Hiking in the heart of the Sonoran Desert is a blissful way to spend your free time, regardless of the season.
Pima County is home to some of the nation’s finest hiking trails, with a seemingly endless array of scenic and physical variations at your disposal.
The panoramic mountains that are a figurative stone’s throw away from the heart of the city enable visitors and locals alike to experience new hiking adventures of varying difficulty.
We’re blessed with beautiful trails through national, state and county parks. Whether it’s the dryland basins of the Tucson Mountains, the riparian utopia of Sabino Canyon, or the sprucy wonder of Mount Lemmon, there’s a hiking trail to suit your fancy in our midst.
Wander among towering saguaros, skinny pine trees and lush spruce trees all in the same place and lose yourself in a secluded space that’s a short jaunt from The Old Pueblo.
No matter what time of year you’re hiking, always bring enough water with you to prevent dehydration.
These trails are friendly spaces that open up to bountiful scenic and fitness-related opportunities. Make sure you don’t wander from those paths, however, so the pristine public land that we’re blessed with maintains its divine qualities.
Also ensure you have the right footwear and sunscreen for your trek.
1. Romero Pools
(Catalina State Park)
This 5.5-mile trek follows along the spine of the Santa Catalina Mountains, with 1,322 feet of elevation gain. The long and sometimes arduous path eventually leads you to a double-tiered basin of pools that contain runoff water from the taller peaks year-round, so you can either cool off in the heart of the summer or merely take a moment of zen by the water’s edge if the temperature is on the cooler side of the thermometer. The out-and-back trail can increase in difficulty, given the flow of Sutherland Wash, which cuts through the trail from time to time. Romero Pools follows along the dry stream bed that flows from the Catalinas to the Cañada del Oro Wash, which can create various challenges when the region receives precipitation, generally in the winter and summer monsoons. Entrance to Catalina State Park (11570 N. Oracle Road) and the trailhead is $7, with a large paved parking lot between the gatehouse and the start of the earthen path. Bring lots of water for the trek and be prepared for steep portions of the trail that require good sole and ankle support for hikers of various skill levels. Make sure to leave your four-legged friends at home, however, as the trail is off limits to man’s best friend, thanks to the region’s efforts to rebuild the native bighorn sheep population.
Hiking the trail in the late winter and spring months is ideal for wildflower gazing, given the wholesome bounty of flora that dot the edge of the trail and the banks of the front range of the mountains.
2. Agua Caliente Hills Trail
This 8.5-mile one-way trek in the Coronado National Forest is a must for anyone that enjoys panoramic views of the Tucson cityscape and various species of wild flowers. Agua Caliente Hills (13041 N. Cam Cantil, Tucson) is a rugged yet worthwhile hike that gains close to 1,000 feet in elevation in the first mile, before leveling off and presenting a one-of-a-kind view of the city below. What’s even better is that this trail is dog-friendly, though leashes are a must for your four-legged companions. The trail, which is tucked between the Santa Catalina Mountains and Reddington Pass, is rated as difficult, but is worth the effort for those of you that like a good heart-healthy challenge. Agua Caliente Hills is the ideal hike for the cooler winter and spring months, given the lack of shade along the route. There is a small pond midway through the trail that allows your hiking party (dogs included) to dip their toes and paws in and cool off, but little else in terms of reprieve from the harsh Southern Arizona sun, so make sure to bring lots of water for the haul.
3. King Canyon Trail to Wasson Peak (Tucson Mountains)
The highest peak in the Tucson Mountains that dot the western edge of the city is a rigorous trek for all hiking enthusiasts. The 6.5-mile, one-way path cuts up the spine of the mountain, climbing 1,807 feet from the trailhead that’s located on the periphery of Saguaro West. The trek features several switchbacks that present once-in-a-lifetime views of the various landscapes that the region presents, with views of Kitt Peak and areas to the west, as well as the various ranges of Pima County. The top of the mountain presents an unmatched 360-degree view of the region, with the peaks of Sonora, Mexico and Phoenix visible on clear days. King Canyon Trail is rated as moderately difficult, with an earthen trail that is open to humans and horses but closed to dogs.
4. Tumamoc Hill
This Tucson institution gains 600 feet in elevation from the heart of the city, offering an intense workout and mesmerizing views for those brave enough to tackle it. The hill, which is home to the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory, gains considerable elevation over its 1.5-mile-long paved trail, with three main switchbacks above the median basin that’s home to the University’s main research facilities. Witness native flora, such as the saguaro, organ pipe and prickly pear cactus, as well as a variety of brush and wildlife that call Tucson home. Make sure to bring plenty of water for the trek, as the last half of the trail is quite steep and sure to zap you of your energy and hydration if you don’t. The main parking area for this short, but sweet hiking experience is across the street from St. Mary’s Hospital on West Anklam Road, with any of the spaces along the curb across from the hospital serving as a parking area for the trail. Tumamoc Hill is open from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, giving locals and visitors a surefire hiking spot year-round.
