With 4 prominent mountain ranges surrounding the city, Tucson offers no shortage of fascinating desert hikes. These 4 ranges consist of Tucson Mountain Park, the Rincon Mountains, the Santa Catalina Mountains, and and the Santa Rita Mountains. There are numerous parks and preserves within each of the mountain districts. The most stunning mountain views are found along any trails near the Catalina Mountains, northeast of Tucson near the suburb of Oro Valley.
While many Tucson trails are very long & challenging, others take you on a relaxing trek through the desert. There are a number of easy-moderate trails which will allow you to take in the desert scenery without going all out. This is the best route for vacationers as the harsh conditions of the desert make a seemingly easy trail that much harder. All of the trails offer you a glimpse of native desert plant life including the stunning Saguaro, only found in the Sonoran Desert. The mesmerizing Saguaro cacti and towering mountain views easily make hiking the number one must do while visiting Tucson!
Here are 12 scenic hikes to get you started, all of an easy-moderate intensity, and thus, suited for most hikers.
The Hidden Canyon Trail
Distance: 2 mile loop (400 ft gradual elevation gain)
Difficulty: Reasonably easy due to the gradual elevation increase of just 400 ft
Location: Starts at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort (3800 W Starr Pass Blvd, Tucson, AZ 85745)
*Free parking along side streets near the resort
Despite being located at a prominent resort just outside of the downtown region, the visually spectacular Hidden Canyon trail barely sees any foot traffic. In this case, the name of the trail rings true as this is definitely one of Tucson’s hidden gems. The secluded 2 mile loop within the Tucson Mountains is easy, as well as extremely scenic, with endless views of the unique Saguaro cacti covering the hills. The elevation gain is minimal and very gradual, and thus, this hike is suitable for almost everyone. Wildlife is abundant, with various birds and deer frequently sighted.
Distance: 1.3 miles out-and-back (700 ft elevation gain)
Difficulty: Moderate (Hard trek up, easy downhill walk)
Location: W Anklam Rd & Tumamoc Hill Rd Tucson, AZ 85707
*Free parking along the road
Tumanoc Hill is an iconic 800 acre preserve owned by the U of A Science Department for observatory use, and fortunately, also open to the public daily for hiking from 4am-10pm. It is the local fitness enthusiast’s favorite trail and for good reason. Not only will you get in a great cardio workout making your way up the steep 1.5 mile hill, you will also take in some pretty spectacular desert scenery along the way.
Although the trek up is quite intense with a steep 700 ft elevation gain, the beautiful views of the city and surrounding desert are motivating enough to continue on. Beautiful cacti can be seen throughout, and the views are especially breathtaking at sunrise and sunset. The silhouette of the cactus at these times is mesmerizing. If you would like to tone the hiker down a bit, simply go out to the halfway point and turn around for a relaxing picturesque trek back to the start.
Linda Vista trail
Distance: The shorter loop is just under a mile. Add another 1/2 mile or so for the longer loop
Difficulty: Easy (minimal elevation gain)
Location: 730 E. Linda Vista Rd Oro Valley, AZ 85737
Linda Vista is my favorite trail within the Tucson metro area. This one is located in Oro Valley, an attractive suburb about 20 minutes north of the city. Not only is this trail very short at just under a mile, it also happens to be one of the most scenic in town due to the dramatic vistas of the Catalina mountains. This is a great free alternative to Catalina State Park, located just down the street and offering similar scenery. As an added benefit, wildlife is abundant and it is not rare to see bobcats during the evening hours.
The sunsets here are amongst the most spectacular in town. Although it’s located just a few steps from an apartment complex, you would never guess as the trail is quiet and almost always completely desolate. It’s a must do if you are looking for gorgeous mountain vistas and/or a spectacular place to watch the sun setting over the mountains.
Pima Canyon trail
Distance: 3.2 miles out-and-back to the Lower Dam, add 2 miles if you continue on although the hikes becomes increasingly difficult at this point
Difficulty: Moderate until the lower dam, very difficult if you continue on
Locaiton: 1610 E Magee Rd Tucson, AZ 85718
*Free parking is available in a small lot (fills up fast on weekends, so get here early!)
Pima Canyon is a breathtaking hike in the Catalina Mountains, just north of the desirable Catalina Foothills region of the city. Although the trail is moderate and pretty easy to follow, the entire length of the hike (just under 7 miles) is a bit difficult in harsh desert conditions. Fortunately, you can go out to your comfort level and simply turn around at any point. The trail is beautiful all around, with numerous overlooks of the various mountains, and of course, serene views of the desert plant life at every turn.
