Tucson is one of the best bicycling cities in the country, 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; www.fairwheelbikes.com), bikes rent for $45 to $65 per day.
If you'd rather confine your pedaling to paved surfaces, there are some great options around town. 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 Wed and Sat). For a much easier ride, try the Rillito River Park path, which is paved for 12 miles between Craycroft Road and I-10. The trail parallels 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.
Southern Arizona has some of the best bird-watching in the country, and although the best spots are south of Tucson, there are a few places around the city that birders will enjoy seeking out. Call the Tucson Audubon Society's Rare Bird Alert (tel. 520/629-0510; www.tucsonaudubon.org) 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. These wetlands were created as part of a wastewater treatment facility and now have an extensive network of trails that wind past numerous ponds and canals. There are several viewing platforms and enough different types of wildlife habitat that the area attracts 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. If you're driving west on Prince Road, go to the end of the road, turn right on Business Center Drive, turn left on River Park Road (which becomes Commerce Dr.), take the first left (probably unmarked), and then turn left again on Sweetwater Drive.
Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Regional Park, 12325 E. Roger Rd. (off N. Soldier Trail), in the northeast corner of the city, is another great place to do some birding. The year-round warm springs here are a magnet for dozens of species, including waterfowl, great blue herons, black phoebes, soras, and vermilion flycatchers. To find the park, follow Tanque Verde Road east 6 miles from the intersection with Sabino Canyon Road and turn left onto Soldier Trail. Watch for signs.
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.
The best bird-watching in the immediate Tucson area is at Madera Canyon, which is in Coronado National Forest (tel. 520/281-2296; www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado), about 40 miles south of the city. Because of the year-round water here, Madera Canyon attracts a surprising variety of bird life. Avid birders from around the country flock to this canyon in hopes of spotting 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. However, before birding became a hot activity, this canyon was popular with families looking to escape the heat down in Tucson, and the shady picnic areas and trails still get a lot of use by those who don't carry binoculars. 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; from the exit, it's another 12 miles southeast. The canyon is open daily from dawn to dusk for day use; there is a $5 day-use fee. There's also a campground (Bog Springs Campground; $10 per night; reservations not accepted).
Although there aren't quite as many golf courses in Tucson as in Phoenix, this is still a golfer's town. For last-minute tee-time reservations, contact Standby Golf (tel. 800/655-5345 or 480/874-3133; www.discountteetimes.com). No fee is charged for this service.
In addition to public and municipal links, numerous resort courses allow nonguests 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; www.ventanacanyonclub.com). 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 $159 ($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.
As famous as the Ventana Canyon courses is the 27-hole Omni Tucson National Resort, 2727 W. Club Dr. (tel. 520/575-7540 or 520/297-2271; www.tucsonnational.com), a traditional course that is perhaps more familiar to golfers due to the fact that it was for many years the site 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. If you are not staying at the resort, the greens fee is $188 in winter ($102 after 2pm).
El Conquistador Country Club, 10555 N. La Cañada Dr., Oro Valley (tel. 520/544-1801; www.elconquistadorcc.com), 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; www.jwmarriottstarrpass.com/Arizona-Golf-Resort/Starr-Pass-4.html), the fairways play up to the narrow Starr Pass, which was once a stagecoach route. The greens fee is $215 in winter ($120 for twilight play).
There are many public courses around town. The Arizona National, 9777 E. Sabino Greens Dr. (tel. 520/749-3636; www.arizonanationalgolfclub.com), incorporates stands of cacti and rocky outcroppings into the course layout. Greens fees are $79 to $89 in winter. The Golf Club at Vistoso, 955 W. Vistoso Highlands Dr. (tel. 520/797-9900; www.vistosogolf.com), has a championship desert course, with fees of $79 to $89 in winter ($49 for twilight play). Heritage Highlands at Dove Mountain, 4949B W. Heritage Club Blvd., Marana (tel. 520/579-7000; www.heritagehighlands.com), is a championship desert course at the foot of the Tortolita Mountains; greens fee is $71 in winter.
Tucson Parks and Recreation operates five municipal golf courses, of which the Randolph and 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 $56 to $80 in winter. 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). This latter course is the city's only desert-style golf course. Greens fees for 18 holes at these three courses are $36 to $52 in winter. For general information and tee-time reservations for any of the municipal courses, visit www.tucsoncitygolf.com.
