Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon

Ringed by four mountain ranges with magical names—the Santa Catalina to the north, the Santa Rita to the south, the Rincon to the east, and the Tucson to the west—the city of Tucson is surrounded by trails. Each one winds through the rugged and sometimes otherworldly landscape of the Sonoran Desert, where saguaro cacti stand like sentinels in the sand and ancient canyons await exploration.

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many trails from which to choose, but the ones most beloved by Tucsonians are those that run through Sabino Canyon. Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas, Sabino has long been an oasis in the desert. In the era before air-conditioned houses and cars, people went to the canyon to cool off in the waters of Sabino Creek, or to rest in the shade of a sycamore tree.

Each year more than a million visitors hike, bike, and experience nature in the canyon. And they do it all year round, because Sabino has something to offer in every season.

With the exception of U.S. Forest Service vehicles, cars are not allowed in Sabino; overnight camping is prohibited, too. A tram takes visitors along a road paved by the federal Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. There are several stops along the way, and riders can get off where they choose. At the top of the road, you can reach such popular hikes as the Blackett’s Ridge and Telephone Line trails, as well as a swimming hole called Hutch’s Pool. A number of pleasant picnic areas are scattered throughout the canyon.

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the creek is shallow and allows only for wading, there’s deeper water at Sabino Dam. Located in the lower canyon, the dam is an easy hike from the parking lot, and the swimming hole it creates is a local favorite. The creek flows almost year-round, but in May and June one runs the risk of not seeing water at all.

Because of the desert’s large creek and unique microclimate—two rainy seasons make it moister than most others—Sabino is full of diverse plants and wildlife. For as long as humans have lived in this area, the canyon has been beloved for its rugged beauty and life-giving waters.

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In fact, Sabino Creek is the largest on the south slope of the Santa Catalinas. The nearby trees provide cover for many birds. In addition to birds, one could easily see deer, javelina or even cougars. This place abounds with rodents and has more types of reptiles than you can count. Gila monsters, the largest lizards in the U.S., live in the canyon, and I suggest not touching them. They are venomous and move much faster than you’d expect.

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reservedDesert flora thrives here, especially the saguaros. The white flowers of these giant plants bloom in May and June. If you get the chance to smell them, the fragrance will remind you of watermelons.

And be on the lookout for the smaller, more obscure fishhook cacti, which bloom in July and August. In general, the best time to see wildflowers is March and April, though some varieties extend their bloom to October.

If you plan to visit, pay close attention to the weather. Expect hot, humid conditions from July to the end of September, which is also the summer rainy season; around here they call it the monsoon. Beware of flash flooding, especially in the afternoon, when the heat is at its peak.

There are so many miles of hiking trails in this canyon, we haven’t found most of them yet.

So come see Sabino Canyon—it never disappoints.

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Favorite Stops Near Sabino Canyon

After exploring the natural beauty of Sabino Canyon, check out some of our favorite places around Tucson.

San Xavier del Bac: Known as the White Dove of the Desert, this beautiful baroque church was completed in 1797 by Franciscan missionaries.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: Learn about all the mammals, birds, and native plants of the Sonoran Desert. It’s a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium all rolled into one.

Saguaro National Park: Divided into eastern (Rincon Mountain) and western (Tucson Mountain) districts, this park is full of beautiful flora, especially in the late spring when the saguaro cacti are in bloom.

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

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