5. Marshall Gulch (Catalina Mountains)
There are two trails that take you up the spine of the upper reaches of Mount Lemmon to Marshall Gulch, in the 4.4-mile Aspen Trail and the equally-stunning 5.1-mile Sunset Trail. Each of the aforementioned paths are moderately difficult, with the former being off limits to dogs, while the latter is dog-friendly, as long as your pooch stays on its leash during the duration of the trek. The trails offer stunning views of the surrounding mountains, the City of Tucson, and everything in between. Both treks also provide needed reprieve in the hot summer months for dedicated hikers, with bountiful coniferous trees providing shade, along with sizable elevation that is far cooler than the city limits. Both trails provide hikers with a up-close-and-personal view of the wildlife that flock to the Catalinas, with deer, birds, bear and an occasional puma wandering the region. Sunset Trail features 954 feet of elevation gain, while the Aspen Trail gains 866 feet over the course of the hike. Both are sure to challenge hikers of every skill level, while providing views that you won’t soon forget along the way.
6. Hutch’s Pool Loop Trail (Sabino Canyon)
Hutch’s Pool is a sizable trek that scales the spine of Sabino Canyon to a long and narrow pool that is tucked like an oasis inside the Santa Catalina Mountains. The 15.9-mile (8 miles each way) loop gains 2,116 feet of elevation inside Sabino Canyon, ranking as moderately difficult, while providing a perfect swimming hole to dip in when the weather gets hot. The first four miles of the trail follow along the paved path that follows Sabino Canyon Road, before joining the Sabino Basin and West Fork Trail, which winds its way over a few switchbacks before descending into the pool area. The pool itself is very deep, which allow you to swim with comfort, in a body of water that’s cool in the grueling summer months and frigid in the winter portion of the calendar. The only downside to this trail is that your four-legged friends are not allowed to join you, as Sabino Canyon doesn’t allow dogs within its limits.
7. Seven Falls Trail (Sabino Canyon)
Any list of hiking spots in Southern Arizona would be incomplete without the famous Seven Falls Trail, which winds its way to the aforementioned falls. The five-mile hike gains 917 feet in elevation, with various river crossings that rely on stepping stones that may or may not be completely submerged by the aforementioned river bed. Bring waterproof shoes on this trail, as you’re more than likely to slip and step into the icy waters that make said stones rather slick through the year. Such obstacles are worth it, however, given the incredible sight of the falls at the top of the trail, with water cascading down the jaunted rock faces that stick out from the Catalina Mountains. Seven Falls’ trail, which is located at 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road, is open year-round, so you can satisfy your hiking and scenic pleasures whenever it suits you.
8. Madera Canyon
(Santa Rita Mountains)
Fans of butterflies and/or hummingbirds will definitely want to head down Interstate 19 to Madera Canyon. The canyon, which rests on the northern edge of the Santa Rita Mountains that run along the boundary of Pima and Santa Cruz counties, is home to more than 250 species of birds, 15 species of hummingbirds and an array of butterflies and other species. You can also find artifacts from the O’odham tribes that have called the region home for more than 500 years along the way, giving hikers a cavalcade of scenic options along their hike of choice. The highest and most difficult trail within the canyon is 13.1-mile Mount Wrightston Loop Trail, which gains 4,005 feet to the 9,452-foot summit of the tallest mountain in Pima County. Whatever your fancy, Madera Canyon has the trail for you, with a host of trails that feature boundless ecosystems and views along the way.
9. Gates Pass
The trusted pass in the heart of the Tucson Mountain is accessible, either by car or via Prickly Pear Trail, which traverses 1.9 miles to the pass. The trail is friendly to hikers of all skill levels, with a mere 124 feet of elevation gain over its duration, allowing you to witness the splendor of a pass that features unmatched views of the seemingly-endless stretch of lush green saguaros and mesquite that rest between the range and western Pima County. Hikers can gaze out to various local hot spots, like Old Tucson, the Sonoran Desert Museum and various parts of Saguaro National Park from the pass, while taking in a host of wild flowers that bloom year-round in the park area. There are countless walking trails around the pass that are easy for hikers of all ages, while providing views that are well worth your time.
10. Tucson Mountain Park
The county-owned park that dots the southern edge of the Tucson Mountains in Tucson Estates provides top-notch hiking and walking trails in a dog-friendly confine. There are trails of various difficulties, with the Hidden Canyon Bowen Loop and Rock Wren trails being the easiest, and Cat Mountain and Starr Pass Peak being the most difficult. These hikes are best suited for the cooler winter months, given their low elevation and high sun exposure, but present hikers of all skill levels with a variety of scenic options that are a short drive from wherever they are staying in the city. All of the park’s trails are accessible from either Kinney, San Joaquin, Starr Pass or Gates Pass road, allowing for an easy-in, easy-out experience that’s sure to leave you speechless upon completion.