For a warm and sunny spring break, join a deep field of Tucson residents launching into the Sonoran at the edge of their desert city.
Enjoy the communal experience at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area on an elaborate system of trails, from short and flat to long and steep. A tram will transport you to the wilderness frontier. Families play in pools and waterfalls, birders abound, and saguaro lovers will discover an abundance that rivals the national park. After a wet winter, relish the riotous profusion of joy-inducing blossoms. Five hikes are described in order of difficulty.
Bajada Nature Trail The 0.3 mile Bajada Loop Nature Trail begins 500 feet southeast of the visitor center. Common desert plants are identified. Locate the grand prize in Sabino’s plant community, an elaborate crested, or cristate, saguaro with multiple arms growing from the rare anomaly.
Sabino Canyon Tram RoadThe 3.8 mile Sabino Canyon Road is insanely popular with locals. You’ll want to join the throngs. Walk up the road or take the tram. Tickets are available at the shuttle hub for $10 roundtrip. Children ages 3-12 cost only $5. Ride uphill to hear the driver’s informative narration.
In the early 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the 4-mile scenic road. There are nine narrow, stone bridges over Sabino Creek, each with a unique design. Sabino Creek is very nearly perennial. Only on an occasional day in June does the flow stop. In spring and during summer monsoons, water typically surges over the roadbed at the bridges.
The highest concentration of mountain lions in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness inhabit Sabino Canyon. Watch for badgers, bobcats, white-tailed deer, javelina, fox and coyote, elusive bighorn sheep, gila monsters, tortoises, rattlesnakes and roadrunners dashing across the pavement.
Snow and rain captured by the Santa Catalina Mountains creates a luscious oasis in Sabino Creek. The riparian woodland is thick with sycamore, walnut and alder, cottonwood, Arizona oak and alligator juniper.
Sabino Canyon is famous for its swimming holes and stone water slides. Families frequent the pools between Shuttle Stops 1 and 2. Exit at Stop 8 for the Anderson Dam and walk upstream to a big swimming hole, cascades and water-scoured troughs. Above the dam, water pulses through The Crack, a cliff-jumping destination.
Shuttle Stop 9 is located at the end of the road, the wilderness door. From here you may hike for days in Coronado National Forest. It is 4.1 miles up the Sabino Canyon Trail to Hutch’s Pool, the most spectacular, cliff-rimmed swimming hole ever.
The most popular option is to walk down the scenic road. Look to the skyline of towers as you begin the descent. Canyon scenery is intimate on foot and there is frequent, easy access to the creek.
Phoneline Trail No. 27 to Shuttle Stop 9The Phoneline Trail tracks high above Sabino Creek while traversing the east wall of the canyon. It is loved for the expansive views into the Pusch Ridge Wilderness and glimpses of the tree-lined canyon floor. It is 5.4 miles from the visitor center to Shuttle Stop 9 with 1,250 feet of elevation gain. Allow 2 to 3 hours one-way. From the visitor center, walk east on a wide and firm granular path. In March, the blue palo verde is draped in yellow blossoms, and the chili-red torches of the ocotillo are in full, enthusiastic explosion. To see saguaros blooming, visit mid-May to mid-June. The desert is flashing with Mexican gold poppy, lupine, brittlebush, wild hyacinth, fairyduster, desert globemallow, verbena, trailing windmill and purple twining snapdragon.
In half a mile, turn right on the Bear Canyon shuttle road. At 0.7 mile, there is a bathroom and drinking fountain. Turn right here and cross Sabino Creek on a bridge.
At 0.9 mile, the Phoneline heads straight into the Sonoran. Trail engineering is a marvel; walk on a generous platform exploded from the slope while climbing consistently and gradually.
Contour under Acropolis Wall adorned with the towers and crenelations of Blacketts Ridge. The first of three bedrock side drainages crosses the path at 3.7 miles. Catalina Gneiss has banded pegmatite clusters with crystalline nuggets of quartz and chunks of mica and feldspar.
The Phoneline merges with the Sabino Canyon Trail at 4.9 miles. Switchback down the primary corridor trail half a mile to Stop 9. From here it is a pleasurable 3.8 mile walk back to the visitor center.
Bear Canyon Trail No. 29 to Seven FallsIt is 8.6 miles roundtrip from the visitor center to beautiful Seven Falls with 1,200 feet of elevation gain. Allow 3 to 5 hours. The hike is 5.6 miles roundtrip from Bear Canyon Shuttle Stop 3. The Bear Canyon tram ($4) leaves the visitor center once an hour.
Follow directions for the Phoneline Trail. In a few paces, turn right onto the Bear Canyon Trail. It parallels the road in the Sonoran.
Step off the trail at Shuttle Stop 3 for water and a bathroom at 1.5 miles. From here, either walk down an access road or the trail for 0.4 mile to road’s end. The canyon has an immediate gorgeous appeal. On a hot day with a quiet flow, walk upstream on weathered bedrock, frolicking in pools and cascades.
The first crossing is at 2.2 miles, with six more to follow. Wading across the creek can be impossible during high flow. The fords vary from wide and shallow to narrow and thigh-deep. In low water, just dry-hop across stones.
After the last ford, the trail switchbacks well above the creek. Soon, careening and thundering Seven Falls are visible below. At 4.2 miles, veer left on an unmarked spur trail. Do an easy scramble to the edge of the swirling pool. If the falls are tame, people will swarm all over the polished bedrock. If they are throbbing cataracts, it’s too dangerous to do anything but eat your picnic in a state of reverie.
Blacketts Ridge Trail No. 48Blacketts rightfully deserves its regular devotees; it is the only ridge trail in Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. It is 6 miles roundtrip with 1,800 feet of elevation gain from the visitor center to Point 4,409 feet, the end of the Blacketts Trail. Allow 1½ to 3 hours total.
Follow instructions for the Phoneline Trail. Stay on that track to a junction 1.4 miles from the visitor center. Here, the Blacketts Ridge Trail splits off to the right. The treadway is heavily trodden and steep. Ascend slabs of perfectly angled bedrock, stone steps and a series of switchbacks.
The sense of ridgecrest exhilaration on the divide between Sabino Canyon and Bear Canyon is amplified by premier views. From the high point, look north and east into the hardscrabble roughlands of a desert wilderness. The ridge descent affords a step-by-step shifting vantage point of urban Tucson and sky islands punctuating the never-ending southern horizon.
For a more thorough discussion of Sabino Trails, consult: debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com