vista trail is my favorite quick, easy hike within the Tucson metro area. This one is located in Oro Valley, a nice suburb about 20 minutes north of the city. This beautiful trail features wonderful views of the Catalina mountains, Tucson’s most prominent mountain range. In fact, the trailhead is right down the street from gorgeous Catalina State Park, and thus, a great alternative for those who wish to save 7 bucks on the entrance fee.
There are several trail options here including a fantastic little 0.7 mile loop which should take you no more than an hour or so. Despite being located right next to a strip mall, this trail is very peaceful, scenic, and rarely ever crowded. Beautiful saguaro cacti, as well as several other varieties of cacti, surround you in every direction. The mountain views are stunning, with the views being even more enchanting at sunset. This is also one of the best trails in town for spotting wildlife and the only place where I’ve ever seen a bobcat in the wild!
Tip: Stop for a healthy lunch at Beyond Bread, a local bakery/sandwich shop with a menu similar to Panera Bread. Great sandwiches and delicious soup (try the tomato basil)!
How to get here: 730 E Linda Vista Rd, Oro Valley, AZ 85737. Look for the Canyons at Linda Vista apartments – you will find a small parking lot to the left.
2. Take a cruise along the Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway
The beautiful Catalina Scenic Byway travels 30 picturesque miles from Tucson all the way up to the small community of Summerhaven at the base of Mt Lemmon. Mt Lemmon is one of several Sky Islands, found in Arizona and New Mexico. Sky Islands are basically high altitude regions surrounded by lower altitude areas consisting of completely different ecosystems. Both the scenery and temperatures of Mt Lemmon vary drastically from the Sonoran Desert below.
This drive is pretty exhilarating due to the drastic elevation and scenery changes, consisting of everything from cacti covered mountains at the start of the drive to dense forests of pines near the top where the elevation climbs near 6000 ft. There are numerous overlooks along the way where you can get out and explore more, take pics, picnic, etc.
Once you reach the top of the drive, you will find a number of hiking trails, a seasonal ski lift, and a few restaurants. This daytrip is definitely worth your time if you have at least a half day to spare. Hiking amongst the tall pines is a must during Tucson’s brutal summer season as the temps are typically at least 20 degrees cooler. Leaf peeping in the fall is also a must as it is nice to see such a diversity of fall foliage so close to the desert. And of course, if you like winter sports, you can check out the ski trails or embark on a snowshoeing adventure through the pines.
Tip: Plan for a picnic lunch to take in the gorgeous natural surroundings – there are many options, both on the drive up and at the base. If you prefer to let someone else do the cooking, the Iron Door restaurant is your best bet. They serve delicious Quiche which you can enjoy from the lovely shady outdoor patio.
3. Enjoy the trails at Sweetwater Preserve
Sweetwater Preserve is another fantastic place to hike, and really convenient too as it is just a short drive from downtown. This preserve features 12 miles of interconnected trails, which you can combine for your preferred distance (start on the Saguaro Vista trail). You will see all sorts of local fitness enthusiasts out on these trails, walking, jogging, biking, really anything to get out and about in nature for a bit. The best part of all is that the trails are all really well-marked, a rarity in this area.
Even though the preserve is located right in the city, the scenery is really fantastic and you will feel lost in nature as soon as you hit the trail. This place really never gets overly crowded so it maintains that peaceful, isolated desert vibe. Spending a few hours at Sweetwater is a perfect way to spend a leisurely lazy morning enjoying the diverse plant life found in the Sonoran Desert. And best of all, it’s completely free to visit!
Tip: Stop by nearby Mercado San Agustin for some tasty breakfast tacos and a delicious cup of local coffee.
How to get here: The preserve is located at 4001 N Tortolita Rd Tucson, AZ 85745. There are parking spots for 8 vehicles, so get our earlier in the morning to ensure a spot.
