Tucson: Your Outdoor Adventure Awaits
Hiking, Biking, Mountain Climbing and Skydiving Opportunities Abound
Tucson is a land of wide-open spaces. Situated in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, the city is surrounded by five mountain ranges and lush Sonoran Desert vegetation ripe for exploration. How you traverse the landscape is entirely up to you. Hike it. Bike it. Climb it. Or soar through it. No matter your preference, we guarantee you will leave Tucson feeling untethered from the doldrums of life. At the top of the trailhead or from the side of a cliff, exhale deeply and let that sublime feeling set in. This is what freedom feels like.
Tucson is known as a hikers’ haven for good reason. The city is flanked on both sides by Saguaro National Park East and West, offering some of the most iconic, saguaro-studded treks in the region. Then there’s Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, Catalina State Park, Tumamoc Hill, Madera Canyon, Redington Pass, and Mount Lemmon – all areas where you can lace up your boots and spend an entire day navigating the world’s lushest desert (or in the case of Mount Lemmon, forest).
Visitors often think that because Tucson is in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, there are few or no natural water sources here. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and these hikes set the record straight. First time visitors to Tucson can dip their toe into the water at Seven Falls Trail, one of the most beloved hikes in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. This trail winds through Bear Canyon, gaining 900 feet of elevation over the course of five miles before depositing you at the base of a waterfall that stretches up the canyon walls in a series of freshwater pools. Another popular “watering hole” is Romero Pools in Catalina State Park. This nearly six-mile hike takes you to Romero Pools, where you can take a refreshing plunge before either turning back to the trailhead or continue onto the more arduous 14.4-mile Romero Canyon Trail. Don’t let the short two-mile distance of Lower Tanque Verde Falls Trail fool you – this hike is not for the faint of heart. You’ll start with a descent into a streambed, where you’ll scramble over boulders and across a riverbed before summiting at Tanque Verde Falls. The water flow in months like January can make this trek nearly impossible, so it’s best to go in the fall or spring.
If hiking with a view is more your style, Tucson has plenty of trails that fill the bill. Visit Saguaro National Park East’s Freeman Homestead Nature Trail, an easy one-mile loop that features some of the most scenic desert in Tucson, plus vistas of the valley and nearby mountains. The Valley View Overlook Trail in Saguaro National Park West is just shy of a mile round-trip but is one of the most beautiful hikes in the Tucson area, according to locals. This undulated trail gradually climbs uphill, where you’ll be greeted by rolling landscapes of saguaros and long views of the valley. It comes as no surprise that the highest point in Tucson – Mount Lemmon – hosts an array of hikes with unforgettable views. Try the Aspen Trail that begins in Marshall Gulch, where you’ll be greeted by a forest of Douglas and white fir, as well as the trail’s namesake tree. Continue on for views of the so-called Wilderness of Rock area, where a series of stunning rock formations take center stage.
Are you a mountain biker, road cyclist, or gravel grinder? Consider Tucson your personal playground. Compared by some to biking Meccas such as Moab, Utah, and stretches of the Rocky Mountains, the Tucson area has some of the most technically challenging and breathtaking trails in the world, sans the bottlenecks found elsewhere. Add in the vast diversity of trails – both on and off road – that cater to all types of riders, and it’s a no-brainer why greater Tucson is consistently ranked one of the top biking destinations in the country.
Beginning mountain bikers will revel in rides like Fantasy Island Mountain Bike Park in southeast Tucson. The main loop, Lone Cactus, can be combined with a variety of shorter loops to customize your ride accordingly. Intermediate riders consider the Starr Pass Main Loop trail in Tucson Mountain Park as a rite of passage. It’s the perfect combination of challenging, scenic and enjoyable, and the trail is conveniently located about a quarter mile from the entrance to JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort and Spa. Tucson’s crown jewel of mountain biking, the aforementioned Mount Lemmon, is the ideal spot for advanced mountain bikers. Check out the undulated Bug Springs Trail, which starts at about 5,800 feet above sea level, or challenge yourself even further on The Full Lemmon Drop. True to its name, the drop takes you from the top of mountain to the Tucson floor during a technical ride that’s euphoric for adrenaline seekers.
