Tucson is one of my favorite places to visit in the southwestern United States. The second largest city in Arizona, it is home to endless outdoor experiences, a thriving culinary scene (its one of UNESCO’s Cities of Gastronomy), and a major university (University of Arizona). Visitors to this desert destination will be pleasantly surprised by its endless amounts of sunshine, breathtaking views, and friendly locals. It’s a perfect warm winter vacation. Don’t miss these Tucson outdoor adventures!
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5 Places to Explore the Outdoors in Tucson
1) Sabino Canyon
Sabino Canyon is located northeast of Tucson in the Santa Catalina Mountains. It provides a welcome escape from the city, and visitors can choose from a multitude of hiking trails or opt to ride the tram, which provides access to both Sabino and Bear Canyons. There are nine tram stops, so visitors can hop on and off if they don’t want to hike the trails.
We recommend starting at the Visitor Center, and grabbing a trail map before heading out. Be sure to bring a backpack, sunscreen, hat, water, and snacks, because it can get quite warm in the desert. Expect to see stunning canyons, waterfalls and creeks at certain times of the year, and unique desert critters and vegetation. It’s one of our favorite places to explore in Tucson.
2) Saguaro National Park
It wouldn’t be a trip to Tucson without a visit to Saguaro National Park, one of the most unique National Parks in the US. There are two districts of the park, east and west, one on each side of the city. Saguaro National Park west (aka Tucson Mountain District) is the easiest to reach from the downtown area.
Saguaro cacti are the main attraction in this park. These majestic giants dot the landscape for as far as the eye can see, and from late April until June, visitors can see the cactus flowers in bloom. There is a five mile loop drive through the park, and over 40 miles of trails.
Within the park are several must see spots, including the Signal Hill Petroglyphs, over 200 petroglyphs created by the Hohokam Native Americans between 500 and 1500 years ago.
Another not to miss spot near the west district of Saguaro National Park is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This indoor-outdoor museum is a combination of a zoo, botanical garden, aquarium, and earth science center. I remember visiting as a child, and it was one of my favorite places in Tucson. We are hoping to take our own children on a future visit.
And Saguaro isn’t the only National Park in Arizona. Check out these epic Arizona National Parks and add them to your itinerary!
3) Take a street art scavenger hunt in Downtown Tucson
No visit to Tucson would be complete without a visit to its thriving downtown area. Not only is it home to some of the best restaurants in the city, there are art galleries, shopping, and tons of street art.
Some of our favorite murals are: Running of the Piñatas (at Sixth and Congress), the Skeleton Mural (at Sixth and Toole), and Greetings from Tucson (on Sixth Avenue behind Millers Surplus). You can find others by searching on Instagram or Google. And when you share your photos on Instagram, be sure to use some of these vacation Instagram captions.
An easy way to explore the area is to hop on the Sun Link Tucson Streetcar if you would rather not walk, as it has a variety of different stops throughout downtown.
4) Colossal Cave Mountain Park
Located just fifteen miles south of Tucson, this is a great place to explore on hot days as it maintains a constant temperature of 70 degrees year round. Head underground and explore stalagmites and stalactites created millions of years ago in one of the largest dry caves in North America.
There are several tour options available from the classic guided tour to a wild cave tour where you squeeze through passageways into the deepest parts of the cave (must be 16 years old for this one). The park also offers trail rides and a petting zoo to round out your visit.
5) Mount Lemmon
If you need to escape the summer heat, or want to see snow in the winter, head up to Mount Lemmon, the highest peak in the Catalina Mountains at just over 9000 feet. Mount Lemmon is about an hour north/northeast of downtown Tucson.
Take a beautiful drive along the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway and you will notice the landscape changes from desert to forest as you go along. There are plenty of spots to pull off the road and enjoy the views.
Don’t miss a stop in Summerhaven, the small town on the mountain. It’s a great place to rent a cabin if you want to stay overnight for the dark skies. Yes, there’s an amazing observatory called SkyCenter owned by the University of Arizona which offers nighttime stargazing programs (reservations required).
Tucson is an outdoor mecca for all ages. Create your own experiences and learn more at VisitTucson.org.