Attraction of the Week: Sabino Canyon in Tucson
Sabino Canyon is a desert oasis amidst the suburbs of Tucson. This is the place that both locals and tourists flock to for a relaxing natural escape from the suburban traffic, stoplights, and retail businesses. As soon as you enter the canyon, you are transported out of the city and into a desert wonderland. Anyone who loves the unique beauty of the desert, including the native stately Saguaro cactus, will definitely want to plan for a stop at Sabino.
Because of its’ immense beauty & rustic nature away from the city, Sabino has become one of the Southwest’s most popular tourist attractions. Unfortunately, it’s getting more and more crowded by the year, however, that does not take away completely from the natural beauty. Sabino still remains one of the top things to do on any Tucson vacation.
Sabino Tram Tours
Fortunately, after temporarily closing in 2017, the narrated tram rides are now back! Trams have been transporting visitors around the canyon since 1975. Thankfully, the shuttles are now electric based. This is wonderful as the gas shuttles really put out some hefty fumes. Tours are just $15 per person ($18/child). Along the 45 minute tour, you will learn more about the canyon and enjoy gorgeous scenery. Your guide will point out any interesting wildlife and natural features.
The tram makes 9 stops along the way, so you can hop on/hop off and enjoy various hikes, picnicking sites, take photography, or check out the seasonal pools. Trams arrive every 30 minutes or so, so it’s easy to hop on and off at any point.
Pick up a trail map when you arrive. Trails are marked according to difficulty level. Additionally, each trail corresponds to a tram stop, making it easy to plan your intended hikes along the way.
Scenic views from one of the easy-moderate trails
Sit back and enjoy the view! The tram ride is super relaxing, and the perfect option for those who do not wish to hike.
At the top of the tram road, you will be able to get out and take some fantastic photos. You have the option of taking the tram back or walking the route yourself.
The beautiful Santa Catalina mountains
Sabino Canyon is located within the Santa Catalina Mountains (part of the Coronado National Forest) at an elevation of 2754 feet. The highest point in the range is Mt Lemmon at 9157 feet. Pools and creeks, as well as small waterfalls, can be enjoyed after heavy summer monsoon storms and also after winter snow melts. The 4 mile hike to Hutch’s pool is very popular during Tucson’s hot months as it is one of the larger swimming holes. Note: avoid monsoon season due to the possibility of flash floods!
Diverse Desert plant life
Sabino is home to a surprisingly lush variety of plant life not typically pictured when envisioning a desert environment. If you hike the short nature trail behind the visitor’s center, you will learn more about the diverse plant life via helpful interpretative signs. The Sonoran Desert is the greenest desert in the world, receiving 3-15 inches of rain per year, mostly during the intense summer monsoon season
Dozens of varieties of cacti, along with Palo Verde and Mesquite trees, can be found everywhere. In the fall, the cottonwood and sycamore trees turn a lovely shade of gold.
Nature trails at Sabino
Sabino is home to several really easy, short nature trails. These trails feature many interpretative signs so you can learn more about the plants and animals which call the desert home. Scenery includes views of all sorts of exotic cacti, plus views of the surrounding mountains!
Hiking the Tram Road
If you prefer to work up a sweat, the 3.5 mile paved road will definitely challenge even the most avid hiker. You will get in an invigorating workout while also taking in outstanding views of the canyon. The trek up is pretty hilly at times, although not quite as bad as you would think. The downhill trek back really allows you much recovery time. The intense heat and overall length of the hike is what makes it a bit difficult. Be sure to arrive early to beat the heat (preferably right at opening) and avoid summer visits if possible!
Wildlife at the Canyon
Whether you go with the tram ride or decide to challenge yourself to a stroll up the paved path, the views are beautiful all along the way and you may even see some wildlife in action. We were lucky enough to see a coatimundi (a racoon relative which inhabits desert canyon areas) and a western diamondback rattlesnake during our visit, from the safety of the tram of course! Javelina, mountain lions, desert tortoises, and White Tailed Deer are also occasionally spotted. Sabino is also a popular destination for Arizona bird watchers, although you really have to bring binoculars to see much.
The Seven Falls hike
For those up for a real desert adventure, take the Bear Canyon tram (non-narrated) to the Seven Falls trailhead. The presence of multiple natural pools and a nice seasonal waterfall, make the Seven Falls trail one of the more popular hikes in Southern Arizona. The trail is 5 miles round-trip, although the journey feels much harder due to the the harsh conditions of the desert, multiple creek crossings, and boulder hopping.
Plan to save this one for the fall or winter season due to the intense nature of the trail and risk of monsoon flooding. Also, bring with plenty of water (I use a camelbak) and plenty of snacks. Dehydration is a real concern in the desert – do not take it lightly! Some avid hikers prefer to forgo the tram in exchange for a really intense 8.2 mile hike, although you must be thoroughly prepared for such a feat.
The best part about visiting Sabino is all the gorgeous Saguaro cacti you will see. Apart from Saguaro National Park, it’s one of the best places in Arizona to see tons of Saguaro cacti. There are many great places to hike in Arizona, with Sabino being a great choice for tourists seeking a well-maintained place to hike and explore the desert in a safe environment. Whether you decide to take the tram, walk the paved route, and explore the rustic hiking trails, you will see cacti in every direction!
Tips for a smooth visit
*Bring with plenty of water bottles. Or, better yet, wear a camelbak for easy access.
*Visit outside of the hot summer season. 100+ degree and sunny skies is way too hot for any type of hike, pools or not.
*Visit on a weekday to avoid the crowds. At times, it can be very difficult to find parking.
*Eat a full breakfast prior to your arrival. There is no food on-site and most of the year it is too hot to enjoy a picnic. Brewd, a local coffeehouse, is just a mile or so away and serves tasty quiche, pastries, and light breakfast entrees, along with a full espresso menu. This place is super casual too, so you can feel free to wear your workout apparel.
*Remember that you are in a harsh, dry desert climate. Load up on the water (more than usual). Also eat salty snacks to replace lost electrolytes.
*Wear sunglasses and a hat to block out some of the intense UV rays.
*Don’t forget your camera – there are lots of great photo opps, especially of the magnificent Saguaro cactus.
*Bring with cash for the tram ride (no credit accepted).
*Do not let the short distances of the hikes fool you. Hiking in the desert is no easy feat with the intense sunshine, many rocks to climb over and prickly plants to avoid, and risk of dehydration. I recommend keeping hikes short on your first visit until you are more accustomed to harsh desert conditions.
*A first aid kit should always be on hand, as a safety measure. From personal experience, you will definitely want to try avoid brushing into sharp cactus needles which are a pain to take out. Ouch!
Removing cactus spines is not fun!
*Watch out for rattlesnakes and other dangerous wildlife. Keep a safe distance.
Location, Pricing, & Hours
Sabino Canyon is located at 5900 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ 85750.
The Sabino Canyon narrated tram is $15 adults, $8 for children (2 and under free). The Bear canyon tram is $8 per adults, $5 for children (2 and under free).
The visitor’s center is open 8:30am-4:30pm.
The Sabino tram has summer & winter hours. Summer hours are 9am-4pm (Mon-Fri) and until 4:30pm on weekends & holidays. Winter hours (mid Dec-June) are 9am-4:30pm. Trams run every half hour. If planning on hiking the paved road, it’s best to start out before tram tours start. This will make your walk much more peaceful!
The Bear tram is open at 9am and runs every hour until closing. Open every day besides Thanksgiving and Christmas.