Canyon Loop trail at Catalina State Park
Distance: 2.3 mile loop
Difficulty: Mostly easy with a few minor steep sections
Location: 11570 N Oracle Rd, Tucson, AZ 85737
*Admission is 7 bucks per vehicle
Catalina is a gorgeous Oro Valley state park which features incredible views of the dramatic Santa Catalina mountains. This park is a great alternative to Saguaro if you happen to be staying in northwest Tucson, or alternatively if you are looking to keep your trip budget friendly (Catalina’s admission is just 7 bucks compared to Saguaro’s 15). Trails are multi use and open to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders (with the exception of the Romero Pools trail). All trails are well-marked, which is a must in dangerous desert conditions.
Catalina offers a number of intense trails and also a few easy nature options. The best choice here is the moderate 2 mile long Canyon loop trail. This trail is just long enough to get in a great workout and enjoy the beautiful desert scenery without the risk of heat exhaustion and dehydration. If you are up for a real challenge, the Romero Pools trail is a favorite with both locals and tourists due to the presence of seasonal streams and pools. This trail is really long at over 7 miles, although you can go out as far as you like. Be careful during monsoon season as many hikers have to be rescued due to flash flooding! Late spring-early summer, while brutally hot, is a great time to see the cacti blooming.
Saguaro Vista trail at Sweetwater Preserve
Distance: 11 miles of interconnected trails
Difficulty: Easy-moderate depending on how far you go
Location: 4001 N. Tortolita Rd. Tucson, AZ 85745
*Free parking is available, although the lot is quite small & fills up quickly on weekends
Sweetwater is a newer trail system, conveniently located nearby downtown Tucson in the eastern foothills of the Tucson Mountains. This system is great for tourists as most of the trails are short and well-marked. Although it’s really close to town and you can even see a few housing developments at the start, you quickly enter the solitude of the desert as soon as you begin your hike. There are a number of trails you can combine here (from the Saguaro Vista trail) to form a loop of your preferred distance.
The mountain views here are really gorgeous and a diverse variety of cacti line all the trails. Although it appears to be quite crowded in the parking lot (especially on weekends!), foot traffic disperses out as there are a number of trails to choose amongst. There are 11 miles of interconnected trails total, so you can hike to your heart’s content. Mountain biking and horseback riding are options as well.
Valley View Overlook trail at Saguaro National Park West
Distance: 0.8 miles out-and-back
Location: 2700 N Kinney Rd Tucson, AZ 85743*Admission is $15 per vehicle for a 7 day pass
The Western Section of Saguaro National Park is located within the Tucson mountains. Although the mountains views are not as dramatic here as at the Rincon (East) entrance, the park is home to large uninterrupted strands of Saguaro cacti. The views from the deck of the visitor’s center (featuring 1oo’s of Saguaro cacti) are so mesmerizing. On the downside, this park is a bit smaller than the Eastern district and the Bajada scenic drive is inconveniently not paved, although the trails here are scenic and well-marked.
The Valley View Overlook is a nice easy trail choice which leads you to an impressive overlook with views of various regional mountains including Picacho Peak. If you have time, Signal Hill is another quick trek worth a look due to the interesting pictographs. Another great aspect of visiting the Western district of SNP is that you are nearby other popular attractions like Old Tucson and the International Wildlife Museum, so you can mix and match to save some driving time! All of these attractions are located on the same scenic drive which is lined with all sorts of exotic cacti on both sides of the street.
Lower Javelina Loop at the Wild Burro trailhead
Distance: 1.7 mile loop (360 ft elevation gain)
Location: The Ritz Resort (15000 N. Secret Springs Drive Marana, AZ 85658)
*Free parking is available. Enter resort and follow directions of attendant
The Wild Burro trailhead is another fantastic resort trail system, this one located at the exclusive Ritz Carlton at Dove Mountain in the suburb of Marana. There are several trails here, the best being the Lower Javelina Loop which is just under 2 miles total and still offers tremendous views of the Tortolita mountains. The trail is quiet and peaceful as the Ritz is located pretty much out in the middle of the desert. The views on the drive over are amazing as well.
*Watch out for javelinas on the trail and bring with plenty of water as there is absolutely no shade.
