The hills are alive with cactus, creosote, and mule deer. Go explore.
|By Laura Horley
Tucson is surrounded by mountain ranges—the Catalinas in the north, the Rincons in the east, the Tucsons in the west, and the Santa Ritas in the south. Each range offers its own special charm and an incredible selection of outdoor recreation opportunities. Here are a couple of our favorite hikes from each range.
The Catalina Mountains
Marshall Gulch and Wilderness of Rocks
Tucsonans know, when summer comes and your brain starts to melt, you need to leave the valley floor. There is no better, or faster, way to do this than with a quick trip up Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains. Right near the peak, you’ll find several trails worth exploring. Hike the Marshall Gulch loop, and find yourself creek-side, breathing in the sweet vanilla scent of Ponderosa Pine, and roaming through an Aspen grove. It’s the next best thing to teleporting to Colorado.
If you want a more meandering path, replete with cool rock formations, hidden swimming pools, and epic vistas, explore the Wilderness of Rocks Trail.
Romero Pools and Pusch Ridge
These are not summer hikes. They just aren’t! I mean, you do you. But if you do you in summer, bring a TON of water. Starting closer to the base of the mountains and wandering through Sonoran desert, these two hikes are a little (ok, sometimes a lot) steep and incredibly rewarding. If you want to bathe in beautiful pools as your reward, opt for Romero Pools in Catalina State Park. If you prefer something a little more treacherous with a crazy view at the end, drive a little further north to the Pusch Ridge trailhead and hike along this iconic formation. You’ll feel like an ant climbing over the back of a stegosaurous.
Have you ever wanted to climb the highest peak in a mountain range? But do you also struggle to hit the trail before noon? This hike is for you. Wasson Peak is the highest peak in the Tucson Mountains, and the hike up it, while steep, is remarkably accessible for the feeling of accomplishment that it leads to. Switchbacks and gravelly trails are balanced by desert scenery and incredible views, and, at just about 7.5 miles round-trip, you can reach the summit within a few hours. 360 degree views of the city and Saguaro National Park await, and the way back is all downhill.
Less intense and yet no less beautiful than the hike up Wasson Peak (but you won’t get the views), the Yetman Trail is a favorite for families, dog owners, mountain bikers, trail runners, casual strollers, and a stunning array of desert wildlife including mule deer, lizards, and, if you’re really lucky, big horn sheep. This trail in the Tucson Mountains leads through saguaros, ocotillos, and palo verde to a stone house, built in the 1930s by the Bowen family. After taking a snack break in one of the windows, you can continue on past the house and further into the desert. If you do, you’ll eventually reach Starr Pass.
Tanque Verde Falls
Tanque Verde Falls is popular for a reason. It’s an oasis of fresh water pools and waterfalls close to the city. It’s a dog-friendly, explore-at-your-own-pace kind of place, and it can be as much or as little of a hike as you want. You’ll hit water within the first quarter mile, and then it’s up to you if you want to keep going, or if you’d rather hole up in a shady spot on a smooth rock with a good book. If you do decide to venture all the way to the big falls, be careful. Some overly ambitious thrill seekers have faced serious injury or even death in their mighty waters.
This hike is no joke. It’s long (16 miles, give or take) and it’s steep, but it’s also unlike anything else you’ll find in the Tucson area. On this trail, typical Sonoran desert flora gives way to oaks, juniper, and grasslands. Make sure you start early in the day. After a steep ascent, you’ll be rewarded with 360 degree views from a very unique perch.
Santa Rita Mountains
This hike follows the Old Baldy Trail. It starts in Madera Canyon, at the base of the Santa Ritas, and takes you up to the mountain range’s highest peak. The terrain is decidedly different from what you’d typically find in the Sonoran desert, even before you start climbing higher in elevation. At about 10 miles round trip, this steep hike is more than a casual stroll, but it’s worth every step.
This loop trail will take you through some of the riparian lowlands of the Santa Ritas. Green grass, fresh springs, big trees, and uninterrupted views are guaranteed, and there’s a great chance that you’ll spot some birds and other wildlife. There’s a reason that this area is popular with birders. This hike is definitely less steep than hiking Wrightson, and is a great option any time of year, aside from summer, when it can be a bit hot.