Few cities in the U.S. can claim to be ‘sandwiched’ by a National Park; Tucson might well be the only one. Saguaro National Park is divided into Eastern and Western divisions that flank the city--plenty of wilderness hiking within a half-an-hour’s drive from the middle of town. If you’re here, like most visitors, in the winter, a perfect half-day’s hike is up to Wasson Peak in Saguaro National Park, on the western edge of the city. Seven-miles round-trip with a nearly 2000-ft elevation gain: it’s a moderate climb with 360-degree views from the top. (You do NOT want to hike this in the summer; there is no shade.) At 4687ft/1428m, it’s low compared to some of the 9000+ ft peaks on Tucson’s other horizons, but the panoramas are unbeatable, and the trek up through a saguaro forest is unforgettable. There are several routes, but perhaps the most popular is the Kings Canyon trailhead--directly across the road from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Hike the peak in the morning (give yourself around four hours so you can enjoy lunch and the view from the summit), and spend the afternoon visiting the animals across the road. (A new aquarium featuring the Sea of Cortez just opened; fall through spring also offer ‘raptor free flight’ demonstrations.) (From the top, the views: trail to the peak, looking south toward the distant Santa Rita mountains, looking over the NW part of the city to the forested peak of Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mtns.)
5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ 85750, USA
Many who have not visited Arizona think that its saguaros grow in a Sahara-like setting...but the mountainous desert around Tucson hides many lush spots, like this riparian canyon on the NE edge of the city. Late fall paints the cottonwoods along the creek below cactus-studded slopes in Sabino Canyon. Hikers hike, runners run, and deer roam...
Hohokam Road, Tucson, AZ 85745, USA
Just beyond the western edge of Tucson, you’ll find these Hohokam petroglyphs in Saguaro National Park. No one knows precisely when they were carved into the rocks, but Hohokam settlements in the Sonoran desert date back almost two thousand years. We went on a short hike among the saguaro to end up on this hilltop with this pre-Columbian art—not your typical suburban stroll.
11570 N Oracle Rd, Tucson, AZ 85737, USA
When the southern Arizona desert gets just the right mix of rains at the right time in fall and winter, the following spring can produce a riot of wildflowers. People around Tucson said that the spring of 2010 was one of the best displays in decades--poppies and lupine for miles...perhaps the most vibrant ‘show’ in a generation.
Hike into Bear Canyon on the northeastern edge of Tucson, and you’ll be rewarded (most of the year) with a view of Seven Falls, gushing out of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Even though the hike in and out is around seven miles, it’s mostly flat. You’ll find that, as you’re zigzagging across the creek on large boulders, with cliffs above the cacti all around, traffic and strip malls are a world away. When you arrive at the falls, the rushing waters are a balm for the soul. Midwinter through the middle of spring is a good time to visit this oasis; the higher-elevation snowmelt guarantees flowing water and the daytime temperatures are comfortable. Midsummer monsoon rains can also fill this canyon, and flash floods can be a sudden danger.
Romero Canyon, Arizona 85619, USA
One of the best day-hikes from Tucson is just north of town, on the ‘back side’ of the Santa Catalina Mountains: Romero Canyon. Drive up to Catalina State Park for the trailhead, and you’ll begin trekking through mesquite woods and towering saguaros before beginning to climb the rocky foothills into this mountain range. Then you’ll scramble down into the canyon itself, with a flowing stream at its heart. Most years, even in the early summer dry season, you can still find pools to cool off in--it’s a popular trail for Tucsonans. (Just get an early--dawn--start.) Continue past the pools and you can hike all the way up to Romero Pass, in the heart of the Pusch Ridge Wiliderness, where naturalists are trying to re-introduce a herd of mountain bighorn sheep. Late fall through early spring are perfect here... “Desert oasis” might be a hackneyed phrase when describing places like this, but desert-dwellers don’t take them for granted. Fortunately, when you’re in southern Arizona, seek and ye shall find...
Mt Wrightson, Arizona 85624, USA
Tucson is surrounded by mountains. As you look south, however, the highest and most distinctive peak is Mt. Wrightson (9,453ft/2,881m) in the Santa Rita range. Hike to the top and you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree view from the highest point between Tucson and Mexico. In fact, on a clear day, looking south from the top of the mountain, you’ll see all the way into Mexico. On the way, you’ll drive and hike up through forested Madera Canyon — one of the best spots in the U.S. for birdwatching. Around 250 different species (including 15 different varieties of hummingbirds) of birds, have been spotted, some of which are normally only seen in tropical ecosystems. You’re also likely to encounter deer and wild turkey as you drive up from the high desert grasslands south of Tucson. This is a challenging hike: about 11 miles round-trip, with a four-thousand foot elevation gain. You’ll be hiking mostly in forest, but at the top there’s no shade and the winds can be formidable. Nonetheless—the views! City, wilderness, grasslands, mines, forested slopes, and endless mountain ranges...worth it!