4. Free First Thursdays at the Tucson Museum of Art
Every First Thirsday of the month, the Tucson Museum of Art opens its’ doors free to all. This is a pretty great deal as admission is usually 12 bucks. This 74,000 square foot museum is pretty impressive for such a small city. The main focus here is on modern and contemporary art with special sections dedicated to Western and Native American, Latin, and Asian art.
You will find lots of gorgeous Southwestern style pieces, which definitely gives this museum (and others in the Southwest in general) an interesting twist. The layout is pretty unique with a ramp style walk which will take you through the 3 different levels. Overall, a visit to the museum is a great way to kill a few hours indoors in the air on a hot summer afternoon!
The museum is located downtown and free parking is usually available unless it happens to be a really busy night. The on-site Cafe A’La Carte is pretty good and was recently ranked as one of the best museum restaurants in the country. The food is pretty decent and the outdoor patio gorgeous and shady, although the coffee is just mediocre.
Tip: Check out one of the delicious downtown coffee roasters before your visit. Exo Roast and Cartel are both excellent local choices!
How to get here: The museum is located at 140 N Main Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701
5. Enjoy spectacular views of the Tortolita Mountains via the Wild Burro trail
The beautiful Ritz Carlton Resort at Dove Mountain in Marana, a suburb just outside of Tucson, is home to a fantastic secluded trail system. You will find a diverse variety of trails here, each providing magnificent views of the mountain scenery and native cacti. The uninterrupted nature of the area makes this an especially nice place to hike as opposed to others which are nearby busy freeways and strip malls.
The best trail here is the Lower Javelina Loop (1.7 miles) because it is long enough for a decent workout, yet not long enough to wear you out for the rest of the day. If you are up for a challenge, the 2.7 mile Upper Javelina Loop is another great option suited more for advanced hikers. As the conditions are much harsher in the desert, you should bring plenty of water and a few snacks. Do not underestimate the difficulty of these trails – 2 miles in the desert feels more like 5 due to the elevation changes and brutal dry conditions. All trails here, and elsewhere in Tucson for the matter, are best suited for the spring and winter season as there is absolutely no shade.
While the hike itself is just gorgeous, even the drive to get over to the resort is quite scenic with fantastic views of the natural desert surroundings. Wildlife frequent the area, especially the javelina, which are commonly seen both on the trails and around town. They can be really dangerous, especially if you have pets, so keep your distance. I’ve run into javelina on several occasions in Marana. It is free to park at the trailhead, whether or not you are staying at the resort.
Tip: Be sure to enjoy a hearty breakfast pre-hike as the intense conditions of the desert require plenty of extra energy. Core Kitchen at the Rtiz resort offers both a continental and buffet style breakfast, with the option of ordering a-la-carte. It’s pretty pricey though, so if you are looking for a budget friendly alternative check out local favorite Baja Cafe, just a short drive away in town.
How to get here: The trailhead begins at the Ritz, located at 15000 North Secret Springs Drive, Marana, AZ 85658.
6. Take a bike ride along The Loop
The Loop is a series of connected paved recreational trails throughout Tucson and the suburbs of Oro Valley & Marana, totaling over 120 miles with plans for an additional 10 in the future. Cyclists, joggers, horseback riders, and dog walkers can all be seen out enjoying a safe, car-free place to workout. The trails provide access to numerous parks, shops, and restaurants.
There are many access points, although my favorite place to start a ride is near Rillito River Park. There is a free parking lot here, it is in a safe area, and you can take a quick ride over to the wonderful Saturday Heirloom Farmer’s Market. This market features dozens of local vendors, selling everything from fresh produce, fresh farm eggs & raw dairy products, and hand made goods. It’s nice to hop off your bike and simply stroll around for a bit, sampling various foods and even grabbing a bite to eat from one of the vendors or food trucks, regardless if you need any produce at the time.
The path is scenic enough for the desert despite following the course of a dry riverbed, which occasionally fills with water during the rainy summer monsoon season. Only in Arizona will you learn that a river does not always mean water! Although the trail is almost completely absent of shade, you will find a bit of desert landscaping along the way, and at some points (particularly near Oro Valley) great views of the mountains. If you are looking for a nice easy workout with decent views of the desert, the Loop is a great place to check out.
