The natural landscape that surrounds Tucson is far more than a hot, dry, and dusty desert. It is truly a hiker’s paradise, with endless trails and variety. The area is known for its cacti, like the iconic saguaro, but it’s also home to coniferous forests, hoodoo speckled ridgelines, and high-altitude “sky islands”.
Next to the city, five mountain ranges rise to elevations as high as 9,000+ feet. This means in the middle of summer, when temps regularly top 100° F in Tucson, it’s around 70° F on top of Mount Lemmon, Mount Wrightson, or Mica Mountain.
In the winter, you can build a snowman next to a trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains, drive 45 minutes down the Catalina Highway, then get a sun tan hiking in the 60-70 degree wintertime highs that Tucson is known for.
Because Tucson’s trails are so diverse, there is something for every type of hiker. If you want a challenge, you can have it. The area’s two biggest peaks have about 5,000 feet of prominence for you to get after.
If you’re trying to cool off on a hot day, there are numerous desert oases to hike to with beautiful pools and waterfalls. And if you want something easy yet scenic, Tucson has that too.
I’ve lived in the Old Pueblo for three years and I’ve hiked or ran a lot of the trails here. I’d like to share some of my favorites with you. Whether you’re visiting the area or a local looking to get outside, below are 15 of the best hikes in Tucson, organized by type.
Tip: If you’re not convinced that Tucson is worth visiting, Kim gives a few reasons why she loves the place.
- 1 Waterfall Hikes
- 2 Hikes with a View
- 3 Short Hikes
Seven Falls is one of the most popular hikes in Tucson, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing it. Even on busier days, the crowds aren’t overwhelming and the payoff makes it all worthwhile.
The hike starts at Sabino Canyon Visitor Center, and gives you a great feel for what Sonoran Desert hiking is all about. It’s 8.7 miles out and back with minimal elevation gain. Make sure to carry plenty of water and bring your swimming suit!
If you love water, Romero Pools is another must-do hike found in Catalina State Park near Oro Valley. After ascending 1,217 feet over 3.1 miles, you’re sure to work up a sweat. To cool off, jump in one of several pools or shower underneath a small waterfall. Also, keep your eyes peeled for red spotted toads on the granite rocks. They are extremely well-camouflaged.
Lower Tanque Verde Falls
Lower Tanque Verde Falls is only 2 miles out and back, but don’t underestimate it, this is a tough hike! Boulder hop, scramble, and wade your way to the end and you’ll be rewarded by several waterfalls, the last of which is the most impressive. You can bring your dog, but the route is treacherous so don’t push beyond your furry friend’s limits.
Bridal Wreath Falls
While it’s not the world’s biggest waterfall and has a tendency to dry up, Bridal Wreath Falls is lovely when it’s flowing. The hike is 5.8 miles out and back from Douglas Spring Trailhead in Saguaro National Park East. It has 1,025 feet of elevation gain, lots of saguaros, and tremendous views.
Tip: I highly recommend timing this one so you get back to the trailhead around sunset. Some of the most magical sunsets I’ve ever seen have been from this spot.
Nestled deep within the West Fork of Sabino Canyon, there is a Sonoran Desert oasis with a swimming hole called Hutch’s Pool. It has water year round, but you’d be wise not to hike there in the summer heat. Spring or Fall are the best times to do it.
To get to Hutch’s, walk 3.8 miles up Sabino’s paved canyon bottom, then hike another 4 miles from the trailhead there. At 15.6 miles out and back, this can make for a long day of hiking! You can shorten it however, by taking the tram. This bypasses 7.6 miles, which reduces your hike total to 8 miles out and back.
Hikes with a View
If views are what you’re after, then look no further than Blackett’s Ridge. This sun-scorched ridgeline divides Sabino Canyon and Bear Canyon. The trail to its highpoint ascends 1,700 feet over 3 miles. There are some steep sections that will tire you out, but it’s worth it! Persevere to the end and enjoy the awe-inspiring scenery of Tucson’s mountains.
Lemmon Rock Lookout to Wilderness of Rocks to Mount Lemmon Trail Loop
No trip to Tucson would be complete without driving up the Catalina Highway (aka Sky Island Scenic Byway) to the top of Mount Lemmon. Next to the observatory and near the summit, there is a parking lot labelled “Mount Lemmon Trailhead Entrance” on Google Maps.
