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10 Best Outdoor Activities in Tucson: Get Out and Explore the City



Tucson is the ideal destination for the outdoor enthusiast in all of us.

Case in point: Sentinel Peak Park, also known by locals as "A" Mountain. This local landmark is well-known for its painted 'A' (in honor of the University of Arizona), but brave the steep hike to the summit and you'll be rewarded with a whole other view. Sweeping panoramas of the desert metropolis make this a worthy excursion for visitors.

Need to escape the city heat? Make the drive up to Mount Lemmon in north Tucson. The drive only takes about an hour, but thanks to the mountain's altitude (about 9,000 feet), the weather is much cooler. In the winter, a small ski resort opens for season. And in the summer, Mount Lemmon proves a gracious escape from the scorching summer temps in the desert valley below. The views are awesome, and the small mountain town of Summerhaven offers shopping and dining.

Back in town, one of the most scenic hikes in town is at Sabino Canyon, a popular spot for walking, biking, hiking, horseback riding and picnicking. The recreation area is crisscrossed by the Coronado National Forest, so there's plenty of trails to explore. The canyon is accessible to visitors of all abilities, and there's even a shuttle bus that travels roughly three miles into the head of the canyon to drop off and pick up visitors.

If you want to stay in town, check out Santa Cruz River Park, which gives you access to miles of walking, hiking and bike trails. 

 


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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.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Catalina State Park preserves the desert for hikers, bird-watchers and other nature lovers.

Patricia's expert tip: Visit in the spring for dramatic wildflower displays.

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Within its boundaries, this 20,000 acre park has miles of hiking trails and numerous incredible desert vistas. If that sounds appealing, a hike up to Gates Pass will reward you with a charming stone gazebo from which to take in a stellar sunset view. Other outdoor activities within the park include horseback riding, picnic areas, camping and archery/rifle/pistol ranges. The park encompasses a wide variety of other attractions as well, such as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Old Tucson Studios. The park offers plenty of pull-out points for motorists looking for the perfect spot to capture that postcard-perfect desert sunset.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Tucson Mountain Park encapsulates the natural, breathtaking beauty of the desert. Great hiking and photography.

Patricia's expert tip: Tucson Mountain Park is a popular spot for photographers looking to capture that perfect desert sunset or sunrise.

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Although discovered by two amateur cavers in 1974, the existence of Kartchner Caverns was not commonly known until 1988 when the state purchased the caves and surrounding land for use as a public park. Guided tours last about 1 and a half hours, and lead guests past some of the most amazing and colorful cave formations in the world. The Rotunda/Throne Room tour is offered daily, year round; Big Room tours are offered daily, October 15 to mid-April, but due to the difficult terrain of this tour, children under 7 are not permitted. The park also features hiking trails, a Discovery Center and 62 campsites.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Kartchner Caverns State Park offers a rare look into the strangely beautiful world of rare underground cave formations.

Patricia's expert tip: Kartchner Caverns State Park is located approximately 50 miles from Tucson, but it's well worth the drive.

Read more about Kartchner Caverns State Park →


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Winding along the dry Santa Cruz River, this park is a fun place to forget the woes of the day. The park features a very popular disc golf course (the oldest in town, incidentally), as well as the Garden of Gethsemane, a peaceful little corner created as a repository for the works of sculptor Felix Lucero. On Thursdays the Santa Cruz Farmers' Market sets up here, offering the best local fruits, vegetables and herbs. Be sure to stroll along El Paseo de los Arboles ("The Pathway of the Trees") a special memorial walk with beautiful tiled walls. The park is currently being renovated to add more bike trails.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Santa Cruz River Park criss-crosses Tucson and gives you access to miles and miles of walking and bike trails.

Patricia's expert tip: You can access the Santa Cruz River Park Trail from anywhere it crosses a road. Parking is available off El Camino del Cerro west of the river, and Christopher Columbus Park off Silverbell Road.

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Held in Tucson every fall, El Tour de Tucson is one of the city's biggest annual events. The bike ride is a charity event presented by Casino del Sol that attracts around 9,000 bicyclists of all ages and skill levels from around the country. The long-running bike ride is one of the premier bike-riding events in the United States. Participants cycle distances of 111, 85, 60 or 42 miles, or cruise along on the popular Fun Ride 10 or 5 miles, or the 1/4 mile activity course. El Tour de Tucson is held in the Old Pueblo every November, just before Thanksgiving.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: El Tour de Tucson is a popular annual event for professional and amateur bicyclists.

Patricia's expert tip: All routes offer aid stations with water and snacks.

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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.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Saguaro National Park is the ideal place to explore the natural beauty and history of the Sonoran Desert.

Patricia's expert tip: For a short, memorable hike, take the Valley View Overlook Trail, offering views of the Avra Valley and distant mountain ranges.

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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.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Colossal Cave Mountain Park preserves great swaths of desert, while providing visitors the opportunity to explore the outdoors.

Patricia's expert tip: Colossal Cave Mountain Park is a lot of fun to explore on horseback. Stop by La Posta Quemada Ranch for horse concessions.

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Located about an hour from town, Mt. Lemmon's ski lift runs year round you can use it to reach the top for skiing in the winter or hiking in the summer. And thanks to the mountain's altitude (about 9000 feet), the climate is substantially different than in Tucson. It's not uncommon for folks to spend the day skiing, and then drive back to their hotel in Tucson for an afternoon dip in the hotel's outdoor pool. During the summer, be sure to bring a jacket a tank top and shorts may be comfortable in town, but it probably won't be enough on the mountain! Ski runs are usually open from mid-December to April.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Mt. Lemmon offers the perfect escape from the summer heat, and a winter wonderland for skiers.

Patricia's expert tip: Spend some time exploring the village of Summerhaven.

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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.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Sentinel Peak Park offers unbeatable panoramic views of Tucson.

Patricia's expert tip: Plan an evening hike up to the park. The panoramic views of the city below are worth it.

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Sabino Canyon
Photo courtesy of Larry Reynolds


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.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Sabino Canyon is one of Tucson's most scenic and popular outdoor recreation areas.

Patricia's expert tip: The Sabino Canyon Trail tour is the most popular. It takes you on a 45-minute tour of the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

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Meet Patricia Escarcega

Patricia Escarcega works as a writer and editor in Phoenix.

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