Tucked in a small valley amidst a series of mountain ranges—five to be exact—lies Tucson. The combination of open spaces, mountains, parks, desert, and even wetlands, makes it a mecca for those wanting to spend time outdoors. The alpine peaks of Coronado National Forest and the desert beauty of Saguaro National Park welcome all who are seeking new adventures.
From spending time with nature to museums and patio dining, here are some of the best outdoor experiences Tucson has to offer.
Experience a different kind of forest
Split into two districts, eastern Rincon Mountain District and western Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park offers over 165 miles of hiking trails—with trails for hikers of all levels. And as its name implies, this National Park is the home of the saguaro cactus, the nation’s largest (and probably most recognizable) cacti. Growing up to 40 feet tall and living to be 200 years old, the best time to visit these trees is between October and April.
If you’re looking for a short and easy trail, try the Valley View Overlook Trail and be ready to see first-hand what makes the Saguaro so unique. Also, have your camera ready: A fantastic view of the park awaits those who finish the trail. And if you’re up for a more strenuous hike, head to Wasson Peak. This trail goes through the highest point of the Tucson Mountains, guaranteeing some of the best sights in the area.
(Pictured: A group of friends take a stroll and reconnect with nature at Saguaro National Park.)
Make your way up Mount Lemmon
The highest peak in the Santa Catalina mountains is also considered one of the most difficult road-bike climbs in the country. Start your journey surrounded by saguaro cactus on the desert floor and make your way up to Summerhaven, a tiny mining town surrounded by tall pines and cool air. Mount Lemmon is quite a climb at 26 miles in length with over 5,000 feet of vertical gain.
But if you prefer leaving your bike home and still get an adrenaline rush, Mount Lemmon is one of the top rock-climbing destinations in the area. With more than 2,700 climbing routes, there are endless opportunities for climbers of all levels.
(Pictured: Rock climbers enjoying a breathtaking view near Mount Lemmon.)
Get your binoculars ready
Nestled between the slopes of Mount Wrightson and Mount Hopkins lies Madera Canyon, one of the most famous birding areas in the U.S. If you love birdwatching, this is the right place for you. Home to over 250 species, including 15 species of hummingbirds, visitors come from all over to take the Proctor Road. Described by many birders as a “productive road,” be ready to spot Varied Buntings, Five-striped Sparrow, and, if it’s your lucky day, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
(Pictured: A hummingbird sitting on a cactus at the Tohono Chul Botanical Gardens.)
Explore and learn new things
For those looking for a midpoint between nature and a more structured experience, Tucson offers a series of outdoor museums and gardens that could be more up their alley. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Tucson Botanical Gardens offer visitors to come up close and learn about plants and animals that are endemic species (they can only be found in this area of the world).
And if you’re looking to spark some young minds, stop by the Pima Air and Space Museum. A venue that opened in 1976 with 48 aircrafts on display now has over 400 units, ranging from the world’s smallest biplane to WWII planes and even spacecrafts.
(Pictured: The Pima Air & Space Museum, a perfect spot for science and aviation fans.)
Alfresco in Tucson
Most of the restaurant patios around Tucson are so welcoming that you might end up lingering there for a few hours. From unique venues (like The Boxyard or Cafe a la C'art) to unique sights (Blanco Tacos + Tequila and Epazote Kitchen at El Conquistador Tucson), there's something for everyone.
But dining in Tucson goes beyond the setting. It's also about a connection to history. In 2015, Tucson became the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy designated in the United States as a way to celebrate the city's unique culinary heritage. A tapestry of Mexican and Native American traditions, eating local takes on a new meaning while in Tucson.
(Pictured: The Epazote Patio at El Conquistador Tucson offers stunning views.)