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.

Landscape of Santa Catalina Mountain scaled with green brush and saguaro cacti. Above is a bright blue sky with clouds peaking above the mountain range
Sabino Canyon, Santa Catalina Mountain

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.

high walled canyon scaled with bright yellow brush, green bushes, and cacti. In the center of the canyon appears 7 stacked waterfalls (Seven Falls) that connect leading down the canyon
Seven Falls (Bear Canyon Trail) in Sabino Canyon Recreation Center

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.

solo man with backpack hiking in Rocky canyon. Large rock formations on all sides with green dessert brush and trees scattered in canyon rocks
Pajarita Wilderness, Coronado National Forest

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.



Come to Tucson and you'll quickly see that the city is literally surrounded on…


Take a multi-day backpacking excursion, or a leisurely stroll through the desert.