HOURS: Recreation area open daily sunrise–sunset
COST: $5 per car for one day, $10 for a week, $20 for annual pass
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, about 13 miles northeast of downtown Tucson , is easily accessible, user-friendly in the extreme, and heavily used—best estimates say 1.25 million people visit every year. Many locals use the canyon’s trail system for daily exercise, and hikers, picnickers, and sightseers usually pack the canyon on any given day in any given season. A paved road, closed to cars since 1978, rises nearly four miles up into the canyon, crossing the nearly always-running creek in several places.
Though in the range’s foothills, Sabino Canyon is inextricably linked to the Santa Catalinas  because without the mountains there would be very little water to fill up Sabino Creek, and without Sabino Creek this Edenic desert canyon would be just another rugged notch dominated by saguaro.
As it is, though, Sabino Creek starts as springs high up in the mountains, gathering snowmelt and runoff as it descends into the foothills, where it rushes through Sabino Canyon with sometimes-deadly vigor, creating a riparian oasis of cottonwoods, willow, walnut, sycamore, and ash, while saguaro, barrel cactus, prickly pear, and cholla dominate the rocky canyon slopes away from the creek’s influence. It is a truly spectacular place that should not be missed.
During Southern Arizona’s summer and winter rainy seasons, it is nearly impossible to cross the small overflowing bridges without getting your feet wet. It’s a relatively easy walk along the road to the top of the canyon and access to trails that go far into the Santa Catalinas.
The Sabino Canyon Visitors Center and Bookstore (Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Sat. 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.) has trail guides and sells gifts and books. There are bathrooms, drinking fountains, and dozens of tucked-away picnic areas throughout the canyon, and many of the trails link up with one another, so it is easy to cobble together a loop hike that will take you through all of the various life zones. Bikes are allowed in the canyon only before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m., never on Wednesday and Saturday, and never on trails that lead into the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area.
If you don’t feel like walking to the many popular trailheads in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, or if you don’t want to walk up the paved road to see the upper reaches of the gorgeous riparian canyon, consider a ride on the Sabino Canyon Shuttle (520/749-2861, www.sabinocanyon.com , $8 adult, $4 child 3–12, free under 2). The shuttle runs 45-minute narrated trips into the canyon all day, pausing at nine stops along the way to pick up or drop off hikers at various trailheads. From July through mid-December the shuttle runs Monday–Friday 9 a.m.–4 p.m. and Saturday–Sunday and holidays 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. From mid-December to June it runs daily 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
At the last tram stop 3.8 miles into the canyon, hikers can get off and take an easy stroll down the road, crossing the creek at nearly every turn, or try the Phoneline Trail, which winds along the canyon slopes overlooking the riparian beauty below. Perhaps the most popular trail in the entire Tucson valley is the hike through nearby Bear Canyon to Seven Falls, a wonderful series of waterfalls and collecting pools.
You can access the Bear Canyon Trail from just outside the visitors center, or take the shuttle to a trailhead 1.5 miles on. From the trailhead to the falls it’s a total of 3.8 miles one-way, and worth every step. The Bear Canyon shuttle leaves the visitors center every hour on the hour, daily 9 a.m.–4 p.m. ($3 adult, $1 child 3–12).