September 27, 2016

18 Best Hikes in the Santa Catalina Mountains

Of the 5 mountain ranges that surround Tucson, Arizona, the Santa Catalinas to the North boast the greatest number of hiking trails. From deep rocky canyons hiding refreshing pools in heart of the desert to cool forest trails lined by ferns and aspens up near the peak of Mount Lemmon, the Catalinas have it all.

Before we dive into the list, let's get the lay of the land.

The Santa Catalina Mountains are divided into two major parts by Romero Canyon, which cuts into the range from the West, while the West Fork of Sabino Canyon comes in from the East to meet up at Romero Pass. Everything South of the pass is generally considered to be part of the "front range" since it is closer to the city, while the rest of the Catalinas are referred to as the "back range". The front range tends to feature more desert hiking through deep canyons while the back range is where you'll find more hikes among pines than cacti.

In between the Santa Catalinas and the Rincon Mountains to the East of town, there is a lone peak called Agua Caliente Hill. Although it sits North of Redington Pass, which many regard as the dividing line between the two major ranges, it is separated from the Catalinas by Milagrosa and Agua Caliente canyons. As a result, it is not typically thought of as part of the Santa Catalinas and we will be leaving that area out of this list, despite the fact that it features several great hikes, such as Milagrosa Pools, Milagrosa Loop, and an amazing hike to the peak of Agua Caliente Hill itself.

Now on to the hikes...

1401 Cholla and Tucson
Looking North at the Catalinas from Tucson, Pontatoc Ridge is one of the most prominent features in the front range and the hike up it is nothing short of spectacular.
What makes it great:
  • Stunning city and sunset views
  • Old mining prospect cut horizontally into the mountain
  • Dense patches of "Teddy Bear" Cholla
View the Hike Profile

Phoneline Trail, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
Most visitors to Sabino Canyon Recreation Area will only experience the namesake gorge from the seat of a tram, but high above the road on the East wall, the Phoneline trail pushes towards Sabino Basin in the heart of the mountains.
What makes it great:
  • Relatively flat for most of the hike
  • Amazing views of Sabino Canyon and the Catalinas
  • Excellent picnic spots in the middle and end of the canyon
  • Can be done as a one-way hike by using the tram
View the Hike Profile

1308 Box Camp Trail
Starting up at 8,000 feet in the back range of the Catalinas, the Box Camp trail offers respite from the desert heat, as well as a significant change in scenery.
What makes it great:
  • Pine forest with large patches of ferns
  • Seasonal stream with flowing water
  • Spectacular vista overlooking Sabino Basin and the front range
View the Hike Profile

1206 Meadow Trail
At the top of Mount Lemmon, the highest peak in the Catalinas, there is a short loop hike that packs a lot of variety into a small amount of distance.
What makes it great:
  • Small grassy mountain meadow
  • Environmental spectrum from old growth forest to recovering burn area
  • Awesome views of the Wilderness of Rock
  • Fire lookout station
View the Hike Profile

Romero Canyon Pools
Starting in Catalina State Park on the West side of the mountains, the hike into Romero Canyon is a popular trail to explore with its many pools and views.
What makes it great:
  • Gorgeous canyon views
  • Near perennial flowing water
  • Above average chance to spot wildlife 
View the Hike Profile

Forest on Pusch Ridge Wilderness Mount Kimball trail
One of the highest peaks in the front range, Mount Kimball's tree covered dome make panorama views scarce, but there's plenty to be had on the 4.5 mile climb up.
What makes it great:
  • Hike from Saguaro cacti up to pine forest in a single day
  • Striking views to the North from a rocky outcropping
  • Hoodoos near the top
  • Rigorous workout
View the Hike Profile

Esperero Canyon
Don't let the label scare you away, there are switchbacks that zig zag up the namesake hill at the end of this hike and the views at the top are totally worth it.
What makes it great:
  • 360 views at the top of:
    • Mount Miguel and Tucson beyond it
    • Esperero Canyon with its waterfall below
    • Geronimo Meadow and the Cathedral looming high above
  • Perfect mix of hiking through a desert canyon and open hillsides
View the Hike Profile

Originally built to create a recreational reservoir for locals, the dam remains a popular place to play in the water long after the lake has silted in. This loop hike is the ideal way to get there.
What makes it great:
  • Short loop hike with a variety of scenery
  • Perennial flowing water
  • Shade and picnic tables near the dam, making for a great place to have lunch
View the Hike Profile