At first, the trail splits off in many directions. Stay to the left and follow the Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail past the fire lookout (closed to the public), 2 miles to its junction with the Wilderness of Rocks Trail. Bear left here and continue another 2 miles to the next junction. From here, bear right onto the Mount Lemmon Trail and hike 4 miles uphill back to where you started.
This hike is 8 miles roundtrip with 2,000 feet elevation gain. It has unbelievable views of the entire Tucson region, temps are a lot cooler, the air smells like pine trees, and most of the trail is shaded. As an added bonus, it takes you to the Wilderness of Rocks, an interesting amalgamation of boulders and rock formations.
There are a few different approaches to the top of Mount Wrightson, which offers expansive views of Southern Arizona and the northernmost edge of Mexico. At 9,456 feet, it’s the tallest peak near Tucson. To summit, you’ll gain nearly 4,000 feet elevation over 5-6 miles and get up close and personal with Madera Canyon, a sanctuary for migrating birds and other wildlife.
Agua Caliente Hill
Agua Caliente Hill is probably my favorite dog friendly hike in Tucson. I hike it a lot, but most of the time I turnaround at Cat Track Tank or the saddle above it. If you have the time and energy, the 8.8 mile out and back to the summit is worth doing. You’ll gain 2,588 feet and be recompensed with great views throughout the entire hike.
Wasson Peak has a similar elevation to Blackett’s Ridge, but it’s on the opposite side of the valley and provides a completely different perspective. Via the Kings Canyon Trail, it’s 7 miles out and back with 1,700 feet elevation gain. You can also summit Wasson from the other side via Sweetwater Trail, but the approach is longer with more elevation.
Tip: This would be a great hike to do in tandem with a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is across the road from the trailhead. Be sure to finish out the day by watching the sunset at nearby Gates Pass.
Mica View to Cactus Forest Trail Loop
When mine or Kim’s folks visit from Utah, we like to take them on easier hikes with little to no elevation gain/loss. Broadway Trailhead in Saguaro National Park East is one of our go-tos.
Tip: You simply can’t visit Tucson without going to Saguaro National Park. Just do it!
The first 0.6 miles on Mica View are paved with compressed mud. Once you reach the picnic area, continue to the other side where Mica View picks back up. After 0.3 miles, bear left at the junction with Cactus Forest Trail. Follow it 1.1 miles back to where you started.
Sabino Canyon Dam
If you’ve got your heart set on a short but scenic walk, the Sabino Canyon Dam is a great option. During Tucson’s driest months (April – June), the water tends to disappear, but otherwise this is a good place to picnic and swim.
From the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center, walk eastward and follow signs for “Hiking Trails”. Once you reach the pavement, turn right and continue until you reach a cul de sac with restrooms. At this point, walk down to Sabino Creek and follow it up until you reach the overflowing dam.
On the westside of town, at the foot of the Tucson Mountains, sits Sweetwater Preserve. It is a protected natural area that has a hodgepodge of dog friendly hiking trails. The trails are well-marked and easy to navigate, so I suggest parking in the lot and choosing your own route.
West of town, Gates Pass Road winds up and over a saddle in the Tucson Mountains with stunning views of Avra Valley and the mountains beyond it. This is arguably one of the best, if not the best places to view the sunset in the Desert Southwest.
From the parking lot, walk westward to reach Gates Pass Trail. Once you have descended to the valley, this trail connects to a myriad of others in Tucson Mountain Park.
Marshall Gulch to Aspen Trail Loop
Thanks to hoards of Tucsonans seeking a break from the heat, I can’t recommend doing this hike on a summer weekend. If you can swing a weekday, the Marshall Gulch to Aspen Trail Loop is a sublime retreat to high elevation, cooler weather, and shaded trails.
Starting from Marshall Gulch Picnic Area, bear right onto the Marshall Gulch Trail and follow it until you reach a junction with four other trails. Here, bear left and follow Aspen Trail back to where you started. The loop is 4 miles with 800 feet elevation gain/loss.
Tip: After your hike, head over to the Cookie Cabin in Summerhaven for giant homemade cookies topped with ice cream. You’ve earned it!