Tip: Although the path is very flat and easy, it’s best suited for the spring and fall season as it’s much too hot in the summer due to the lack of shade. If you do plan your visit during the 100+ degree summer season, be sure to get out there before 9am! Oh, and there are plenty of bike rental shops all over, so that should not be a problem.
How to get here: I recommend starting at Rillito River Park (4200 N. Campbell in Tucson) or near the Oro Valley Marketplace (12155 N. Oracle Rd in Oro Valley).
7. Plan a mini escape to the tropics at Aqua Caliente Park
Aqua Caliente (which translates to “hot springs”) is a hidden gem amongst Tucson parks due to the beautiful tropical plant life and natural spring fed ponds found here. The park offers a rare setting not found elsewhere in Tucson. If you are sick of the barren desert views, Aqua Caliente is your best bet. The beautiful vegetation consists of a mix of palm trees and mesquite trees. You will find ducks and turtles and various non native fish species enjoying the warm water of the ponds. Birdwatching is also popular here, as well as wildlife watching (bobcats and javelina are frequently sighted at dusk and dawn).
The park is really small at just 100 acres, however, there’s lots to do in the compact space, including several hiking trails, an abundance of picnic trails, wildlife watching (lots of unique animals and diverse plant life call this desert oasis home), a nature shop, and a historic center and art gallery. The large grassy area is perfect for sports, picnicking, and relaxing. Overall, a visit to Aqua is just a great way to get outside into nature in a rare shady setting not really found anywhere else in the desert. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy a lovely lunch next to the palms.
Tip: Combine a trip to Aqua with your visit to Saguaro National Park, which is just 10 miles away. In a city with lots of traffic and stoplights like Tucson, it helps to combine nearby attractions!
How to get here: Aqua Caliente is located at 12325 E Roger Rd, Tucson, AZ 85749. There are limited parking spaces, so avoid holiday weekends.
8. Hike Tumanoc Hill
Tumanoc Hill is an iconic hike in the center of the city, just minutes from the growing downtown region. The hike to the top of this prominent 3100 foot butte is popular with both tourists and locals due to the picturesque setting and convenience. Tumanoc Hill is owned by the University of Arizona College of Science and used as a research facility and observatory, however, the paved trail is open to the public.
The 1.3 mile hike is very steep and quite challenging, especially for those not accustomed to the intense sunny, dry climate of the desert. Although many only make it half way up, the views continue to get better if you continue on. Beautiful vistas of the desert and mesmerizing desert plant life line the trail. If you make it up to the top, you will enjoy a nice relaxing scenic downhill trek of just over a mile.
Tip: If you can make it out here at sunrise or sunset the views are even more enchanting. The cactus silhouette at either time is pretty amazing. This hike is also close to Mercado San Agustin, so be sure to treat yourself to the area’s most delicious tacos and a cup of locally brewed coffee!
How to get here: Tumanoc is located at Tumamoc Hill Rd, Tucson, AZ 85745. There is plenty of free side street parking available.
9. Take in world class photography at the Center for Creative Photography
Although quite limited in hours, this free art gallery is worth a look if you happen to be anywhere near the downtown/U of A area as it is just minutes away. If you are an aspiring photographer, it’s definitely a must-see while in town. The collection includes over 90,000 photos by over 2000 photographers. The center was founded in 1975 by renowned photographer Ansel Adams. Full archives of dozens of the most famous photographers can be found here.
Tip: Relax with a pot of tea at the Scented Leaf Lounge before or after your visit. This local tea shop near U of A carries an amazing selection of loose leaf teas – the biggest in the area by far.
How to get here: The Center is located at 1030 N Olive Rd, Tucson, AZ 85719. Admission is free and free parking can be found on the side streets.
