Tucson is one of the best bicycling cities in the country, so rated by national publications and organizations, and the dirt roads and trails of the surrounding national forest and desert are perfect for mountain biking. At Fair Wheel Bikes, 1110 E. Sixth St. (tel. 520/884-9018), carbon-fiber bikes are available for rent; call for rates and reservations.
The number-one choice in town for cyclists in halfway decent shape is the road up Sabino Canyon. Keep in mind, however, that bicycles are allowed on this road only 5 days a week and then only before 9am and after 5pm (the road is closed to bikes all day Wednesday and Saturday). For a much easier ride, try The Loop, a 131-mile-long, car-free paved bike path that encircles the city. It’s a fantastic way to get around town without dodging traffic. The oldest section of the loop, the Rillito River Park path, runs for 12 miles between Craycroft Road and I-10, paralleling River Road and the usually dry bed of the Rillito River.
There are lots of great mountain-bike rides in the Tucson area, too. For an easy and very scenic dirt-road loop through forests of saguaros, head to the west unit of Saguaro National Park and ride the 6-mile Bajada Loop Drive. You can turn this into a 12-mile ride (half on paved road) by starting at the Red Hills Visitor Center.
Within the city of Tucson, there are 36 stations where, for $8 a day, you can rent a TugoBike and travel wherever you like, as long as you return it to one of those stations. If you’re going to be here for more than a few days, save money with a $18 monthly pass.
Southern Arizona has some of the best bird-watching in the country, and although the best spots are east and south of Tucson, there are a few places around the city that birders will enjoy seeking out. Check the Tucson Audubon Society’s Rare Bird Alert [tel. 520/629-0510) to find out which birds have been spotted in the area lately.
The city’s premier birding spot is the Sweetwater Wetland, a man-made wetland just west of I-10 and north of Prince Road. Created as part of a wastewater treatment facility, these wetlands now have an extensive network of trails that wind past numerous ponds and canals, with several viewing platforms. The area has enough different types of wildlife habitat to attract a wide variety of bird species. To find the wetlands, take I-10 south to the Prince Road exit, and at the end of the exit ramp, turn right onto Sweetwater Drive.
In the northeast corner of the city, Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Regional Park, 12325 E. Roger Rd. (off N. Soldier Trail), is another great birding place, with year-round warm springs that are a magnet for dozens of species, including waterfowl, great blue herons, black phoebes, soras, and vermilion flycatchers. (To get here, follow Tanque Verde Rd. east 6 miles from the Sabino Canyon Rd. intersection and turn left onto Soldier Trail.) Other good places include Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, the path to the waterfall at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, and the Rillito River path between Craycroft and Swan roads.
If you have more time, there’s prime bird-watching about 40 miles south of the city in Madera Canyon, within the Coronado National Forest (tel. 520/281-2296). With year-round water, Madera Canyon attracts a surprising variety of bird life—more than a dozen species of hummingbirds and an equal number of flycatchers, warblers, tanagers, buntings, grosbeaks, and many rare birds not found in any other state. Before birding became a hot activity, this canyon was popular with families looking to escape the Tucson heat, and its shady picnic areas and trails still get a lot of use by non-birders. If you’re heading out for the day, arrive early—parking is very limited. To reach Madera Canyon, take the Continental Road/Madera Canyon exit off I-19 and drive 12 miles southeast. The canyon is open daily from dawn to dusk; there’s a $5 day-use fee. There’s also a campground (Bog Springs Campground; $10 per night; no reservations).
Although there aren’t quite as many golf courses in Tucson as in Phoenix, this is still a golfer’s town, with more than 40 courses to choose from. For last-minute tee-time reservations, contact Standby Golf (tel. 800/655-5345 or 480/874-3133). No fee is charged for this service.
Numerous resort courses allow non-guests to play. Perhaps the most famous of these are the two 18-hole courses at Ventana Canyon Golf and Racquet Club, 6200 N. Clubhouse Lane (tel. 520/577-4015). These Tom Fazio–designed courses offer challenging desert-style target play that is nearly legendary. The 3rd hole on the Mountain Course is one of the most photographed holes in the West. In winter, the greens fee is $149 ($99 for twilight play). You’ll spend a bit less if you’re staying at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort or the Lodge at Ventana Canyon, and summer rates are a bargain, ranging from $55 to $59.
