Discovering the Great Outdoors in Tucson

If you enjoy hiking, you’ll love Tucson. Since the city is surrounded by five mountain ranges and bordered by two halves of a national park, there are seemingly endless opportunities to get out and experience nature.

A small group of us went in January, when the weather in Tucson is typically perfect for outdoor activity. Tucson enjoys 350 days of sunshine per year and fortunately the rays were out in full force while we were there.

We stayed at the Downtown Clifton Hotel as our base. It has a cool vibe and the staff there are all very attentive. I liked how they had portable record players and a big selection of vinyl that you could take to your room for free during your stay. You also get a free drink token for their indoor/outdoor bar and restaurant area. It seemed like the place to be for both locals and tourists alike. 

We warmed up for our hiking weekend by doing Tumamoc Hill near downtown. It is an ecological preserve on a butte and home of the University of Arizona Desert Laboratory. It’s deemed a US National Historical Landmark and apparently this is where the study of ecology (the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings) originated. The 3-mile out and back trail is paved and once you get to the top, you are rewarded by incredible views of Tucson.

On our first full day we went to Saguaro National Park and hiked Wasson Peak via Sendero Esperanza and Hugh Norris Trail, an out and back 7-mile trail with 1,650 ft. elevation gain. The Saguaro is the nation’s largest cacti and is the universal symbol of the American West. The hike features classic Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, and equal opportunity to see owl clover and Mexican gold poppies, and spectacular 360-degree views from the summit of Wasson Peak.

Afterwards, we took some time to explore the Arizona – Sonora Desert Museum, a world-renowned zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden, all in one place! Allow yourself a couple hours to explore around this vast, mostly outdoor museum. There’s even a nature trail/hiking path there, although we didn’t do it since we just had come from a hike.

On our next full day, we went over to the Sabino Canyon Recreation area.. We hiked Bear Canyon to Seven Falls in Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, an outand back, 6-mile trail with about 1,000 ft. elevation gain. I always enjoy canyon hiking, wherever I am and this one was no exception. Do note though that if it has been raining in Tucson (not the case when we were there), this hike features about 6 shallow stream crossings. They were all dry for our hike. We were so fortunate to have Mike from the Southern Arizona Hiking Club with us as our guide for both of our hikes. He was very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna and history of the Tucson area and really has a passion for leading group hikes.

After this hike, we visited Tucson’s legendary landmark of art and architecture – The DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun Museum. This vast facility, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has six permanent collections of DeGrazia paintings displaying colorful cultures of the Sonoran Desert, along with ceramics and sculptures.

On our last day in Tucson, we took a scenic drive up the beautiful Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway (9,000 ft summit) loop. It is regarded by many to be one of the most scenic drives in Arizona. It’s an easy day trip from Tucson. You’ll ascend up the mountain, starting in the desert foothills at around 2,000-feet elevation, climbing approximately 7,000 feet in elevation in under 30 miles and experiencing beautiful changes in scenery. It’s kind of like the equivalent of driving from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada.

No trip to Tucson is complete without a visit to historic 4th Avenue. We had a delicious lunch at Boca Tacos y Tequila, an outpost for modern Mexican fare, imaginative salsa, and local craft beeers.

Our last stop before heading home was Mission San Xavier del Bac. Known as the “white dove of the desert”, it was finished in 1797 and is a National Historic Landmark. The Mission is a premier example of Mexican Baroque architecture and is one of the most recognized icons in Arizona.

Tucson truly has a little something for everyone, from the great outdoors to beautiful architecture, museums, and mouth-watering southwestern & Mexican cuisine. So, mosey on over there and rejuvenate yourself, you’ll be glad you did.



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Jack Witt