10. Take in a gorgeous desert sunset
While watching any sunset is a memorable experience, a desert sunset is pretty exhilarating due to the brilliant colors and silhouette of the cactus. One of my favorite places for watching the sunset over the mountains is the Linda Vista trail in Oro Valley. Because the trail is so short and easy, it’s really easy to time your hike just prior to sunset. Plus, there is usually always wildlife about. Other hotspots for great sunset vistas are Gates Pass, Tumanoc Hill, and A Mountain. Saguaro National Park, although a bit pricey at 2o buck per vehicle, is another great sunset destination in Tucson.
11. Drive up A Mountain
Driving up A Mountain, a 2897 peak just SW of downtown, would not necessarily be tops on my list of fun freebies in Tucson, however, it’s a great option for those not able to make the intense trek up Tumanoc Hill. Officially named Sentinel Peak, the mountain got its’ nickname in 1910 when students from the University of Arizona used basalt rock to construct a 160 foot “A” on the rock. The drive to the peak offers some pretty nice views of the city and surrounding mountains. As mentioned above, the views are particularly mesmerizing at sunset.
Tip: I recommend combining this drive with other area activities as it is not really worth the drive in and of itself. Check out one of the downtown attractions like the Museum of Art, or treat yourself to a nice breakfast at Maynards or Cup Cafe at the historic Congress Hotel.
How to get here: The drive begins near 1000 S Sentinel Peak Rd Tucson, AZ 85745 (a bit hard to find the road due to the poor signage).
12. Tour the Mission San Xavier del Bac
One of Tucon’s most stunning attractions, the beautiful Mission San Xavier del Bac, is completely free to visit. This gorgeous Spanish Catholic Mission was founded in 1692 by Padre Eusebio Kino who sought to spread Christianity throughout New Spain. The mission is said to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the country. It is the oldest standing European structure in Arizona and was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
The mission is open daily from 7am-5pm for self guided tours, except when weddings and other special events are in session. There is also a gift shop on-site, which is open from 8-5. The inside is very extravagant with ornate decor, gorgeous murals, and unique statues and carvings from the 17th century. It really is an amazing place to check out, particularly if you are interested in old architecture or churches in general.
Tip: Since you are already heading out in the same direction, I recommend planning a visit to Madera Canyon, one of the best places to hike in Southern Arizona. This canyon is located at a higher altitude than Tucson, and thus, offers cooler temperatures year-round and more lush surroundings. Fall foliage is great and it is considered one of the state’s best sites for birdwatching.
How to get here: The Mission is located at 1950 W San Xavier Rd, Tucson, AZ 85746. Parking is free.
13. Enjoy a prime view of the Catalina Mountains at Canada del Oro Riverfront Park
This large park in Oro Valley is by far the most beautiful in the area. Aside from all the usual park amenities (baseball fields, tennis courts, basketball courts, large grassy areas, and picnicking facilities), there is a nice easy 1 mile loop around the park where you can stroll, jog, or bike while taking in the pretty mountain views. Lots of cacti and other plants native to the desert line the trail, creating a natural, uninterrupted setting. There are fun fitness stations along the way if you really want to challenge yourself. Wildlife is abundant too. Bunnies are frequently sighted in the evening hours.
Additionally, a section of The Loop bike path starts here, so you can conveniently park for easy access. The park is clean and well maintained and located off on a side street so there is barely any traffic noise. The basketball and tennis courts are both lit up at night, so you can play after the sunset when the temps begin to cool down.
Tip: Limit summer visits to the morning hours only! Afternoon temps are obviously too brutal and night temps are not much better (typically still well over 90 degrees until 9 or so).
How to get here: The park is located at 551 W Lambert Ln, Oro Valley, AZ 85737. Hours are 6am-10pm.
14. Head to the gorgeous JW Marritt Starr Pass Resort for a gorgeous hike along the Bowen Hidden Canyon trail
The Bowen Hidden Canyon trail is an extremely picturesque 2 mile loop which begins at the exclusive JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort. This hidden gem of a trail is so worth the drive. The gorgeous desert scenery along the way alone makes the drive out here worth it.