As famous as the Ventana Canyon courses is the 27-hole Omni Tucson National Resort, 2727 W. Club Dr. (tel. 520/297-2271), a traditional course familiar to golfers as the site for many years of the annual Tucson Open. One of the 9-hole courses here is a desert-style target course, which makes this a good place for an introduction to desert golfing. The greens fee for 18 holes is $200 in winter ($120 after 2pm)—a rate that drops to $150 and $100, respectively, for resort guests.
El Conquistador Country Club, 10555 N. La Cañada Dr., Oro Valley (tel. 520/544-1801), with two 18-hole courses and a 9-hole course, offers stunning (and very distracting) views of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Greens fees are $79 to $99 in winter. At the 27-hole Arnold Palmer–designed course at Starr Pass Tucson Golf Club, 3645 W. Starr Pass Blvd. (tel. 520/670-0400), the fairways play up to the narrow Starr Pass, which was once a stagecoach route. The greens fee is $250 in winter (discounts for twilight play and students).
There are many public courses around town. The Arizona National, 9777 E. Sabino Greens Dr. (tel. 520/749-3636) incorporates stands of cacti and rocky outcroppings into the course layout. Greens fees are $60 to $90 in winter. Heritage Highlands at Dove Mountain, 4949B W. Heritage Club Blvd., Marana (tel. 520/579-7000) is a championship desert course at the foot of the Tortolita Mountains; the greens fee is $79 in winter and $109 in spring.
Tucson Parks and Recreation operates five municipal golf courses, of which the Randolph North and Randolph Dell Urich, 600 S. Alvernon Way (tel. 520/791-4161) are the premier courses. The former has been the site of Tucson’s LPGA tournament. Greens fees for 18 holes at these two courses are $44, with discounts for seniors and Pima County residents. Other municipal courses include El Rio, 1400 W. Speedway Blvd. (tel. 520/791-4229); Silverbell, 3600 N. Silverbell Rd. (tel. 520/791-5235); and Fred Enke, 8251 E. Irvington Rd. (tel. 520/791-2539). El Rio, the original site of the Tucson Open, and Enke were recently refurbished, though the city government has also made noises recently about selling them to developers. Enke is the city’s only desert-style golf course. Greens fees for 18 holes at these three courses are $43 in winter. For information and reservations for any of the municipal courses, visit www.tucsoncitygolf.com.
Hummer in the Desert
With desert mountain ranges encircling the city, Tucson is a great place for a rugged off-road adventure. To explore some rugged sections of the Sonoran Desert, contact Hummer Tours of Tucson (tel. 520/977-6615). The company uses these tough off-road vehicles to explore some hard-to-get-to places, including the old fire road that runs up the north side of Mount Lemmon to the top of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Tucson is one of the country's premier hiking destinations. The city is nearly surrounded by mountains, most of which are protected as city and state parks, national forest, or national park, and within these public areas are hundreds of miles of hiking trails.
Saguaro National Park (www.nps.gov/sagu; [tel] 520/733-5153 for the east unit or [tel] 520/733-5158 for the west unit) flanks Tucson on both the east and the west, with units accessible off Old Spanish Trail east of Tucson and past the end of Speedway Boulevard west of the city. Here you can observe Sonoran Desert vegetation and wildlife, and hike among the huge saguaro cacti for which the park is named. For saguaro-spotting, the west unit is the better choice. Adjacent to Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountain Park, at the west end of Speedway Boulevard, preserves a similar landscape. The parking area at Gates Pass, on Speedway, is a favorite sunset spot.
Popular Sabino Canyon, off Sabino Canyon Road, is one of Tucson’s best hiking areas. A cold mountain stream here cascades over waterfalls and forms pools that make great swimming holes. The 5-mile round-trip Seven Falls Trail, which follows Bear Canyon deep into the mountains, is a favorite spot for many hikers. You can take a tram to the trail head or add extra miles by hiking from the main parking lot.
