By Lucas-Gibson Rush
Tucson’s close proximity to several large mountain ranges makes it an ideal base camp from which to hike. The rugged Santa Catalinas are a short drive north and Tucson Mountain Park is within spitting distance of downtown. Tucsonans are also graced with mild winters that make it difficult to stay inside. So strike out and get a taste of rugged desert landscapes, secluded mountain oases and stunning vistas that end at the horizon.
The five hikes listed below have been curated to represent a variety of difficulty. Remember to always bring more water than you think and consider weather, topography and personal ability when choosing a hike. Additionally, many of these trails have vague sections where it is easy to stray from the route. Bring a map, do some research and know the way beforehand.
Hidden Canyon-Bowen Loop Trail
2.0 Miles Round Trip (Loop), Elevation Gain 357 Feet
This is a very accessible hike located 20 minutes from downtown Tucson. The Hidden Canyon Trail crosses through an exceptionally lush Sonoran landscape. During the spring, wildflowers are particularly abundant throughout Tucson Mountain Park and Hidden Canyon. Approved parking is available on Starr Pass Boulevard, behind Starr Pass Resort.
Begin on the Hidden Canyon Trail, which is well marked and across the street from the resort’s main entrance. After a mile and a half, the trail joins the Bowen Trail, which completes a nice loop back to the resort. While the Hidden Canyon Trail gains a couple hundred feet of elevation, it is spread out over 2 miles. This hike is relatively short and only takes two hours at most to complete. Hidden Canyon Trail is a good outing for beginners or any hiker on a tight schedule.
Pima Canyon Dam (Pima Canyon Trail No. 62)
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
6.0 Miles Round Trip, Elevation Gain 700 Feet
Located in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Pima Canyon is a popular destination for hikers, trail runners and birders. The canyon offers easy to moderate day hiking in a secluded riparian setting. Hikers can access the trail from the parking lot at the end of Christie Road on the north side of Tucson. The Pima Canyon Trail begins at the eastern end of the parking lot. The start of the trail is clearly marked.
The first half-mile of the hike is steep, as the trail ascends a rocky south-facing slope before dropping down into Pima Canyon. Once inside Pima Canyon, however, the hiker’s persistence is rewarded with a pristine riparian world. Towering cottonwoods shade the trail and the path weaves between immense boulders and leafy patches of ragweed. During wet years, small pools are found in polished granite scoops and spring wild flowers daub the landscape with brilliant colors.
Pima Canyon has a distinctly secluded feel that is all the more heightened by the unique flora and fauna that define this desert oasis. Keep your eyes peeled. For wildlife: javelina, desert bighorn and even coatimundi roam these parts.
The lower Pima Canyon Dam is located at mile 3. The dam is a popular turnaround spot for day hikers and a great place eat lunch before heading back. Experienced hikers who want a challenge should head up past the dam to Pima Saddle and the terminus of trail No. 62. Take care because the path here is vague, overgrown and is often difficult to follow. Determined trekkers will be rewarded with panoramic views and dramatic cliff faces.
Ventana Canyon to Maiden Pools
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
5 Miles Round Trip, Elevation Gain 1,200 Feet
Ventana Canyon is another spectacular gem nestled in the rugged Catalina Mountains. Like Pima Canyon, Ventana Canyon is a deep and broad desert slot canyon that offers cool temperatures, idyllic pools and opportunities to hike and explore.
Parking for the Ventana Canyon is at the Ventana Canyon Resort, at the northern end of Kolb Road. Signage marking the lot and trailhead is clearly displayed. The trail begins well outside the canyon and winds its way through flat open desert, crossing the broad alluvial plain that drains Ventana Canyon Wash. Once gained, the canyon is a vibrant world that offers sweeping views of Tucson to the south. In the morning, the canyon is filled with the stuttering call of wrens and Phainopeplas. Birders will feel right at home.
As the trail continues up-canyon, the path crosses the drainage before committing to the eastern side of the canyon and ascending a series of switchbacks to the top a knobby hill. This is a great place to hang out, catch your breath and take in the immense view. This promontory renders a phenomenal vista of the greater Tucson Basin and the lower rocky reaches of Ventana Canyon. Up ahead is Maiden Pools, a series of deep perennial granite pools, precariously perched upon a shelf. During the wet season, the water from these pools will spill out over the lip of the cliff, gushing down a deep gash before entering the wash below. Located 2.4 miles up-canyon, the pools are a shady oasis and a great place to spend an hour or two before heading back out the way you came.
Experienced and fit hikers should attempt Ventana Canyon’s namesake. “The Window” is a large granite arch that stands out on the prominent ridge at the head of Ventana Canyon. But reaching “The Window” requires significant effort. The round-trip distance is approximately 13 miles and roughly 4,000 feet is gained in elevation. The view from the top however is worth every drop of sweat.
Romero Canyon to Romero Pools
6 Miles Round Trip, Elevation Gain 1,295 Feet
Romero Canyon to Romero Pools is an excellent hike through the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. On the western edge of the Catalina Mountains, Romero Canyon Trail is a rugged and challenging day hike that terminates at another Catalina mountain oasis. Romero Pools is a truly idyllic destination. The pools are broad, expansive and rarely dry. The perennial supply that feeds Romero Pools makes the canyon an ideal spot to spot Sonoran birds, lizards, and even bighorn sheep.
Significant effort is required to reach Romero Pools. The hike is exposed, so hikers should choose a day with brisk winter temperatures or enough cloud cover to keep cool. Additionally, no dogs are allowed in Romero Canyon or the Pusch Ridge area due to the recent desert bighorn sheep reintroduction. Parking in Catalina State Park costs $7 per vehicle.
The hike begins on a wide sandy horse trail and immediately crosses Sutherland Wash. During the very wet years this wash can be difficult to cross due to high water. After about a mile of flat and easy trail, the path narrows and the grade steepens. Hikers can expect about a mile and a half of tough climbing through rocky switchbacks and several enduring ascents. After this, however, the trail descends into the riparian streambed that houses Romero Pools. Romero Pools consists of several large catchments of water contained in large Tinajas. During the spring, waterfalls cascade off the polished rock and fill these deep depressions to the brim. Romero Pools is a great place to explore and a popular spot to swim, sunbathe and scramble. Set aside a good portion of the day to complete this hike.
Wasson Peak Loop
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
7.4 Miles Round Trip (Loop), Elevation Gain 1,758 Feet
This is a fantastic and strenuous hike that summits the tallest point in the Tucson Mountains. Wasson Peak (Elevation: 4,687 feet) can be approached from the East or West. The popular Wasson Peak Loop is situated on the westside of the Tucson Mountains and connects a series of trails into a fun and varied day hike.
Parking is off Kinney Road at the Kings Canyon Trailhead across from the Sonoran Desert Museum. The hike begins on a wide and well-traveled stretch of trail. After a quarter mile or so, the trail dips down into a broad and sandy wash. Signs clearly mark the trail’s direction when it leaves the wash at a well-marked junction. This section of trail crosses an unparalleled bit of pristine Sonoran Desert and it is worth stopping to take it in. Immense saguaros and fishhook barrel cactus are abundant here. The unique volcanic rocks lining the wash are often flecked with traces of sulfur, pyrite and copper. Keep your eyes peeled for faint petroglyphs, carved into boulders.
The trail climbs steeply to a saddle that renders a good view of Tucson. Take a left at the saddle and begin the last bit of climbing up steep switchbacks to the summit of Wasson Peak proper. Once on top enjoy the incredible sweeping views of Saguaro National Park, the Tucson Valley and the Rincon Mountains. This loop keeps things fresh and the return trip traverses new terrain.
After hiking down from the summit, take a right onto the Hugh Norris Trail at the clearly marked junction. After approximately two miles this trail crosses the Sendero Esperanza Trail. Take a left onto the Sendero Esperanza trail and head south until finally connecting with the Gould Mine Trail. This trail conveniently terminates near the start at the King Canyon parking lot.