Things to do
Raise. With 192 miles of marked hiking trails, SNP offers hikes for visitors of all skill levels. Regardless of your fitness level, be sure to plan your hikes to avoid the midday desert heat and allow plenty of water. And remember, these photogenic cacti are covered with thorns, so stay on the trail to avoid getting stung.
For an easy walk that also serves as an introduction to the desert ecosystem, try the quarter-mile Desert Ecology Trail along Cactus Forest Drive in the Eastern District or the half-mile Desert Discovery Trail. -mile off Kinney Road to the west. The two paved trails include resting benches and interpretive displays about the park’s plants and animals.
The 0.7 mile Mica View trail east, which begins at the Mica Picnic Area parking lot, has recently been flattened and hardened to meet ADA standards and accommodate wheelchairs . During this hike, you will likely spot “Gila Peaks and golden sparkles in their” saguaro niches, “and admire views of Tanque Verde Peak and Mica Mountain.
If you want to challenge yourself, try the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail in the Eastern District, near the Javelina picnic area, off Cactus Loop Drive. The arduous 18-mile hike gains 4,750 feet in elevation and traverses the region’s six biotic zones.
On the west side, access the King Canyon Trailhead outside the park off Kinney Road and zigzag to the top of 4,687-foot Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson mountain range. About 7 miles round trip, with 1,939 feet of elevation gain, this moderate hike passes rock faces carved with ancient petroglyphs and an ancient stone miner’s hut.
Bicycle. In one of the country’s most bike-friendly national parks, choose from four excellent scenic loops for road cyclists and mountain bikers. The popular and aptly named Cactus Forest Loop, adjacent to the Eastern District Visitor Center, stretches eight miles on a paved, hilly road that you will share with vehicles. On the west side of the park, the six-mile Bajada Loop Drive off Kinney Road, a gravel road, passes a giant saguaros forest.
Watch the sunset. Sunset in the desert can rival saguaros as the park’s most instagrammed natural wonder. At nightfall, the setting sun turns a dazzling red that paints the sky with pinks and oranges worthy of a Monet painting. On the easily accessible Desert Discovery Trail off Kinney Road in the Western District, watch the sun set through a saguaro forest. On the east side, the Cactus Forest Loop Drive stays open until 8 p.m., giving you plenty of time to stop and enjoy the sunset at the Javelina Rocks Overlook, near the end of the loop.
To learn. Rangers typically lead four to six different daily interpretive lectures and tours that explore topics such as desert survival, the lifespan of a saguaro, and misunderstood predators, such as the puma. The park’s two visitor centers have cactus gardens with interpretive signs that you can explore on your own or with a ranger. Both districts also hold monthly stargazing evenings with a local astronomy group. Participants must register in advance.
See the petroglyphs. Most of the rock art in the SNP dates back to the prehistoric Hohokam culture. Abstract designs, including spirals and wavy lines as well as designs of animals, humans and astrological objects, have been etched on the surface of sandstone and other rocks throughout the park. The best place to view the petroglyphs is along the Signal Hill Trail, which begins at the Signal Hill picnic area off Hohokam Road in the Western District. From the Signal Hill picnic area, the 0.3 mile trail gently climbs up a hill with over 200 petroglyphs believed to have been created between 550 and 1,550 years ago.
Tucson is flanked on either side by SNP’s Western Tucson Mountain District and Rincon Mountain Eastern District, making it an ideal base for day trips. A dream destination for fit foodies, Tucson boasts the right to boast of being one of America’s Best Bike Cities and the first and only UNESCO City of Food designation in the United States. On the Loop, a 131-mile network of paved bike paths, you can access the SNP as well as a plethora of other parks, shops, and restaurants on two wheels. Transit Cycles and Bicycle Ranch are the city’s must-see bike shops.
For a hearty breakfast before heading to the park, head to the east side location of Prep & Pastry on Grant Avenue and order the Oven Roasted Sweet Potato Hash and Breakfast Sandwich with Avocado. After whetting your appetite by bike or on foot in the park, reward yourself with a prickly pear mojito and braised lamb tostada at the Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, run by James Award-winning Chef Janos Wilder Beard. Head to Penca, an upscale Mexican restaurant in the heart of downtown, for the best happy hour in town: two $ 5 tacos and a $ 5 sangria.
Two must-see outdoor malls anchor the trendy downtown Mercado district to the western end of the city’s modern tram line: Mercado San Agustín and the MSA Annex. In the latter, a collection of 10 independent businesses housed in reused shipping containers, collect nostalgic SNP-inspired material at Why I Love Where I Live and home items made by local artisans in Mesa. Wellness enthusiasts who prefer to end long days of hiking with massages and healthy meals can stay at the Canyon Ranch in the mountain foothills northeast of Tucson. A cheaper alternative in northeast Tucson is the Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, which pampers guests with a three-bedroom spa and elegant Spanish Colonial casitas. To be within walking distance of downtown shopping and dining, opt for the retro Downtown Clifton Hotel. Locals prefer its restaurant, the Red Light Lounge, for its selection of Arizona craft beers.
The booming town of Marana, an alternative gateway to the Western District, is located approximately 15 miles north of the Visitor Center. Don’t miss the pork carnitas at La Olla Mexican Café, and stop at Catalina Brewing Co. to try craft beers brewed with local ingredients, such as prickly pears and mesquite flour. The city’s main draw, the luxury Ritz Carlton Dove Mountain resort, offers five-star service and earns high marks for its restaurants and golf course.