This is a guest post from Mitch Stevens, founder and lead guide of Southwest Discoveries. Based out of Tucson, Arizona, Southwest Discoveries offers multi-generational guided tours of the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Horseshoe Bend, the Tortolita Mountains, and more. Visit Southwest Discoveries for more information, and click here for Mitch’s blog.
The finest hikes in Tucson are arguably some of the best rambles in the world. From lush Sonoran Desert – the most fascinating of arid lands on the planet – to picturesque mountain ranges, it’s easy to see what attracts hikers to southern Arizona. As you gaze upon gigantic saguaros and beautiful sky island mountains in the distance, you will understand why these three hikes in Tucson should be on every adventurer’s travel bucket list. The Wildhorse, Blackett’s Ridge and Agua Caliente Hill trail showcase the best that this region has to offer.
The Wildhorse Trail is in Saguaro National Park. Two units of the park book-end Tucson east and west and comprise 91,716 acres, including more than 70,900 acres of designated wilderness. The park was established to protect the saguaro cactus, icon of the American southwest. Native to the Sonoran Desert, the saguaro extends well into Mexico. It is estimated that Saguaro National Park is home to more than 1.8 million saguaros. Moreover, the preserve protects unique plants such as the Palo Verde (the state tree of Arizona), as well as slews of other shrubs and cacti. The park averages 730,000 visitors per year and people from throughout the United States and overseas take in the splendor.
To reach the trailhead, drive east on Speedway Blvd. to its end. The start of the Wildhorse Trail is about 100 yards before you reach the official trailhead parking lot on Speedway. Because most visitors hike the popular Douglas Springs Trail, you are virtually assured of solitude on this hike.
The trail enters the park as a broad dirt track and several other trails intersect it. We recommend you continue hiking on the main trail up and down the undulating hills to a large sandy wash. Veer left here to steps leading out of the wash. Continue on the trail passing more intersections. You’ll utilize some mild switchbacks to gain the top of a ridge where there is a pretty canyon to the right with a seasonal waterfall.
When you reach the top of the ridge look around at the 180-degree panorama of the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains as well as the Tucson valley below. At this juncture you will observe the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch to the north and Paul McCartney’s house behind it. Linda McCartney, Paul’s first wife, attended the University of Arizona and really loved Tucson.
At the next intersection, the trail leads to the right, down some steps into a smaller canyon, and up and down a few more canyons before arriving at Three Tanks trail. It’s 0.4 miles to the Carrillo Trail junction. The trail continues another 0.5 miles to Wildhorse pool. After wet winters and during the southwest monsoon, it is not uncommon for beautiful waterfalls and pools to grace this part of the desert. Wildhorse pool includes a sandy beach and is a terrific place to cool off on warm days.
In the spring there can be a riot of wildflowers throughout this hike. Yellow Brittlebrush, magenta hedgehog cactus blooms, pink Fairy Dusters, and purple Lupine vie for your attention.
To complete a memorable five-mile loop, at Wildhorse tank head back the way you came and hike north on the Carrillo Trail. It is a beautiful downhill walk to the valley floor with spectacular views of the mountains towering over the lush high desert vegetation. The route will intersect the Wildhorse Trail after a couple of miles where you will turn right to arrive back at the trailhead.
Like Wildhorse, one of the supreme hikes in Tucson, Blackett’s Ridge Trail showcases thick stands of saguaro cactus as well as beautiful Sonoran Desert panoramas. However, saguaros are under threat from an exotic weed known as buffelgrass. Originally brought over from Africa to control erosion, it has spread quickly across southern Arizona. Buffelgrass not only is a threat to native desert vegetation, competing for water, but moreover contributes to the spread of wildfires. Extensive acres of the desert surrounding Tucson have been infested by this weed and experts forecast buffelgrass could eventually cause native plants such as the saguaro to become extinct if left unchecked. Local conservation groups are working with the National Park Service to pull buffelgrass and control the spread of it.
