Whatever your skill level, there's a hike for you somewhere in the Sonoran Desert.
by Emily Gindlesparger
Aspen Loop is Tucson’s refuge: this riparian trail near the top of Mount Lemmon is a beautiful escape in all seasons. The subalpine forest is twenty degrees cooler than the desert floor, making it a perfect destination during the summer heat; spring and fall decorate the trail in wildflowers and golden aspen leaves; and the canyon becomes a snow-covered (though sometimes impassable) wonderland in winter. Hikers can get acclimatized with a relatively flat out-and-back, or link up to the steeper Aspen Trail for a loop that takes in meadows, oak and madrone woodland, and massive boulders at the top of the Lemmon.
Gould Mine Loop threads through the Tucson Mountains in Saguaro National Park West in the King Canyon area. As its name suggests, you’ll see hike past old mines, and in Spring the canyon sides become blanketed in bright orange poppies. This low-elevation trail is best in cooler months. Petroglyphs are tucked into the rock walls along the sandy wash, making King Canyon the best vantage to experience classic Sonoran desert in all of its biological and cultural diversity.
Sabino Canyon is the crown jewel of the Santa Catalinas, with soaring rock walls, grand sycamores and cottonwoods, and dearly coveted water. The $5 park fee is put to good use: a paved 3.8-mile road makes the canyon accessible to runners and walkers, or you can ride the tram ($10) with a guided narration of this unique biome. Trails branch off onto ridgelines and dramatic side canyons, including Bear Canyon and the cool pools under Seven Falls. A short loop hike can be done that will take you through the dry desert full of cactus to a lush riparian are full of trees above an old dam, that is a fantastic way to get your feet wet at Sabino Canyon. Fall, winter, and spring are the best times to enjoy the water, which can be reduced to a trickle in summer—though July monsoons temporarily replenish it with thunderstorms.
Pima Canyon crosses a varied landscape: a rocky desert ridge into a cool riparian wash of old cottonwoods, around snaking, bends to a canyon surrounded by peaks, up to a set of old dams. Mortar holes dot the bedrock where Hohokam Indian women once ground seeds. Intrepid hikers can continue for several steepening miles up to a saddle and on to Mount Kimball. To the north are views of the West Fork Rift and summit of the Catalinas; to the south, the whole Tucson valley is laid out below. The most comfortable temps are fall through spring, but you’ll see locals in broad sun hats tackling the heat through the summer; this trail is just that beautiful.
Bridal Wreath skirts a canyon side in the Rincon Mountains. Encompassed by Saguaro National Park East, this trail is marked by mature saguaros and polished granite boulders, following an intermittent streambed that leads to Bridal Wreath Falls. While most intermediate hikers turn back here, trekkers can get overnight permits to continue up to the top, carving a wide circle around Mica Mountain and ending at Rincon Peak. Toasty in the summer, the hike is pleasant by early fall, lasting through late spring.
Sycamore Reservoir is a peaceful stopover on the Arizona Trail with a turbulent history. Tucked into a steep-walled granite canyon, the reservoir was once the water source for the “prison camp” where Japanese Americans were housed during internment. The present-day campground is named after Gordon Hirabayashi, a prominent activist who was held there. Midway up the mountain, this hike is best in fall through spring but can be endured in summer. The hike begins from Gordon Hirabayashi Campground, surmounting a saddle of oak grassland before descending to the canyon. Lush sycamores and cottonwoods mark the spot. The sweeping vistas have ignited passion in many to continue along with other sections of the Arizona Trail that runs from Mexico to Utah.
Finger Rock begins sweetly, swooping on a clear trail through a sandy wash, but quickly shows its true face when the trail butts against the canyon side and heads steeply up. The goal: a finger-like jut of rock that can be seen along the skyline over Tucson. Though no trail summits this pinnacle, brave climbers can bushwhack, scramble, and surmount poorly protected technical climbing to stand on the finger. Nonetheless, the views deep into the gorge and up to the rocky skyline make this hike iconic. With a shuttle, it’s possible to link this trail through Mount Kimball and down Pima Canyon for a long and strenuous day. Because the trail gains nearly 4,000 feet in less than six miles, it’s scorching in summer but a great challenge in other seasons.
Romero Pools leaves from Catalina State Park, spending a couple of miles on an old dirt road before grunting straight up a ridge. The payoff is stunning: pools on a high ridge hold water year round, and when full they’re great for a little cliff jumping and wet rock slides. The three miles to the pools is a steep intermediate hike, but advanced hikers can continue, linking this trail to the massive West Fork rift. From there it’s possible to descend the front range trails (Pima Canyon, Finger Rock, and Ventana Canyon all connect to the West Fork) or take a multi-day hike all the way out to Hutch’s Pool and an exit through Sabino Canyon.
Mount Wrightson has two trails to summit the highest peak in southern Arizona: the Old Baldy trail and the Super trail. Many hikers opt for the shorter, steeper Baldy trail, and some combine both in a figure-eight loop that crosses at Josephine Saddle. From the top you can see the purple outlines of the surrounding ranges, and look into the rolling Chiricahua grasslands and red rock streaks of the Canelo Hills. Temperatures swing from the heat of the desert floor to the cool summit at 9,456 feet, making spring and fall the best times to attempt this hike.
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