Sabino Canyon and The Catalina Highway – A desert oasis and panoramic views from cool pine forests

Sabino Canyon


Sabino Canyon Arizona

Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon is a truly beautiful hiking destination in the eastern foothills of the Catalina Mountains. Easily accessible from Tucson this offers a chance to sample the best of the Sonoran desert.  Canyon walls studded with desert vegetation including the mighty Saguaro contrast with the flowing waters of Sabino Creek.

The canyon is around 4 miles long and a paved road winds into the canyon crossing Sabino Creek several times. However private motor vehicles are not allowed into the canyon but a regular trolley service (roughly every thirty minutes) runs to and from the far point of the canyon with regular stops along the way. It is therefore possible to take the trolley to a point within your comfort zone and then hike back. There is a large parking lot and also a visitor centre that provides excellent information about the canyon. An entry fee is charged for the canyon and tickets for the shuttle service must also be purchased if required.

There are a number of hikes in the canyon some of which involve strenuous climbs to ascend to the rim. For the first time visitor the easiest option is to hike some or the entire paved road in the canyon, but this will be hot during the summer months as there is little or no shelter. Information and maps of hiking routes can be obtained at the visitor centre.

As always with hiking in this area take more water than you think you will need especially in the warmer months.  There are water fountains at the visitor centre at where you can top off your water supplies.

Mountain lions are known to inhabit the area and whilst it is extremely unlikely that you will encounter one it makes sense to follow the advice of not hiking alone.

Catalina Highway

The Catalina highway winds from the Catalina foothills and ascends in 27 miles over 6000 feet to the small town of Summerhaven close to the top if Mount Lemon. Slightly further is the Mount Lemon Ski area, the Southernmost in the US. The road is designated as a scenic byway and is maintained by the Us Forestry Service.  Making the ascent serves as a lesson on the range of life zones present in Arizona, from the low Sonoran desert to the Canadian Alpine zone at the highest point. This drive passes through the same life zones that would be encountered on a journey from Mexico to Canada. During the winter months the higher reaches of the ascent are not possible without snow chains.

In the summer the mountain offers an escape from the 100 degree desert heat as the temperature at the top is likely to be in the 70’s. In the winter months the Mount Lemon Ski lift is in operation and in the summer months the ski lift continues in use to allow visitor to ascend further to an elevation of 9100 feet.

There are several picnic areas adjacent to the road and also a number of viewpoints overlook panoramic vistas across hundreds of miles of the Arizona landscape.  There are also numerous hiking trails in the area.


Note – Historically a fee was charged by the US Forestry service if any use was made of parking and picnic areas on the road. This has been ruled illegal in the courts and at the date of writing no charges are being made.