Rick Metcalf: Sabino Canyon, a nearby world away
Rick Metcalf/Special to The Explorer, Hillsides throughout Sabino Canyon are a lush, deep green as a result of recent heavy rainfall.

Sitting relatively at our doorstep is one of the most beautiful nature-loving experiences in all of Southeast Arizona.

Sabino Canyon Recreational Area, near the intersection of Sunrise Drive and Sabino Canyon Road in Northeast Tucson, waits to impress visitors, of which there are nearly 1.25 million annually.

On a recent hot July day, that number reached not much more than 50.

Arriving in the early afternoon under clear skies and near 100-degree temperatures, some sound decision-making will be essential. Shuttle trams operate hourly from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, taking folks to the end of the recently reopened road, 3.7 miles into the Santa Catalina Mountains.

During a 2006 monsoon storm, over 20 inches of rain fell, washing out much of the road and trails. With repairs now completed, the tram transports outdoor enthusiasts to all nine stops.

An elevation gain of close to 600 feet will be reached from the visitor center to stop number nine, making it an easy choice to pay the $8 adult fee ($4 ages 3 to 12) and ride to the top, returning on foot. The ride/walk combination covering the entire 7.4 miles will require only about 3 hours — outdoor time well spent.

Knowledgeable guides narrate the 30-minute ride to the road’s end, contributing abundant canyon information. Riders have the option to exit the tram at all stops and get back on a later tram.

A lovely creek running nearly year-round supports healthy groves of cottonwood, sycamore, willows and more along the banks. Hillsides covered with saguaros, ocotillos, mesquite, creosote bushes and various cactus plants also benefit from the mountain runoff. Following the strong monsoon rainfall of this year, the creek runs strong and the hillsides are a dense, vibrant spring-like green.

Snowmelt and rainfall provide the water, cascading from the top of the Catalinas 6,000 feet above, to the desert below through numerous canyons. Descending close to 10 miles, the water turns a unique rusty color, a result of tannin found in oak trees in the watershed.

Above stop nine, the Phoneline Trail offers a more challenging return to the visitor center, climbing out of the canyon, passing high above on the eastern slopes, offering stunning views while extending the return trip to nearly 6 miles; an adventure to be savored in cooler times.

Large, deep pools in the upper section are occupied with delighted swimmers, their splashing and laughter echoing off the narrow canyon walls. Simply wading in the creek or standing beneath falls pouring under bridges gives instant, welcome relief.

Massive boulders litter the creek bed, believed to have fallen from above, during a strong earthquake late in the 1800s. These metamorphic boulders — gneiss — are a combination of granite, quartz, feldspar and mica, formed beautifully in dark and light layers.

Close proximity, abundant wildlife, gorgeous plants, running water and educated volunteers all result in a delightful, enlightening day.

Unlike much of Southern Arizona, Sabino Canyon offers four distinctive seasons. Pick a season, drop in and enjoy.

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