10 Best Parks in Tucson: Exploring the City's Wide Open Spaces
By Patricia Escarcega
Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson Local Expert
Tucson is a nature-lover's paradise. Forests of saguaro cactus, amazing sky islands and rugged mountains in all directions are just some of the city's natural features. Tucson's parks are the best place to explore the city's scenic wonders.
Saguaro National Park, which is divided into two sectors that surround the city on the east and west, preserves thousands of saguaro cacti, icons of the southwest.
In northwest Tucson, Catalina State Park is another scenic park that showcases the unique beauty of the Sonoran Desert. Hiking, star-gazing and horseback riding are popular activities year-round. And in the spring, the hillsides come alive with wildflowers.
For amazing views of Tucson at night, make the climb up Sentinel Peak Park. The park, located on Tucson's west side, is the historic site of an ancient Pima village. Hikers who make the climb will be rewarded with panoramic cityscapes of the Tucson valley below. Midtown Tucson is home to one of the city's best urban parks.
Reid Park is a haven for joggers, walkers, bicyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts. The park is also home to an award-winning zoo featuring exotic species and some unusual guests. Who would have thought polar bears lived in the desert?
Finally, if you want to experience the more rugged side of Tucson, head to Colossal Cave Mountain Park on the city's east side. You'll be able to explore a desert cave and get stunning views of sky islands.
Located on the edges of downtown Tucson, Catalina Park is sometimes referred to as 4th Avenue Park among the locals. The playground recently received a total overhaul. There's a new splashpad for the kids, as well as an upgraded shade structure featuring wood beams and a Spanish tile roof. Plenty of picnic tables make this a great place to eat your lunch on a sunny Tucson afternoon. Even with all the upgrades and amenities, probably the best thing about Catalina Park is the people-watching. The park is a crossroads of Tucson culture. You'll see people playing music, training their dogs and throwing the frisbee around. (520-791-4873)
Christopher Columbus Park
This park in northwest Tucson is a water-lovers paradise. The park boasts large shade trees, group ramadas, a dog park, playground, model airplane area, and Silverbell Lake, a manmade desert lake. The lake is stocked with catfish, trout, bass, sunfish and amur. Bring your favorite fishing pole and settle in for a long day of fishing. There's also a duck pond and model boat lake. Runners and walkers will appreciate the serene trail that circles the lake, perfect for squeezing in your daily workout or just enjoying nature. The lake is also a popular birding spot. The park doesn't have grassy areas, but there is plenty of shade, not to mention mountain views. (602-942-3000)
Fort Lowell Park
Located in northeast Tucson, Fort Lowell Park is located in the same complex as the Fort Lowell Museum, the former site of a United States Army post. The old fort played a major role in the Apache Wars of the late 19th century. After laying in ruins for years, Pima County eventually converted the post into Fort Lowell Park. Today the museum and park is tourist attraction. Amenities include racquetball and tennis courts, ball fields and a large public swimming pool. Today, the city of Tucson oversees the park. Fort Lowell Park also has a duck pond that attracts a variety of bird species. ((520) 791-5930)
Tohono Chul Park
Tohono Chul Park is an award-winning botanical garden in northwest Tucson. The park has been open for more than 25 years, bringing together nature, art and culture in unique and insightful exhibits. The park's gardens were designed to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. A stroll through the gardens can also provide you with glimpses of birds, lizards, jackrabbits and even the occasional bobcat and rattlesnake sighting. The park is also home to art gallery, fine dining bistro and a gift shop. Tohono Chul Park hosts weekly events and classes. Check out the website to see what's in bloom during your visit. (520-742-6455)
Sentinel Peak Park
Sentinel Peak, also known as "A" Mountain, is local landmark, as well as a city park. Fan of the University of Arizona maintain the decades-long tradition of painting a giant "A" on the side of the mountain in honor of their alma mater. Sentinel Peak is often referred to as Tucson's birthplace, because it is the former site of an ancestral Pima Village. Although this is a non-traditional park, it's certainly worth the hike up simply for the dazzling views of the Tucson valley. Plus, the park recently received several upgrades, including two shaded plazas, new park entry signs, handicapped-accessible parking spaces and a new paved path. (520-791-5909)
Catalina State Park
Catalina State Park is located northeast of Tucson at the base of the scenic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park features more than 5,500 acres of foothills and canyons. This is a popular spot for hiking, birding and biking. There are more than 150 species of birds that live in the park. During the springtime, Catalina State Park is a favorite spot for wildflower viewing. Park facilities provide spaces for camping and picnicking. There is also an equestrian concession nearby for horseback riding through the park. Catalina State Park also hosts festivals, a concert series, astronomy viewing nights and other special events. (520 628-5798)
Colossal Cave Mountain Park
This dry cave in the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson offers tours that cover the extensive and colorful history of the cave. This tour is particularly popular during the hot summer months, when the cave maintains its cool temperature of 70 degrees, providing a respite from the desert heat. Try a trail ride on horseback, or visit the museum to learn more about the indigenous wildlife, such as bats and ringtailed cats. A butterfly garden and desert tortoise exhibit are other offerings. Reservations are suggested for the guided trail rides, which leave from La Posta Quemada Ranch. (520-647-7275, 520-647-3450)
Reid Park Zoo
The Reid Park Zoo has been a midtown Tucson institution since it was founded in 1967. The city-owned park and non-profit zoo stretches out across 17-acres in the heart of the city and is home to more than 500 animals. You'll see ostriches, jaguars and, yes, even polar bears. The zoo also boasts an impressive aviary exhibit. The South American exhibit is another crowd favorite. Reid Park Zoo has been active over the year in helping preserve endanger species, including ruffed lemurs and Siberian tigers. If zoos aren't your type of thing, the park is full of green spaces, jogging trails and recreational amenities. (520-791-4022, 520-791-4760)
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is the only place in the world that protects the saguaro cactus, a symbol of Arizona that grows only in the Sonoran Desert. You can see the well-known plant as well as other types of desert life that have shown resilience in adapting to the harsh, sweltering environment. Enjoy the scenery from the air-conditioned comfort of your car or venture out for a breathtaking hike for an up-close look. The park is divided into East and West sections, each with a visitor center located about 15 miles from downtown Tucson. They both offer guided walking tours, informational exhibits, bookstore and restrooms. The Rincon Mountain center is east of town; the Tucson Mountain District Visitor's Center is west of town at 2700 N Kinney Rd, 520-733-5158. (520-733-5153)
Situated on the northeast edge of town in the Catalina Mountains, Sabino Canyon is a popular year-round spot for walking and picnicking because it doesn't require a hike into the mountains. That's because a shuttle bus travels the 3.8 miles to the head of the canyon, making nine on/off stops along the way. Of course the Coronado National Forest is crisscrossed with many miles of trails that are great for hiking or horseback riding (and some are open to bicyclists as well), so if you have the urge to really get out in nature, this the perfect place to do it. Although not required, shuttle reservations are recommended during peak seasons. (520-749-8700, 520-388-8300)
About Patricia Escarcega
Patricia Escarcega has lived in the Arizona desert since she was a teenager. She works as a writer and editor in Phoenix with her four dogs and two cats. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is working on a novel about growing up in the 1990s.
Read more about Patricia Escarcega here.