One Of Arizona's Lesser-Known Natural Wonders Is Full Of Breathtaking Hiking Trails

Imagine a desert paradise. In your head, you may be seeing saguaro cacti standing tall against a bright blue sky, the heat almost radiating around you. Maybe you're thinking of tumbleweeds floating across a starkly beautiful landscape, with picturesque mountains in the background and sand or dust under your feet. What if you added a bunch of waterfalls and some swimming holes to that beauty? It might not seem possible, but it's true. Right at the base of the Santa Catalina mountains near the southwestern vacation destination of Tucson, Arizona, sits Sabino Canyon, a desert oasis of a recreation area that gets water runoff from nearby Mount Lemmon and a top-up from the summer monsoon season. 

Sabino Canyon has over 30 miles of incredible hiking trails for all levels and, yes, lots of spots to cool your feet or swim in the middle of the Arizona desert landscape. No private vehicles are allowed there to mar your time in nature. There are tram rides if you want to make a long hike shorter or just see the sights, plenty of restrooms and spots to get water, and some paved pathways you can even take a jogging stroller on. Here's what you need to know about this jewel in the desert and what to do at Sabino Canyon. 

What you need to know about Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon's almost year-round water makes it a popular place, and it's recommended that you come early to find parking. Vehicles cost a flat fee of $8 each, or $10 for a weekly pass, which you can purchase here. (Camping is not permitted in the canyon, so this is if you plan to come back several times.) The park is always open, though the visitor center, which has maps, exhibits, videos, vending machines, and more, is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. As we said, there are plenty of restrooms (12, in fact), but they do open and close with the visitor center. While this is a hiker's paradise, bikes aren't permitted between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. or at all on Wednesdays and Sundays. It's best to visit between October and April, while July and August are typically rainy.

There is plenty of wildlife, like Gila monsters, Gila woodpeckers, desert spiny lizards, desert tortoises, black-tailed jackrabbits, coyotes, javelinas, gray hawks, vermilion flycatchers, zebra-tailed lizards, and bobcats. You might also come across a mountain lion, which you should stay far away from, as well as rattlesnakes. We've got a safety guide on what to do if you see a rattlesnake while hiking. As far as the flora, there are jumping cholla cacti, alligator juniper, night-blooming cereus, saguaro cacti, and so many more. Make sure to pack plenty of liquid (though you can fill up at water stations) and wear comfortable shoes and sunscreen. Note no pets are allowed on the trail.

Hiking in Sabino Canyon

If you want to see Sabino Canyon in a short time, you can take the one-hour, open-air Sabino Canyon Crawler, which is electric has nine shuttle stops. If you have less time, the Bear Canyon shuttle is 30 minutes long with three stops. You can get on and off at your leisure. It's an extra fee, and you can get all the information for both right here

There are numerous hikes of all types, and we've got a map for you here. If you're visiting with little ones and they want to swim, the Sabino Dam is a short, two to three-mile hike that is largely accessible with a jogging stroller. The Phoneline trail is a four-miler and is considered moderate for being rocky and narrow in spots. You can get to it from the lower end of the first shuttle stop or east of the second. Not for those who are afraid of heights or require shade. 

The Bear Canyon hike will take you to Seven Falls, which you can see above. This out-and-back trail is nine miles long and very popular. You'll gain 1,105 feet of elevation, and cross a creek several times, so wear sturdy footwear. It might not be crossable during monsoon season. If you look west of the visitor center, there is a 3.7-mile paved road to trails that take you to Hutch's Pool, Sabino Canyon Trail, and Anderson Dam. (The visitor center will have physical maps as well.) If this is right up your alley, check out another waterfall hike right by Tucson