If, like most visitors, you head for Tucson between Thanksgiving and Easter, you’re probably seeking sun and warmth while the rest of the country deals with the winter blahs. And you’ll most likely find what you’re looking for. There’s a reason why golfers, cyclists, hikers, and runners flock to southern Arizona this time of year. But, once or twice a decade, the lush Sonoran desert might get a snowfall—it never lasts for long, but every saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, and prickly pear cactus will be edged in ephemeral white. As soon as the sun comes up over the mountains, you’ll start hearing the drip drip drip of the inevitable melting...And by the next day you’re likely to be wearing shorts again. Saguaro National Park, which flanks both the western and eastern edges of Arizona’s second-largest city, is the ideal place to go for a hike in the rare desert snow. The Eastern (Rincon Mountain) division of the park has a hilly eight-mile one-way loop road with access to numerous trails. Drive slowly and yield to the runners and senior-citizen-cyclists-in-spandex with thighs of steel. Get out and up into the saguaro-studded hills before the unlikely landscape disappears...Keep your eyes open for bobcats, mule deer, and the pig-like javelina. (You’re less likely to encounter a rattlesnake in the winter months, but this is still desert wilderness.) And if there’s no snow, you might be treated to spring wildflowers. Don’t forget your sunscreen...
Ventana Canyon, Catalina Foothills, AZ 85750, USA
The foothills around Tucson are home to some of the best spa-golf-resorts in the U.S. and you don’t have to go far for a taste of the wilderness before you turn in. Just behind the Loews Ventana Canyon resort on the edge of the city, an unspoiled trail awaits. This lush riparian canyon takes you into the heart of the Santa Catalina Mountains, studded with saguaros. Deer, bobcats, javelinas, and the occasional mountain lion might cross your path. About 2 1/2 miles in, you’ll come across seasonal water; The Maiden Pools. If you’re an experienced hiker seeking a challenge, keep on going and you’ll reach The Window, a natural rock arch about 7000 ft high.
27 E Ramsey Canyon Rd, Hereford, AZ 85615, USA
When people think of southern Arizona and its border with Mexico, cactus and sun-baked sand may come to mind — but a mountain canyon with fall foliage, homestead cabins, and deer? Go high enough, and you’ll find this and more. The Huachuca Mountains climb to over 9000 feet just north of the border in Cochise County, about an hour and a half from Tucson. Toward the southern edge of the town of Sierra Vista, the Nature Conservancy has set up the Ramsey Canyon Preserve, which is ideal for hiking and birdwatching. The deer are tame, wild turkeys are common, and fourteen species of hummingbirds have been spotted among the 150+ species of birds that find refuge in this “sky island” — a mountain range that rises high enough above the surrounding desert to provide a cooler and wetter ecosystem. By late fall, the cottonwoods, maples, and sycamores transform the canyon into a landscape that would be reminiscent of New England if it weren’t for the omnipresent agave plants. Watch your step, and stay alert for the occasional black bear, javelina, or mountain lion. Chimneys, log cabins, and apple trees remain from early homesteaders who found refuge from the desert in these mountains, which were originally named “Huachuca"—meaning ‘thunder'—by the Apaches.
Mt Lemmon, Arizona 85619, USA
On the northern edge of Tucson, you can drive through a condensed version of western North America’s ecosystem in about half an hour. On the way up the Mount Lemmon Highway (also known as “Catalina Highway” or “Sky Island Scenic Byway”), you traverse almost all of the different life zones you would encounter if you were to actually drive from Mexico to Canada: starting with the saguaro-studded Sonoran desert, up through grassland, junipers and oaks, pines, and finally a mixed-conifer forest with stands of aspen. You begin at about 2500 ft. and end up at almost 9100 ft. above sea level (about 760 to 2770 meters). In the summer, especially, southern Arizonans love this road: “thirty miles, thirty degrees cooler,” as the saying goes. When it’s 105 degrees down in the city, it’s a perfect 75 up on the mountain. In the winter, you can go skiing in the southernmost ski resort in the U.S.
E Bonita Canyon Rd, Willcox, AZ 85643, USA
A couple of years ago, on Black Friday, my wife and I headed away from the malls of Tucson and into the mountains: Chiricahua National Monument, just west of the New Mexico border in SE Arizona, was one of the last strongholds of the Chiricahua Apaches, who called this area “the land of standing-up rocks.” This particular mountain peak is Cochise Head (elev. 8087'); cock your head to the right and it resembles a man’s profile. The ‘eyelash’ is formed by a tall Douglas fir tree. The volcanic formation is named after Chief Cochise, who died in 1874. About a decade after his death, several hundred of his surviving fellow Apaches were deported to Florida, never to return to their homeland again... The history of the American Southwest is a sobering mix of people on the move with conflicting labels: pioneers/invaders, defenders/terrorists, war/genocide, natives/aliens...It still hasn’t been all sorted out.
4070 S Avenida Saracino, Hereford, AZ 85615, USA
Last April, I spent a morning hiking along the San Pedro River, just NW of Bisbee, AZ; the caterpillars were astoundingly abundant. When I stopped, I could hear them munching on leaves all around--a surround-sound of crunching, the aural fecundity of spring. Between Sierra Vista and Bisbee, the high grassland highway slowly slopes down to this cottonwood-lined river--one of the few free-flowing rivers left in the Desert Southwest. This ribbon of forest stretches from the Mexican border up towards the lower-elevation desert, providing a flyway for migrating birds and even habitat for the occasional jaguar (very rare). In the late 1980’s, this area was made a National Conservation Area, and it’s a nice shady walk in what can often be sun-blasted country.