Escape To & Free Yourself In Tucson’s Expansive Outdoors

By Roger Naylor

Contrary to what we learned from Road Runner cartoons, the desert is not stark, empty and weirdly angular. (And coyotes seldom travel by Acme rocket-powered roller skates.) The Sonoran Desert, which stretches across Tucson and a great swath of Southern Arizona, is a vibrant, biologically diverse landscape bristling with plant and animal life. It’s a world of adventure, where free spirits are uncovered and welcomed. It’s exhilarating, with towering rock faces that dare climbers, winding trails that challenge hikers and summits that look across the region for miles. Some of the most spectacular examples, along with other startling landscapes, are preserved in parks in and around Tucson.

So where does this journey of exploration and self-actualization begin? Start with these five parks, which epitomize the Sonoran Desert experience and preserve the treasures and “a-ha moments” that can only be found in the clean air and open spaces in and around Tucson.

Saguaro National Park

The Sonoran Desert has a unique skyline. The mighty saguaro cactus, ramrod straight and fiercely elegant, grows only in this habitat. Often standing with arms upraised in triumph, saguaros create the perfect foreground for Tucson’s signature sky-fire sunsets.

It’s no surprise Saguaro National Park was formed to protect dense forests of the cactuses. The two sections of park bookend Tucson and create a genuine backcountry that laps at residents’ doorsteps. This instant access to adventure means hiking boots, cross-trainers and bike shorts are essential components of almost every Tucson wardrobe. This is where people come for serious outdoor play.

On the east side of town, the Rincon Mountain District of the park offers a wide range of trails, including a lanky route up Tanque Verde Ridge that climbs above the desert into shaggy grasslands. Grab a map from the visitor center and plunge into the network of inter-connected trails weaving through the Cactus Forest. You can do a short loop or spend an entire day exploring this spiny paradise.

In the Tucson Mountain District (the west unit) start with the easy Desert Discovery Trail, a short self-guided route that introduces you to native plants and animals. Once you’re warmed up, venture out on one of the longer trails like King Canyon or Hugh Norris, which climb into the mountains affording dramatic views.

Catalina State Park

Photo: Bill Morrow

Catalina State Park

This 5,500-acre park provides hikers, bikers, equestrians, and birders an expansive haven on the northern edge of town. Catalina State Park spreads across the foothills of the craggy Santa Catalina Mountains and skirts the town of Oro Valley. Trails like Canyon Loop ramble through desert meadows, dotted with cactus, mesquite, ocotillo and occasionally splashed with wildflowers. Others, like Romero Canyon, ascend the mountain slopes leading to hidden pools of water—small miracles by desert reckoning. Guided hikes, star parties, and outdoor concerts keep folks flocking to Catalina.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Forest

Southside District

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Southwest of Tucson, the saguaro gains a worthy sidekick in the form of the organ pipe cactus. With multiple arms branching from the base, the cactus resembles the pipes of a huge church organ. A population of these distinctive plants prompted the creation of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 1937. The 516-square-mile park sits on the border with Mexico and is the only place in the U.S. where the organ pipe flourishes.

This is a vast sweep of Sonoran Desert, rugged and raw, with blazing sun and mountains shambling off in all directions. Scenic drives wander through the quiet backcountry. The 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive, a twisting gravel road usually passable to most sedans, is the most popular. The longer Puerto Blanco Drive completely reopened in 2014 but requires a high-clearance vehicle for some sections.

To truly experience the cradling stillness enveloping Organ Pipe, put boots on the ground. Arch Canyon Trail is an easy hike into a wide gorge topped by a natural arch. Or make a loop via Bull Pasture and Estes Canyon trails, scrambling up exposed slopes for stunning views of the park and into Mexico.

Coronado National Forest

Catalina Foothills District

Chiricahua National Monument

Southeast of Tucson lies Chiricahua National Monument, possibly the most exotic place you’ll find in Arizona. A thrust of mountains rising from desert grasslands is crowned by a bristling garden of vertical stone. A massive volcanic event 27 million years ago left a landscape covered in super-heated ash that fused together forming layers of rock called rhyolite. Eons of weathering sculpted the rhyolite into the otherworldly array of columns, spires, pinnacles and balanced rocks that fascinate us today.  

Visitors can make a winding eight-mile scenic drive through oak and pine forests framed by looming hoodoos to Massai Point, a high overlook with wraparound views. If you want to touch the ancient skin of these volcano bones, these stone missiles, there are 17 miles of trails throughout the park. Make your way back to the Heart of Rocks Loop for an amazing display of formations that include Kissing Rocks, Thor’s Hammer and Duck on a Rock.

Coronado National Monument

Cochise County

Coronado National Memorial

This little-known spot is located at the southern end of the Huachuca Mountains on the border with Mexico. The park commemorates the exploration of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1540, the first known excursion of Europeans into the American Southwest in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola.

Nestled in dense oak woodland at 5,000 feet elevation, the Coronado National Memorial offers commanding views of the San Pedro River Valley—thought to be Coronado’s route—and south into Mexico. Eight miles of hiking trails slice through the wooded foothills and one even leads to a mysterious cave. Please check in at the visitor center before exploring the cavern that stretches for 600 feet to learn about cave safety and preservation.

Bonus: Coronado National Forest

Just an hour’s drive from Tucson, Mt. Lemmon is a popular destination within the national forest year-round. A short drive to the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains and you’ll be in cool weather with plenty to experience—hiking trails through wooded areas, a quaint mountain town, and seemingly endless views from overlooks. Before reaching the summit, download the Mt. Lemmon app to listen to an audio science tour on the drive up about the natural science behind the landscape.

There’s truly no better way to experience the beauty of the Sonoran Desert than getting out in it. The sights smell and textures can’t be beat. Always keep your eyes peeled for amazing wildlife, too. And try to resist saying “meep meep” if you see a roadrunner.

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