Discover the Mountains Around Tucson
Getting into the mountains around Tucson is an opportunity to explore other worlds.
There is something completely magical about the mountains surrounding Tucson. You can’t see it just by looking at the big picture. Fly over in a plane, for example, and when you look out the window you see swaths of brown scrub buckling up into green-dark mountains: the Santa Catalinas to the north of Tucson, the Santa Ritas to the south, Rincons to the east, and Tucson Mountains to the west.
But step out in this wilderness on foot, and the brown scrub comes into crystalline focus: the accordion folds of cacti swell with water and compress in the sun. Delicate bright wildflowers hide under prickly pear paddles. The acidic herbal smell of creosote haunts the breeze. There is more diversity in the Sonoran Desert than in any other desert in the world.
That diversity comes from what biologists have coined our “Sky Islands.” Separated by wide swaths of desert, these mountain ecosystems have isolated biomes, created by the unique mix of plants and animals that hop from one island to another. The Santa Catalina Mountains host species from the Canadian Rockies, such as black bears and alpine fir. But just two hours south, the Santa Rita Mountains are surrounded by the golden waves of Chihuahua Desert grasslands. This range contains subtropical species from the Sierra Madre Occidental, including dozens of hummingbirds and the rare sighting of the northern jaguar.
"Sky Islands are places where you can see incredible plant diversity in only a few miles. It is easy to visit both deserts and alpine areas in the same day."
— U.S. Forest Service
It all depends on water, and Tucson may be the only city where residents run outside in monsoon thunderstorms to revel in the rain. The most coveted hikes of this region have water features at their heart, like the polished granite grotto of Romero Pools or the surging waterfalls at Seven Falls and the Douglas Spring Trail.
Surrounding all of this is a sea of granite and volcanic rock. Towering orange cliffs lord over Sabino Canyon; a fractured grey monolith shelters Sycamore Reservoir, and the jagged pinnacle of Finger Rock can be seen from the city. Any hike in the Sky Islands is a tour through geologic history.
Hikers take special consideration out here. Chief among them is bringing plenty of water on the trail: at least a gallon per person per day. Almost all trails in the Wild West are rocky; hiking boots or rugged footwear are recommended to protect your feet.
Wide hats and sunglasses are necessary for the all-day sun, and long lightweight layers can keep the rays off your skin and help you feel a little cooler in summer. Weather can roll in quickly and dramatically in the mountains, particularly during summer monsoons; an extra layer or waterproof jacket can give you security in a downpour.
Local hikers often bring a comb or tweezers to pick out cactus needles, which are especially handy when hiking with a dog. (Pups are welcome on some trails, like Marshall Gulch, but prohibited in Saguaro National Park and the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, which covers much of the Santa Catalinas. Check land management guidelines before venturing out with a dog.)
With the Sonoran Desert, Chihuahua Desert grasslands, oak, and juniper woodlands, and subalpine forest all within reach, it’s no wonder that hundreds of miles of trail weave through the mountains around Tucson. A dozen different worlds are waiting to be explored.