Road cyclists hail from all over the country to ride Tucson’s sundry trails, and it’s no wonder with options like the 137-mile long Chuck Huckelberry Loop. Voted the best recreational trail in USA Today many times over, this relatively easy trail encircles all of Tucson and the bedroom communities of Marana and Oro Valley. Intermediate riders relish the ride out to Gates Pass, west of downtown. This route culminates at Saguaro National Park West after a big climb and descent through the scenic Tucson Mountain Park and past the renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Experienced road bikers who wish to test their limits can do so on the Mount Lemmon Highway. The longest hill-climb in Arizona, this punishing 30-mile route begins at 2,557 feet surrounded by saguaro cactuses and concludes at 8,198 feet in a dense pine forest.
It comes as no surprise that when the new discipline of gravel grinding began to emerge a few years ago, Tucson, already heralded as a premier destination for road and mountain biking, was at the center of the discussion with a wide variety of gravel options. One of Tucson’s most accessible gravel rides can be found at the 6-mile Bajada Loop in Tucson’s Saguaro National Park West, featuring a healthy dose of scenery and history if you include a stop at Tucson’s Signal Hill Picnic Area, where 800-year-old Hohokam Indian petroglyphs are on full display. Intermediate riders can check out Box Canyon, home to a 33-mile scenic gravel ride that starts and concludes at Highway 83 after 4,000 feet of elevation gains. Then there’s Mount Lemmon’s infamous gravel grinding option. Up the back side of the mountain on the Control Road you’ll find an especially challenging 13-mile ride with a 4,400 feet elevation gain.
The call of the Santa Catalina Mountains isn’t just heard by hikers and cyclists. The range is home to more than 50 peaks that are the stuff of mountain climbers’ most vivid dreams. Climbers flock to these high points year-round, though fall and spring boast the most comfortable temperatures. It’s not just the weather that draws climbers, it’s also the scenery and diversity of ecosystems. Many climbs require an accompanying hike that starts in the Sonoran Desert, but by the time you ascend the peak, it ends in a green forest. These forested regions are referred to as sky islands, and they offer some of the most rewarding and scenic climbs in the Southwest.
Test your limits at Cathedral Rock, which sits at 7,957 feet above sea level and is the fourth highest in the Catalina Mountains. You’ll be met with your first challenge at the trailhead, where you’ll have to complete a 15-mile hike before even arriving at your destination. Once there, you’ll be greeted by a climb that is long and arduous and requires a short duration of fifth-class climbing involving the use of a rope. The 360-degree views at the top make this climb well worth the effort.
A favorite among locals, Prominent Point allows climbers to skip the hike and head straight for the peak. This moderately difficult climb boasts a summit that’s 6,628 feet above sea level. It’s no easy feat to get there though. A crumbly cliff combined with desert vegetation requires climbers to be especially inventive as they scale the point.
Then there’s The Fortress, one of the best and most varied crags on Mount Lemmon. After a short hike from Ski Run Road, you’ll have your choice of routes to the summit. The Southeast Face offers more traditional climbs, while the other side of the crag, referred to as Orifice Wall, boasts some of the hardest routes in the area. Clip in to fixed cables and traverse the steep incline during this endorphin-inducing climb that is praised as one of the best climbing routes in all of Tucson.
Soar Through It
Have you ever wished you could mirror the sensation of soaring like a bird? The extreme sport of skydiving allows you to do just that. For decades, skydive enthusiasts have been traveling to the surrounding Tucson area to hone their craft or check an item off their bucket list. That’s because the Sonoran Desert offers the rare and perfect combination of more than 330 days of sunshine, very little wind and vast areas of relatively flat land.
The World’s largest skydive center, Skydive Arizona, is located in the tiny, unassuming town of Eloy, less than an hour north of downtown Tucson. Longtime skydivers have intimate knowledge of this place, founded in 1978. Every few years enormous groups hail from multiple countries to attempt massive multi-people formation jumps and set new state records. It’s not just licensed skydivers who utilize the center though. Adventures in Skydiving at Skydive Arizona caters to newcomers of the sport by offering tandem skydives and a multi-day program for those who eventually wish to skydive solo. Not sure you’re ready to make the leap? Skydive Arizona is also home to an indoor skydiving simulation facility, plus it welcomes spectators.
Even closer to Tucson is the reputable Skydive Marana, a 30-year-old school that’s less than a 30-minute drive from downtown. First-timers are offered a short 20-minute course followed by a tandem skydive with an instructor. Enjoy the exhilarating thrill of jumping out of an airplane and accelerating to 120 mph, then dramatically slowing down as your parachute opens and you take in unforgettable views of the Santa Catalina mountains.