Welcome to a magical world of creek crossings, cactus forests, desert foothills and rocky gorges of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
To your children, it will feel like you’re exploring a fairy kingdom.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is one of the best things to do in Arizona and is the playground of the local Tucson community and any one who visits this city in the Sonoran desert.
It’s only 12 miles north east of downtown Tucson and full of easily accessible hiking trails to suit all levels and ages.
With some of the best Tucson hiking trails, picnic spots, and opportunities to get wet, its easy to see why locals keep coming back, never getting bored, and how you could easily spend an entire day here.
We only spent a couple of hours, enough to do one of the Sabino Canyon hiking trails. It wasn’t the hiking trail we had planned, but I was not disappointed.
Luck did not go our way early on this USA road trip thanks to the Government shutdown, and its slight impact on our visit to Saguaro National Park and Big Bend National Park.
This time in Sabino Canyon, it wasn’t due to the shutdown, but another malfunction – the tram was not working. It was in between vendors or something so bureaucracy was getting in the way.
This meant that the trail to Seven Falls, that I wanted to do wasn’t accessible. unless by way of a really long hike.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
Sabino Canyon Tucson includes three life zones:
- the desert which is dominated by the iconic saguaro cactus, which we grew to adore
- the riparian corridor adjacent to Sabino Creek
- the mixed conifer forests that crown Sabino Canyon with an elevation of 9,157 feet
A paved road runs 3.8 miles into the canyon, crossing 9 stone bridges over Sabino Creek.
It begins at an altitude of 2,800 feet and rises to 3,300 feet at its end, a popular drop-off in summer because of the swimming holes at Hutch’s Pool and The Crack.
There is a $5 per car recreation fee. Although for some reason they weren’t taking the fees when we visited.
Bicycles are permitted before 9am or after 5pm any day except Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The Sabin Canyon Tram
So what is this tram you speak of?
The canyon has been closed to private vehicles since 1978. A shuttle now operates to take visitors to the main places of interest within the canyon.
Tram routes provide access to Sabino and Bear Canyons.
Sabino Canyon tours offers a narrated, educational 45-minute, 3.8 mile tour into the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains and is one of the top things to do in Tucson.
Along the Sabino route you can get off at any of the nine shuttle stops for a picnic, hike or to spend time along one of the many pools and cascades that grace Sabino Creek.
You can also take the tram to stop 9 before it turns around and hike back down to the visitors center.
Trams arrive every 30 minutes.
The Bear Canyon Trail is not narrated. It’s a 2 mile ride that goes to the trailhead of Seven Fall. You can get off at any of the three stops along the way for various trails.
Trams arrive on average every hour.
You may want to check before visiting to ensure the trams are back up and running again.
Sabino Canyon Hikes
There are miles of hiking trails that wander throughout the area and lead deeper into the Santa Catalina backcountry.
- the short, self-guided Desert Nature Trail next to the visitor center has informative notices about local plants and animals.
- Sabino Canyon Seven Falls, is where the waters cascade down a steep ravine creating an enchanting sequence of waterfalls and pools. Seven Falls Tucson can be explored by a relatively easy 5 mile round trip hike beginning at the end of the side road, reachable by tram – or 8.5 miles if starting from the visitor center.
- Phoneline Trail (#27) is considered the most popular trail, starting 1.4 miles from the visitor center. It climbs up the south side of the canyon then follows it for several miles, before descending to the far end of the road, where it intersects the Sabino Canyon Trail a continuation route further north into the mountains.
- Another short path, the Sabino Lake Trail (#30), leads to a seasonal reservoir along Sabino Creek
- Sabino Canyon Trail (#23) takes you up and down to the canyon floor to the refreshing Hutch’s Pool. Pack your swimmers.
The Sabino Canyon Hikes we did
Thankfully, upon arriving at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center, a ranger came over to greet us and asked if we needed any assistance.
Since the tram was closed, I asked for his recommendations for family-friendly Sabino Canyon trails.
