Though well-known in and around Tucson, I had never heard of Sabino Canyon before living here, which is a shame because it has some truly amazing trails and views. I’ve visited this site a few times now, including for night hiking – Tucson is not favorable to hiking in the afternoon. While there are many hikes here I have not been on, I can certainly attest to the beauty of the area I did explore, so read on for notes about trail conditions, what to bring, and what to know!
Many of the trails at Sabino Canyon are very long (i.e. over 10 miles), and while these can have amazing overlooks and destinations (including the top of Mt. Lemmon), it’s not always feasible to spend the whole day hiking, especially during warmer weather since there is a shortage of shade in the park. If you’re looking for a shorter trail, I would recommend this one on All Trails. It makes a nice loop and provides fantastic views of Tucson. That said, if you don’t like a steep climb, I suggest starting on Bear Canyon Trail and essentially hiking the All Trails map in reverse. There will still be some hills, but you will go down the steepest portion instead of up.
Being outside the city, you can get some nice views of the stars in Sabino Canyon without having to drive up and down Mt. Lemmon in the dark or out to Saguaro. The paved access road is a safe, easy path for a nighttime stroll, and as you move further into the canyon and away from the city, you will have beautiful views of the night sky. For the more adventurous, you can also go on an actual trail in the evening, though it may be best to hike out and up in daylight, watch the sunset, and then return back with headlamps on. Either way, you’re likely to see some wildlife no matter where you are since the animals will be more active at night. At the end of my night hiking here, I was sitting on a lamplit bench near the parking lot, and when I looked down, there was a Kangaroo Rat by my foot!
All the trails I have been on in Sabino Canyon were well-maintained and clean. The markers are generally obvious and easy-to-understand. Keep in mind though that there is a creek in Sabino Canyon, and you should check to see if there are any flood warnings before you go. While the creek-bed is usually dry, when there is rain, it can flood due to the runoff from the mountains. Also, as there are cacti everywhere, it’s probably a good idea to wear pants if you plan on leaving the Access Road (which I suggest).
What to Bring
Hiking in the desert is not like hiking in more moderate conditions, and it’s important to be prepared. Water is an essential for hiking in the desert, no matter how long your hike or what time you go. Snacks are also a good idea, but be sure to store any trash in your backpack. If hiking at sunrise/sunset or during the day, sunglasses are also a good suggestion. Particularly if you are going on a longer trail, you or someone in your group should have a first aid kit of some kind. And, of course, a camera is almost imperative in a place like this!
What to Know
The Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is part of Coronado National Forest and, as such, is maintained by the Forest Service. A visitor center can provide you with more information about trail conditions and what animals and plants you may see, though during much of the year, it’s advisable to start hiking before the visitor center opens (hours are 8-4:30). If you want to talk to the rangers, it would be best to stop by the visitor center the day before you go hiking.
If you’re not interested in hiking but still want to experience the foothills of the Catalinas with all the desert life, the visitor center offers a couple of tram rides, one with commentary about what you’re seeing and one without. Be sure to check the schedule in advance and make sure the tram will be running when you want to go!
There is a fee to visit the area, so be prepared with cash. At $8/day it’s a little steep, which is why I would advise spending at least a few hours in the backcountry. However, if you are camping, the fee is $10/week, so if you are planning to camp even for only one night, this would be a good deal.
Finally, be sure to either grab a map at the visitor center or download one on your phone. Though trails are well-marked and heavily trafficked, it’s a good idea to know where you’re going just to be safe, especially if you plan to go for a longer hike into the backcountry. And just to reiterate, be sure to have more water than you think you need.
Overall, Sabino Canyon is a lot of fun, and there are some amazing views to be found! Spending a morning here is a great way to start a day in Tucson!