Blackett’s Ridge is located at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, a huge gash in the foothills of Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains. Sabino Canyon is popular for its sublime desert vistas and running water, derived from snow melt and rain runoff from the mountains. Many pools and waterfalls can be viewed along Sabino Creek which courses through the canyon, creating a splendid riparian habitat.
Blackett’s Ridge trail climbs high above Sabino Canyon and ascends the ridge. This steep track affords a great workout, complete with amazing views of the Catalina Mountains and the riparian corridor below. Start off by taking a wide dirt path at the northeast corner of the Sabino Canyon parking lot which leads to the Phoneline Trail. Once on the Phoneline, hike gradually uphill for one mile and turn right on to the signed Blackett’s Ridge trail. This is where the fun begins!
Initially, the trail climbs modestly but then quickly begins to ascend more steeply, utilizing switchbacks. As you’re climbing on the south face of the ridge, you’ll be compensated with riveting views of the Tucson valley and the canyon below. After another mile of steep walking, the trail will climb up onto the top of the ridge. Here, grand vistas of 9,100 foot Mount Lemmon will spread out before you, a dazzling scene.
After another mile, the trail continues up the ridge which allows glimpses into Bear Canyon off to the right. Then you will round a hill, approach a saddle to achieve the top of Blackett’s Ridge, and a great view of Thimble Peak will emerge. There will be a sign signaling that you have reached the end of the Blackett’s Ridge Trail. Spend some time at the summit to enjoy the stupendous panoramas and head back down the way you came.
Agua Caliente Hill is a 9-mile beautiful and challenging out-and-back trek lightly traveled. It features colorful spring wild flowers and great mountain and desert vistas. The best time to hike this trail is early mornings from October through April. Hikers will gain over 2,800 feet from start to finish as the terrain transitions from cacti to grasslands to oak juniper woodlands. It’s a fantastic hike which starts on the desert floor and ends on a 5,500 foot summit, treating walkers to lovely and always changing vistas.
To reach the start of the hike, take Tanque Verde east, then make a left on Soldier Trail and a right on Fort Lowell. Continue onto Camino Ancho and turn left onto Camino Remudo to the parking area. The trailhead is on the right.
The name Agua Caliente Hill is a misnomer. Don’t let the word “hill” mislead you. This hike demands respect. Take at least 3 liters of water and sunscreen. However, hikers can still get a good hike in by going part of the way up then turning around. After about a mile and a half of walking up, you’ll come to a picturesque small basin, making for a good turnaround spot. The rare and gorgeous Mariposa Lily, pictured below, blooms along the slopes in this vicinity during moist years.
After hiking 2.7 miles and climbing 2,000 feet of elevation, you will reach a signed junction with Forest Road 4445. The Agua Caliente Hill Trail continues to the east. You will pass below a false summit and enjoy the grassy slopes and huge views, an amazing area during sunset.
The last mile to the peak is tough, albeit spectacular views will reward your efforts. At the summit, perched between the sky-islands of the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains, 360-degree scenes will unfold. There is a lot to gaze at, including uncommon views of the aforementioned mountain ranges as well as the sight east across the San Pedro Valley to the Galiuro and Pineleno Mountains beyond. To the south stands Mount Wrightson and the Santa Rita Mountains at over 9,400 feet in elevation.
Take in the remarkable topography at the summit and start your hike back down the mountain, 3,000 feet below to the Agua Caliente Hill trailhead, capping one of the best hikes in Tucson.
For additional trails showcasing awesome hikes in Tucson, read Hiking in Tucson – 5 Awesome Adventures. And if you’re considering backpacking one of the many magnificent mountain ranges in Arizona, check out travel writer Clark Norton’s excellent piece, Backpacking Isn’t Just For the Young.
Many thanks to Mitch Stevens for sharing with us incredible hiking trails in his home of Tucson, Arizona!