Several convenient hiking options are in Tucson’s northern foothills, where the city limits push right to the boundary of the Coronado National Forest. The Ventana Canyon Trail begins at a parking area adjacent to the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort (off Sunrise Dr. west of Sabino Canyon Rd.) and leads into the Ventana Canyon Wilderness. A few miles west, the Finger Rock Trail starts at the top of a section of Alvernon Road accessed from Skyline Drive, while over near the Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort, the Pima Canyon Trail leads into the Ventana Canyon Wilderness (reach it off Ina Rd. just east of Oracle Rd). Both of these trails provide classic desert canyon hikes of whatever length you feel like (a dam at 3 miles on the Pima Canyon trail makes a good turnaround point). South of the El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort, the Linda Vista Trail begins just off Oracle Road on Linda Vista Boulevard, and winds up Pusch Ridge through dense stands of prickly pear cactus. Higher up on the trail, there are some large saguaros. Because this trail is shaded by Pusch Ridge in the morning, it’s a good choice for a morning hike on a day that’s going to be hot.
On the rugged northwest face of the Santa Catalina Mountains, between 2,500 and 3,000 feet in elevation, Catalina State Park, 11570 N. Oracle Rd. (tel. 520/628-5798) offers various trails that lead into the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. The park’s best day hike is the 5.5-mile round-trip to Romero Pools, where small natural pools of water set amid the rocks are a refreshing destination on a hot day (expect plenty of other people on a weekend). This hike involves about 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Admission to the park is $7 per vehicle. Within the park is a Hohokam ruin. On winter weekends there are free guided hikes here.
One of the reasons Tucson is such a livable city is the presence of the cool (and, in winter, sometimes snow-covered) pine forests of 8,250-foot Mount Lemmon. Within the Mount Lemmon Recreation Area, at the end of the Catalina Highway, you’ll find many miles of trails. A hearty hiker can set out from the lowland desert and hike up into alpine forests (although it’s easier to hike from the top down). For a more leisurely excursion, drive up onto the mountain to start your hike. There is a $5-per-vehicle charge to use most of the sites within this recreation area; stop at the roadside ticket kiosk at the base of the mountain to pay your fee. For more information, contact the Coronado National Forest Santa Catalina Ranger District, 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Rd. (tel. 520/749-8700).
If you want to play cowboy or cowgirl, there are plenty of stables around Tucson where you can saddle up. In addition to providing guided trail rides, some of the stables below offer sunset rides with cookouts. Although reservations are not always required, they’re a good idea. You can also opt to stay at a guest ranch and do as much riding as your muscles can stand.
All Around Trail Horses is a consortium of two Tucson-area ranches located near the eastern unit of Saguaro National Park, as well as another ranch in southwestern Colorado. Saguaro Stables and La Posta Quemada Ranch offer trail rides into Coronado National Forest, Colossal Cave Park, and other locations in the Rincon Mountains. Check the website (www.allaroundtrailhorses.com) for rates and schedules. Also affiliated with this group, Spanish Trail Outfitters (tel. 520/631-3787) offers rides at the Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort. Rates are $43 for a 1-hour ride, $54 for a 1 1/2-hour ride, and $64 for a sunset ride.
The ballooning season in Tucson runs October to April or May. Balloon America (tel. 520/299-7744) offers flights over the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains ($249 per person; private flight for two, $749), complete with a drone video showing you in flight. Check the website for discounts. Fleur de Tucson Balloon Tours (tel. 520/403-8547) offers rides over the Tucson Mountains and Saguaro National Park. Rates are $250 per person, including brunch and a champagne toast.
Located 35 miles from Tucson, Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, 10300 Ski Run Rd. (tel. 520/576-1321) is the southernmost ski area in the United States, with 22 runs for experienced downhill skiers as well as beginners. The season here isn’t very reliable—Ski Valley didn’t even open in 2017 and 2018—so be sure to call first to make sure it’s open. Locals recommend not using your own skis or snowboard (too many exposed rocks). The ski area often opens only after a new dump of snow, so be sure to call the road-condition information line (tel. 520/547-7510) before driving up. Check the website for current lift-ticket prices.
Convenient to downtown, the Reffkin Tennis Center, 50 S. Alvernon Way (tel. 520/791-4896) is the Southwest’s largest public tennis facility, with 25 lighted courts. During the day, court time is $3 per person for 1 1/2 hours; at night, it’s $12 per court. Most Tucson hotels and resorts also provide courts for guest use.
Bloom time varies from year to year, but March and April are good times to view native wildflowers in the Tucson area. While the crowns of white blossoms worn by saguaro cacti are among the most visible blooms in the area, other cacti are far more colorful. Saguaro National Park and Sabino Canyon are among the best local spots to see saguaros, other cactus species, and various wildflowers in bloom.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.