Tanque Verde falls trail
Distance: 1.8 miles out-and-back
Location: 14999 Redington Rd Tucson, AZ 85748
*Free parking, 4WD recommended for the rough dirt road
The Tanque Verde waterfall trail is known to be the oasis of Tucson hikes. I do not necessarily agree, as there are many more scenic hikes in the area, although this trail is nice if you have extra time and would like to challenge yourself to a rough trek to see the falls. The trail to the seasonal waterfall is a very difficult journey, although worth it if you are up for a challenge. Definitely save this one for the cooler winter season!
The trail is only 1.8 miles each way although the journey requires lots of rock and boulder climbing and the intense sunshine makes it even more brutal. The poor trail markage does not help either. Alternatively, you can just go out a mile or so and enjoy the various ponds and streams and nice canyon views. Of course, it’s nice to see any water in a barren desert like setting like Tucson!
The Meadow Trail
Distance: 2 mile loop (400 ft elevation gain)
Difficulty: Moderate due to the steepness & high altitude
Location: 12856 N Sabino Canyon Park, Mt Lemmon, AZ 85619 (General store)
*Stop by the visitor’s center or general store for a hiking map & directions to the trailhead
The Meadow trail in Summerhaven is a really unique option as this high altitude trek takes you through strands of gorgeous pine trees. Gorgeous mountain vistas are accessible via several overlooks. Sadly, some of the trees are burned as a result of several wildfires over the past few years. Located on the base of Mt Lemmon (one of Arizona’s Sky Islands), temps along the Meadow trail are typically 20 degrees cooler than Tucson during the brutal summer months. Obviously, this is a drastic difference when temps climb past the 100 degree mark on a daily basis for months on end in the Sonoran desert.
The drive up the Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway is gorgeous as well with diverse scenery ranging from Saguaro cacti, to ancient hoodoos, to towering pine and aspen forests. Make a whole day out of this one by combining this hike with a scenic chairlift ride at the ski resort and lunch at the Iron Door restaurant.
Mica View trail at Saguaro East
Distance: 1 mile out-and-back
Location: 3693 South Old Spanish Trail Tucson, AZ 85730-5601
*Admission is $15 and includes entry to both parks for 7 days
The Eastern section of Saguaro National Park is highly regarded for its’ fantastic mountain scenery, courtesy of its’ location in the beautiful Rincon mountains. The highlight at this park is a scenic 8 mile long paved drive (known as the Cactus Forest Drive) which features numerous scenic overlooks and access to several trails.
The Mica trail is a great place to start. This 1 mile out-and-back takes you through an amazing variety of cacti, making it the perfect trail for new visitors. You will also find an excellent visitor’s center and interesting ongoing programs like “how to harvest water from a cactus.” These events are really fantastic if you happen to be in town. Check out the 2018 calendar of special events.
If you have time, I recommend checking out both parks as your admission ticket is good for 7 days. If you are on a budget, Saguaro offers a number of free days throughout the year.
Aspen Draw trail
Distance: 2 miles round trip
Difficulty: Moderate due to the high elevation (8000+ft)
Location: 10300 E Ski Run Rd, Mt Lemmon, AZ 85619
*Free parking at the ski resort
This may come as a surprise to some, but you can actually see a bit of fall foliage pretty close to Tucson. Just over an hour outside of the city lies the Sky island of Mt. Lemmon, a local favorite for recreation due to the 4 season climate which includes both autumn fall foliage and snow (Mt Lemmon is home to the southernmost ski resort in the US).
A 30 minute drive up the picturesque Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway leads you to the quaint town of Summerhaven. Here you will find a few cute restaurants, a fudge shop, the ever popular Cookie Cabin, and lots of places to picnic, hike, and in general enjoy the outdoors in the cooler setting. As Mt Lemmon is typically 20-30 degrees cooler than Tucson, this is the place to be during the fall season (which is still unbearably hot in the desert).
The 60/70 degree weather combined with a mix of pines and deciduous trees make Mt. Lemmon the perfect close autumn escape. There are several trails known for great foliage, particularly the Aspen Draw trail. This 2 mile roundtrip trek starts near the ski resort and features an array of gold and red foliage this time of year. Although short, the hike feels much harder due to the high elevation (8000+ft). Take it easy and drink plenty of water.
Honeybee Canyon trail
Distance: 1.25 mile loop, although the trail is poorly marked, so you could end up hiking a bit further if you get lost. Look closely for signs hidden amongst the bushes
Location: 13880 N Rancho Vistoso Blvd Oro Valley, AZ 85755
*Free parking in a small lot
Honeybee Park is a small park in Oro Valley which features a number of short, scenic trails. The Honeybee Canyon trail is extremely scenic with nice vistas of both the mountains and Saguaro. This trail is most popular with local hikers and mountain bikers, although the grand views definitely make the drive over worth the extra effort. If you are looking for a short, scenic, very easy hike, Honeybee is definitely the choice for you!