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 (tel. 520/733-5153 for the east unit or 520/733-5158 for the west unit; www.nps.gov/sagu) 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. In these areas, 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.
Tucson Mountain Park, at the west end of Speedway Boulevard, is adjacent to Saguaro National Park and preserves a similar landscape. The parking area at Gates Pass, on Speedway, is a favorite sunset spot.
Sabino Canyon, off Sabino Canyon Road, is one of Tucson's best hiking areas, but is also the city's most popular recreation area. 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 the most popular hike in the recreation area. You can take a tram to the trail head or add extra miles by hiking from the main parking lot.
With the city limits pushing right to the boundary of the Coronado National Forest, there are some convenient hiking options in Tucson's northern foothills. 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, there's the Finger Rock Trail, which starts at the top of the section of Alvernon Road accessed from Skyline Drive. There are actually a couple of trails starting here, so you can hike for miles into the desert. Over near the Westward Look Resort is the Pima Canyon Trail, which leads into the Ventana Canyon Wilderness and is reached off Ina Road just east of Oracle Road. Both of these trails provide classic desert canyon hikes of whatever length you feel like (a dam at 3 miles on the latter trail makes a good turnaround point). Just south of the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort, you'll find the Linda Vista Trail, which begins just off Oracle Road on Linda Vista Boulevard. This trail lies at the foot of Pusch Ridge and winds up 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.
Catalina State Park, 11570 N. Oracle Rd. (tel. 520/628-5798; www.azstateparks.com/Parks/CATA/index.html), is on the rugged northwest face of the Santa Catalina Mountains, between 2,500 and 3,000 feet in elevation. Hiking trails here lead into the Pusch Ridge Wilderness; however, 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, snow-covered) pine forests of 8,250-foot Mount Lemmon. Within the Mount Lemmon Recreation Area, at the end of the Catalina Highway, are many miles of trails, and the hearty hiker can even set out from down in the lowland desert and hike up into the 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. However, be aware that in winter, there can be snow atop Mount Lemmon. There is a $5-per-vehicle charge to use most of the sites within this recreation area, so you'll need to stop at the roadside ticket kiosk at the base of the mountain and pay your fee. For more information, contact the Coronado National Forest Santa Catalina Ranger District, 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Rd. (tel. 520/749-8700; www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado).
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.
Pusch Ridge Stables, 13700 N. Oracle Rd. (tel. 520/825-1664; www.puschridgestables.com), is adjacent to Catalina State Park and Coronado National Forest. Rates are $37 for 1 hour, $57 for 2 hours, and $47 for a sunset ride.
Slightly more convenient are the rides offered at the Westward Look Resort by Spanish Trail Outfitters (tel. 520/631-3787; www.spanishtrailoutfitters.com). Rates are $35 for a 1-hour ride, $45 for a 1 1/2-hour ride, $50 for a sunset ride, and $65 for a 2 1/2-hour ride.
The ballooning season in Tucson runs October to April or May. Balloon America (tel. 520/299-7744; www.balloonridesusa.com) offers flights over the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains ($349-$399 per person). Check the website for discounts. Fleur de Tucson Balloon Tours (tel. 520/403-8547; www.fleurdetucson.net) offers rides over the Tucson Mountains and Saguaro National Park. Rates are $225 per person, including brunch and a champagne toast.
Located 35 miles from Tucson (a 1-hr. drive), Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, 10300 Ski Run Rd. (tel. 520/576-1321; www.skithelemmon.com), is the southernmost ski area in the United States and offers 22 runs for experienced downhill skiers as well as beginners. The season here isn't very reliable, 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. An all-day lift pass is $37 for adults, $30 for seniors, and $20 for children. In a good year, the season runs from mid-December to April.
The Reffkin Tennis Center, 50 S. Alvernon Way (tel. 520/791-4896; www.reffkintenniscenter.com), convenient to downtown, is the Southwest's largest public tennis facility and offers 25 lighted courts. During the day, court time is $2.50 per person for 1 1/2 hours; at night, it's $10 per court. Many of the city's hotels and resorts also provide courts for guest use.
Bloom time varies from year to year, but April and May 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. If you feel like heading farther afield, the wildflower displays at Picacho Peak State Park, between Tucson and Casa Grande, are the most impressive in the state.
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.