Bowen is yet another terrific trail which barely sees any traffic. One of the things that separates Tucson from Phoenix is the visually spectacular hiking trails which feature bigger and better mountain views. Also, many of the trails in the Phoenix are are constantly busy, so much so that you often have to drive around /wait in your car for a lengthy time just to get a parking spot. Fortunately, this is rarely the case in Tucson. In fact, you are more than likely to have an entire trail completely to yourself!
If you have the time for the drive out to the resort, the Bowen Hidden Canyon trail is about as good as it gets. It’s easy enough for beginner hikers and the cacti and mountain views here are unparalleled.
Tip: There is a really nice Starbucks at the resort which features fabulous views of the mountains. There is also a nice breakfast restaurant, although it’s a bit overpriced. I recommend checking out one of my 5 recommended Tucson breakfast choices.
15. Take a self guided tour along the Turquoise Trail
The Turquoise Trail, officially named the Presidio trail, is a 2.5 mile long walking tour through 23 points of interests in downtown Tucson. A turquoise line amongst the sidewalk guides you through the various landmarks. The most interesting sights to see include the beautiful historic Fox Theater, the historic Hotel Congress, and the El Tiradito wishing shrine.
The El Tiradito wishing shrine (pictured above) is one of the more unusual attractions in town. This is the only US shrine dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried on unconsecrated ground. Today, visitor’s light a candle to free the soul of Juan Oliveros. Legend says that if your candle continues to burn through the night, your wish will come true.
There are lots of places along the way to stop for breakfast or coffee. Recommended restaurants include Maynards, Cup Cafe, and 47 Scott.
A free map is available at the Tucson Visitor’s Center or download this handy map.
And a few more budget friendly activities (less than 10 bucks)
Treat yourself to a delicious gelato at Frost – The popular high end gelato chain originally opened its’ doors in Tucson and has now spread to many major cities. This is hands down the best gelato in the area. The staff are friendly and let you sample as many flavors as you like, of which there are more than 2 dozen to consider. Try the dark chocolate – it’s amazing. A large scoop is well under 10 bucks and does wonders to cool you down on a hot Tucson day.
Check out the local coffee scene – There are lots of great independent coffee shops around Tucson, so no need to resort to a Starbucks here. Enjoying a local cup of joe is the perfect way to spend a lazy hot day in the city. Check out my top 5 coffeehouses in Tucson.
Hike the gorgeous Pima Canyon trail
This trail is located in the gorgeous Catalina Foothills region of Tucson. It’s really long (about 4 miles each way), however, you can go out to your comfort level and still enjoy the fabulous scenery.
See one of the largest miniature collections at the Mini Time Museum – This eclectic museum features hundreds of incredible miniature dollhouse, all organized into 3 different sections (History, Enchanted, and Around the World). It’s a great little museum to check out anytime of the year – of course, it’s best to kill a few hours here during the intense summer season!
The University of Arizona Museum of Art – For just 5 bucks,you can view an impressive collection of fine art.
Take a stroll around Reid Park & the Zoo
The Reid Park Zoo is small, yet worthy of the small $10 admission charge. You will find a surprising diversity of animals despite the smallish size. The landscaping is nice considering the desert environment and the zoo is small enough to walk around in a hour or so. Reid Park is a nice large park adjacent to the Reid Park Zoo. The best feature here are the 2 ponds, surrounding by lush landscaping, definitely a plus in the barren desert. In addition to all the usual park amenities, you will also find a nice biking/jogging path, along with a beautiful seasonal rose garden.
Step back into the 80’s at D and D Pinball
Step back in time at D & D Pinball, an arcade dedicated to classic pinball machines from the last 5 decades. Games are just 50-75 cents a piece. D & D is located downtown on 4th Avenue.
Play a round of mini golf at Golf N’Stuff -While most outdoor activities are quite intolerable during the summer season, Golf N’Stuff is home to a surprisingly lush shaded, tropical themed course. A full round of 18 holes will only set you back 10 bucks.