He was more than happy to help plotting out a route that included both creek crossings and rock scrambles as we requested.
And he even asked which one we wanted to experience more of so he could ensure we had the right hike focus for the time frame we had. I was most impressed with this service.
Our hike was 4 miles and took us about 90 minutes. Plus we stopped for about 30 minutes for a lunch break.
It was a fantastic hike that all of us enjoyed, especially the girls. I loved the diversity of the landscape and desert environments we walked through.
The hike starts out on the Bear Canyon Trail and part of the road before moving left onto the Sabino Lake Trail trail near the creek.
It takes you to the Sabino Dam which is a pretty place for an overlook and for a picnic if you choose.
The best part of the walk moves you through a tunnel of trees, along the Creek Trail, which is great for some shady relief from hot days.
We had perfect 70 degree temperatures. The first creek crossing was pretty wide and deep. There was no other option than to get your feet wet.
Your only decision is shoes on or off?
I was the only one that left mine on. My trusty Merrill hiking shoes got me through the water and it was cooling to have wet feet for the remainder of the hike!
The girls left theirs on for the second creek crossing which wasn’t as deep, but still entailed feet getting wet.
Of course its things like this that entertain your children and keep them engaged on a long hike. This was what they both said they enjoyed the most of on this hike.
After the second creek crossing, we found a shady spot with picnic tables for a lunch break. It was a gorgeous spot and we had a lovely rest here and conversations with the girls.
It was nice to disconnect and dream together.
We put our wet feet, shoes and socks in the sun to dry off while we ate.
The rest of the walk we scrambled up and down hills through gorgeous cactus forest and mountain scenery left along rattlesnake trail, and then left again along the Esperero trail.
Then it spits you back out to the visitor center, which can get a bit confusing.
When you come to the main paved road turn right. You can either follow it all the way down to the visitor center, or there is a small dirt trial running parallel beside it off in the scrub.
You still get the same scenery, I just prefer walking on trails as it gives me a closer connection to Mother Earth.
Places to Visit Near Sabino Canyon
East Saguaro National Park
- Visit Mt Lemmon for sunset views and night time astrology. It’s about an hours drive from Sabino Canyon
- Head to Sentinel Peak, or A-Mountain as the locals call it, for Tucson city and mountain views, especially at sunset
- Visit East Saguaro National Park. We visited here before Sabino Canyon and just enjoyed the Cactus Loop Drive
- Visit Catalina State Park and do the Cactus Loop walk –more creek crossings and stunning scenery.
Where to Stay in Tucson
Tucson Hotels & Apartments
For Tucson hotels or apartments, check out the options through our partner, Booking.com.
We find they have the widest range of properties. You get free cancellation on most rooms, and a best price guarantee.
And they have verified reviews from guests who have actually stayed at the property!
You can also check out Airbnb options.
Gilbert Ray Campground
Gilbert Ray Campground
We loved Gilbert Ray Campground in the middle of the Tucson Mountain wilderness.
Our campsite was huge and secluded and the campground serene and beautiful – what a bargain for only $20 a night.
Although it does not have showers and there is a limited water supply. But at least it teaches you about water conservation and how much you can waste!
If you’re looking for camping near Saguaro National Park, you are only a five minute drive to the West entrance gate!
Catalina State Park
Catalina State Park
Regrettable we stayed only one night at Catalina State Park in Tucson.
We highly recommend this campground, but be sure to book in advance as it’s popular. The scenery and SUNSETS are stunning at the base of the Catalina Mountains.
There are a few trails straight from the campsite that are easy for walking or biking. The sites are clean, level and spacious and the bathrooms very clean with warm showers and it’s only $35 a night.
There is even a book exchange and they have lots of ranger led activities.
They also have free wifi and the cell service (Verizon) is fast.
More Things to Do in Arizona
- Amazing things to do in Sedona
- Tips for planning a trip to The Grand Canyon
- 8 amazing things to do in Saguaro National Park
- 6 reasons to stay at the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale