Sabino Canyon Recreation Area

With Saguaro National Park enveloping the east and west, it’s hard to believe there’s more to see in Tucson–but there’s trails all around, including the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area to the north!

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On a quick trip in early March, Mama Boots and I wanted to get in as much hikes as possible. She also had a friend who went from PNW-Tucson snowbird to full-time living in Tucson that my mom has hoping to see. Meeting near her at Sabino Canyon seemed like an ideal plan!

I had been given a tip by a coworker to hit the trails early in the morning, both for parking and to beat the heat. For our trail, we were planning on the visitor center parking lot as our meeting place, but there are other access points. The visitor center is a great starting point for learning more about the area and trails, or also two shuttles that take you up the canyon (for a fee), if not wanting to hoof it. Note: There are no dogs allowed in the recreation area. We had planned on a nice loop, the Sabino Lake- Creek Trail-Rattlesnake-Esperero loop. There is a lot of road walking here, but other than the trams you are not likely to see too many vehicles. I had mapped the route on my Gaia, which actually had us on the road instead of the Lake trail, but in hindsight I do not mind that much.

Who could mind anything on a day like this?

There had been snow just a few days prior in Tucson, and the water in Sabino Creek was gushing! Mama Boots and I had actually been hoping to return the next day to do the Trail of Seven Falls, maybe the most quintessential of Tucson hikes, but reports of thigh-high or deeper creek crossings made us pivot elsewhere.

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Water from Sabino Lake rushing over the dam.

The trail passed a bathroom and a fork as we walked along the creek. It wound up taking us to a very full Sabino Lake and dam, which according to my mom’s friend is not common at all! However, as the trail continued, there was a creek crossing that was clearly impassible. Luckily, I had my Gaia map on my phone, so instead of the Creek Trail, we hopped on the Bluff Trail to reach Sabino Canyon Road.

We were a little bummed about needing to do more road walking, but the canyons of the Bluff trail definitely made us enthralled. Mama Boots and her friend couldn’t believe one resolute prickly pear, seemingly growing out of the cliff wall. As always when on a hike in Tucson, I was looking up, down, and all around the the indescribable sights around me. It was no surprise on a Sunday morning how crowded the trails were. There are tons of bathrooms scattered about, and the tram signs are clearly marked, makiing this seem fairly user-friendly of an area. However, once we left the road for the Rattlesnake Trail, we noticed things got a bit more difficult to follow, and I was consulting my Gaia app more and more. In fact, at a creek crossing I had to help some fellow hikers that were lost find the trail again. This happened multiple times during the hike.

Oh, the cacti that you’ll see!

However, the sights were so incredible I didn’t mind. We approached an interesting rock formation, as we flitted around the border of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. This is considered the ‘wilderness boundary,’ although both Sabino Canyon and Pusch Ridge are in Coronado National Forest. If going into the wilderness, be sure to bring more water than you think you’ll need, and have maps prepared in advance–no one wants to get lost out here! From here, the trail had a near-hairpin turn, and we stayed almost parallel to where we were before, just higher, offering another vantage point. Then we curved to the right and down, landing first at the Cactus picnic area (and bathrooms!) and then Sabino Canyon road again. We opted here for the Sabino Roadway trail instead of a road walk to finish our our loop.

I loved this rock formation!

We returned to a full parking lot, happy with our day. That happiness only climbed when Mama Boots got to see a roadrunner nearby the visitor center! It had been a big dream of hers this trip, so I was thrilled she got to see that. Her friend was thrilled for the visit, and very happy it seems likely Mama Boots will visit again. Not bad for just a few minute’s drive from town!

In summary:

Distance: The area has tons of interconnected trails, both paved and unpaved, and the option to take shuttles to various stops. This particular loop was 3.6 miles.

Elevation: Elevation on these trails can greatly vary, but our loop had us ascending 254 feet.

Parking: Day Use fees are $8, a weekly pass is $10, or an annual pass to Coronado National Forest–or, an America the Beautiful Interagency Pass!

Bathrooms: Multiple bathrooms scattered along the whole area.


3 Replies to “Sabino Canyon Recreation Area”

  1. Trails named “Rattlesnake” in western washington don’t make me quite as nervous as similarly named trails in Arizona…

    1. I’ll never forget telling an out-of-state friend we were hiking Rattlesnake Ledge!

  2. Mama Boots says: Reply

    I was very glad to have technology to help us with navigating our route that day. I was able to focus on visiting with my friend and enjoying the scenery while Gabby navigated and took photos of us. I agree it was so nice to have such a great recreation area so close to town.

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