Four Great Outdoor Places Near Tucson
This Is The Perfect Time Of Year To Visit
March 1, 2017
This is the perfect time of year for an outdoor adventure in Tucson. The weather is great and the wildflowers should be amazing this year after all the rains we've had all winter. All four of these places offer nice hikes (or at least walks), and all four of them let you see different aspects of the glory of the outdoors around Tucson.
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is actually two districts - one to the east of Tucson called the rincon Mountain District, and one to the west called the Tucson Mountain District. The eastern district encompasses elevations up to 8000 feet and has over 128 miles of trails. It's gorgeous, and even if you just take a scenic drive through it, make sure you stop at the visitor center and at least go to the little nature trail called the Desert Ecology Trail. This trail is handicapped and stroller accessible and it's very pretty and easy.
Thicker Saguaros, Great Views
The western Tucson Mountain District is lower in elevation and this beautiful desert has thicker saguaros and great views. If you are going to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and you are coming from the north, it's easy to take exit 246 or 248 and head east to the park, and you can drive through it on the way to the desert museum. That's what we did, and the visitor center was a lot of fun with a nice gift shop and a display inside. The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is actually directly south of the National Park, and the road through the park goes right to the museum.
The visitor centers at both districts are open every day except Christmas from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no fee to enter the park. To see a map and directions to the two parts of the park, go to http://www.saguaronationalpark.com.
Sabino Canyon http://www.sabinocanyon.com/ is a beautiful little area that is practically in town. It's just inside the boundary of the Coronado National Forest east of Tucson. There are tram rides that will take you up the canyon and there are nine stops along the way. We got off at the farthest point, opting to walk back down and enjoy the scenery.
Trams And Tours
Trams come along every half hour or so and you can just hop on if you get tired. There are lots of gorgeous trails, and Sabino Creek is beautiful. We saw all kinds of birds and lizards on our little walk and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
There is a $5 per vehicle fee to enter the Canyon, and the tram ride (2 miles) is $10 for adults, $5 for kids 3-12. There is also a narrated 45-minute, 3.8-mile tour into the foothills. Coronado Recreation passes are valid here as well as at Mt. Lemmon and Madera Canyon. They are $5 for a day pass or $20 for an annual pass. For seniors (62+ and a U.S. citizen), the annual pass is just $10.
Strenuous Or 'Strollable'
Sabino Canyon offers some steep and strenuous hikes as well as the stroll downhill along the road. They also have nighttime tram rides three times a month from April through November. For more information about the night rides, call them at (520)749-2327. Sabino Canyon has a visitors' center with a gift shop, open 8 am to 4:30 pm every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving. They have restrooms and picnic grounds as well.
Madera Canyon is a must-see if you love birds. It's actually a world-class birding destination. It's just off I-19 east of Green Valley, which is south of Tucson. We stayed in Green Valley then went east at Exit 53 to White House Canyon Road, turning on Madera Canyon Road. The canyon is gorgeous - beautiful forests, a trickling creek, and lots of peace and quiet because it's inside the Coronado National Forest in the Santa Rita Mountains. A day pass is $5, and there are lots of great trails - some strenuous - plus amazing bird watching. There are picnic tables and restrooms.
A Lodge, Cabins, Casitas
The easy trails are in the lower canyon and some are handicapped accessible, while the tougher trails take you up the mountain. There is also a campground, an amphitheater, and the Santa Rita Lodge which offers cabins and casitas. The Lodge also has a gift shop, so even if you're just there to hike, make sure to stop in for souvenirs. The Coronado Pass (see under Sabino Canyon, above) is accepted here, or a day pass is $5 per vehicle.
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
This amazing place deserves at least half a day to get the full benefit of all it has to offer. It's open every day of the year: October through February, from 8:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m., and March through September, from 7:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m. From June through August, the hours are Sunday through Friday 7:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Saturdays 7:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. They suggest at least two hours to see the whole place, so they recommend you get there by 4:00. But, I'm sayin' be there in the morning! Most of the Desert Museum is outdoors and it gets pretty darn hot in summer.
It's Like A Zoo
There are lots and lots of desert animals at the museum, so many that it's a lot like a zoo in some respects. But animals are smarter than people sometimes - if it's hot, they're going to hide in the shade and sleep. So if you want to see plenty of animals, make sure you're there when they are out and about.
We took our granddaughters to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in January. It was their first time there, and they loved it. There is an area with lots of butterfly-attracting plants and flowers, and we saw lots of beautiful butterflies there (not to mention the lovely flowers), and they had their smartphones out the whole time, snapping photos.
Butterflies, Birds, Desert Dwellers
After the butterfly garden we went into the hummingbird aviary and it was incredible - so many little hummingbirds, and all of them seemed eager to pose for photos. It was a blast. Another area we really enjoyed was the walk-in aviary with ducks, doves, tanagers, and other western birds.
There are over two miles of trails taking you to the various exhibits, and we walked through all of them. We saw tons of birds, as well as animals that the girls don't get to see in the wild that often - coatis, bighorn sheep, a mountain lion, a bobcat, owls, a bear, Coues deer, turkey, prairie dogs, a coyote, javelina, and even a lot of different fish in the Warden Aquarium.
Climb Into A Cave
One of our very favorite places was the cave that you get to climb around in. It was a lot of fun, even for Grandma, and the girls loved it even though they are practically grown women now. All in all, it was a wonderful day. There are restaurants and a coffee shop at the Museum, and the coffee is great. I recommend you bring a refillable water bottle - there are plenty of drinking fountains scattered around, and the map has them all marked. They don't sell water in disposable bottles here.
General admission (ages 13-64) is $20.50, seniors are $18.50, children 3-12 are $8, and kids under three are free. There are discounts for military. They have wheelchairs and strollers first come, first served, and also some electric scooters. There are two gift shops and an ice cream shop to make a sweet end to your day.
Go While It's Cool
These are just four of the many wonderful things there are to do near Tucson. This is the perfect time of year to enjoy the beauty of the desert, so check these places out before it gets hot.