*There is a really nice covered picnic area, so pack a light lunch and relax & refuel after your hike!
Marshall Gulch trail
Distance: About 4 miles for the Marshall/Aspen Loop
Difficulty: Moderate due to the high altitude and 800 ft elevation gain (although gradual)
Location: As there is no official address, you can stop at the General Store (12856 N Sabino Canyon Park, Mt Lemmon, AZ 85619) for detailed directions to the trail head
*Free parking in a small lot and on side streets, although you may be walking pretty far if busy
The Marshall Gulch trail is understandably one of the more popular hikes in Tucson and the small parking area can fill up very fast. During the summer season, when temps frequently soar way above 100 degrees, any trail on Mt Lemmon offers a much needed respite from the heat. Like the Meadow trail & Aspen Draw, you will take the gorgeous Catalina Scenic Byway drive up to Summerhaven to access this trail. Marshall Gulch is a beautiful high altitude trail which features both pines and aspens. This trail can be conveniently combined with the Aspen trail for a nice little loop of under 4 miles.
While many of the trees are burned from past wildlife damage, the mountain views are still gorgeous and you really cannot beat the cooler summer temperatures, in comparison with those found in the desert just an hour away. There are still lots of trees and plenty of shade, along with numerous small streams, giving this trail a really nice rustic nature feel that you definitely will not find anywhere in Tucson. Summertime is a great time to enjoy the beautiful colorful wildflowers that sprout up everywhere. This is also another great trail for leaf peepers.
Nature trail at Sabino Canyon
Distance: Under a mile
Difficulty: Very easy (Great for beginners who want to learn more about the native desert plants)
Location: 5900 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ 85750
*Entrance to Sabino Canyon is $5 per car. Tram rides are $1o per person (cash only)
I admit, the highly touted Sabino Canyon is not my favorite place in Tucson. It’s crowded, most of the trails are poorly marked, the tram ride is very smoggy, and the entrance fee is really high for what you get, especially in comparison to the many scenic free hikes around town. If you have your heart set on going to Sabino Canyon, I recommend taking the tram ride and enjoying one of the scenic nature trails by the visitor’s center. Most of the other trails, with the exception of the very difficult Seven Falls, are very poorly maintained and not well-marked, and really not worth the effort in my opinion.
The 45 minute long narrated tram ride is a nice alternative for those who cannot hike or would prefer to keep it relaxing on vacation. For those interested in hiking, I recommend checking out the Nature trail by the visitor’s center. It’s very short and very easy and a great introduction to the many species of cacti which live in the Sonoran Desert. Anyone up for a challenge should check out Seven falls, one of Tucson’s mos popular hikes. It’s very long, however, you can cut some time out by taking the tram. The seasonal waterfall and pools are much appreciated during the summer season by locals tired of the heat.
*In short, I only recommend visiting Sabino if you are looking for a place to enjoy the desert scenery without hiking as the tram ride is a nice introduction to the desert and offers plenty of spectacular vistas. Otherwise, choose one of the hikes listed above which offer similar scenery in a quieter setting.
General Tips for hiking in Tucson
Plan your visit outside of the summer season, if possible. It’s just too hot, even super early in the morning. If you must, set out no later than 6am and keep it short. Or better yet, head up to Mt Lemmon where it is much cooler.
Bring with plenty of water, more than you are accustomed to. It is extremely dry in Tucson and many die of dehydration on the trails each year. I recommend using a camelbak for easy access. I also bring an extra bottle of water to throw over my head just in case I get really overheated.
Eat a full breakfast pre-hike and bring along a few salty carb based snacks for the journey. Here are my favorite breakfast choices in Tucson.
Bring with a pair of sunglasses and a visor. The harsh rays of the desert sun can make any hike even more uncomfortable, even during the cooler winter season.
Although winter daytime temps are quite mild, the temps are much cooler in the morning, occasionally dropping into the 30’s. Dress in layers – you can always stuff a light long tshirt/sweater into a backpack.
If hiking a high altitude trail at Mt Lemmon, take extra safety precautions. Drink extra water, ensure adequate electrolyte replenishment, and take it much easier than usual!
Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and scorpions. Spring is the prime season. Always stay on trail, watch where you step, and leave snakes alone! Most bites come from hikers veering off trail, messing around with snakes, or not paying attention.
Keep your distance from javelina, bobcats, and mountain lions. All have been known to attack humans and pets.