This trail was once used by the Army to reach their camp in the mountains and would make any drill instructor happy. The amazing changing views provide plenty of motivation to soldier on.
What makes it great:
  • Marvelous views throughout 
  • Evidence of recent and ancient history on the trail
  • Seasonal stream and waterfalls
  • Intense workout in under 5 miles
View the Hike Profile

Hutch's Pool
Right in the middle of the Santa Catalinas is a huge natural pool that has something for everyone, and the hike in is pretty straightforward.
What makes it great:
  • An oasis in the heart of the desert
  • A sandy beach, a waterfall, and plenty of water for swimming
  • Cool perennial water from mountain springs higher up
  • Uses the Sabino Canyon tram to reach the trailhead at Stop 9
View the Hike Profile

1311 Looking down Ventana Canyon
Halfway up Ventana Canyon, the creek has carved several pools out of the bedrock which makes for a stellar place to have a little picnic at the end of the hike.
What makes it great:
  • Hike in the cool shade of the canyon at either end of the day
  • Most of the incline is on a hill just before the pools
  • Breathtaking views looking back down the canyon from the top of the hill
  • Seasonal stream with flowing water that fills the pools and makes a waterfall
View the Hike Profile

Wilderness of Rocks
Hiking through this appropriately named area can feel like an adventure through an alien landscape as countless hoodoos rise above the trees all around. This loop hike lets you scope it out from above and then trek right through it.
What makes it great:
  • Fascinating rock formations
  • Near perennial mountain streams
  • Remarkable views of Romero Canyon, the front range, and the Wilderness of Rocks
View the Hike Profile

Blackett's Ridge
Blackett's Ridge separates Sabino Canyon and its tram road from Bear Canyon and Seven Falls, which means that you end up looking down into both from the hike along the top.
What makes it great:
  • Some of the best views anywhere in the front range
  • Witness the transition from desert to grassland
  • Beats the heck out of the treadmill for a workout
View the Hike Profile

Seven Falls
Once you see the seven consecutive cascades tucked up inside Bear Canyon, you'll understand why this is probably the most popular hike in Tucson.
What makes it great:
  • Near perennial flowing water
  • Well marked and traveled trail
  • Seven stream crossings on the way to the falls
  • Morning hikes are shaded by the canyon walls
View the Hike Profile

Copy of SDC11111
One of the few hikes on the North slopes of the back range, this loop hike has all that you could want from a mountain trail.
What makes it great:
  • Variety:
    • Old growth pine forest
    • Young aspens and pine coming back after a fire
    • More drought tolerant oak on South facing slopes
    • Wild raspberries
    • Huge patch of ferns
  • Novio Spring and Falls
  • F-86 jet wreckage
  • Extraordinary views to the North of the Catalinas
View the Hike Profile

1311 Descending from Pusch Peak
The highest point at the West end of the front range, Pusch Peak is easily recognizable, and therefore a great landmark to look on with the pride of knowing you've conquered the hike to the summit.
What makes it great:
  • Knees to your chest steep
  • Unmaintained and slippery trail
  • Off limits from January through April for Big Horn lambing season
  • The view at the top is totally worth it
View the Hike Profile

2. Aspen Loop - Level 2

1207 Aspen Trail in the Rain
For local Tucsonans looking to escape the desert for awhile, this is the ideal hike.
What makes it great:
  • Green tunnel through aspens and ferns
  • Astounding view of Wilderness of Rocks, with the front range and Tucson beyond
  • Near perennial stream with flowing water
  • Some of the largest old growth trees on the mountain
  • Starts and ends at a fantastic picnic area, Marshall Gulch
View the Hike Profile

Honorable Mentions
With over a hundred miles of trails criss-crossing the Catalinas, there are many more great hikes than we could include on this list without it being overwhelming and ridiculous. Here are 3 examples of some of the other gems hidden in the mountains: Pima Canyon Dam, Romero Canyon Loop, and Babad Do'ag.
1402 Looking Down on the Babad Do'ag Trail and Trail to Point 4780
Babad Do'ag
Pima Canyon Trail
Pima Canyon
Catalina State Park
Romero Canyon Loop

I can see the Ventana!
At 12.5 miles long with almost a mile of vertical climb, The Window is not for the faint of heart. But anyone has made the journey from the cacti at the bottom of Ventana Canyon to the pine forest surrounding the namesake hole in the mountain will probably tell you that it's well worth the trek.
What makes it great:
  • Iconic rock formation that you can sit in
  • Phenomenal views from above the Window
  • Maiden Pools are half way up
  • Witness dramatic changes in ecosystems
View the Hike Profile

What do you think?

Do you agree with our rankings? Did we leave a hike off that should have been included? Tell us in the comments.

No comments:

Post a Comment