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Home > United States > Arizona > Tucson region

National Parks and Forests in the Tucson region and other parts of Southern Arizona (View Photos):

The indelible symbol of the southwest is the giant saguaro cactus. Southern Arizona is covered with these cactuses in places like the Santa Catalina mountains and Saguaro National Park just outside Tucson. This region of Arizona is part of the vast Sonoran Desert where the saguaro cactus thrives along mountain slopes of rough rock, sand, and gravel. These amazing plants have branching arms that gracefully curve upwards resulting in a unique silhouette. In the hot, arid climate of southern Arizona, the saguaro cactus survives because of its remarkable ability to absorb and retain water from sporadic thunderstorms, thanks to its hardy network of roots.

Besides saguaros, the Tucson area is notable for its many mountain ranges, particularly the impressive Santa Catalina mountains. The Sky Island National Scenic Byway ascends the southern flank of these mountains to the summit of Mount Lemmon. The drive gains over 6,300 feet in elevation and along the way it explores five seperate life zones, ranging from the saguaro-studded landscape of the Sonoran Desert to a mixed conifer forest that is often covered in snow during the winter months. Incredible panoramic views can be enjoyed along the byway, especially from Windy Point Vista where visitors can ponder numerous mountain ranges and the Tucson Basin.

Just outside Tucson, Saguaro National Park and Tucson Mountain Regional Park offer hiking trails that explore forests of saguaro cactus and dry, rugged mountains. This parched land is home to mountain lions, rattlesnakes, scorpions, Gila monsters, and a variety of birds like hummingbirds and owls. Hohokam Indians left a record of their existence here in the form of petroglyphs etched on rocks at Signal Hill in present-day Saguaro National Park. The park is divided up into two districts - the Tucson Mountain district to the west of Tucson and the Rincon Mountain district to the east of Tucson. Due to their higher elevation, the Rincon Mountains receive more moisture than the Tucson Mountains and this extra precipitation has spawned a greater diversity of trees like oak, pine, and fir.

Within the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation lies the famous San Xavier del Bac Mission church. Completed in 1797 by Franciscan missionaries, it is the oldest mission church in the American southwest and a prime example of Spanish colonial architecture. With its Baroque facade, ornate altarpieces, and wall paintings, San Xavier del Bac Mission is an artistic masterpiece that combines various styles including Baroque, Moorish, Byzantine, and late Mexican Renaissance.

A relatively unknown jewel within the National Park system is Chiricahua National Monument, located about two hours southeast of Tucson. The Chiricahua Apache inhabited the canyons and mountains of this area for centuries before being driven out by American settlers in the late 1880's. The Apache called this region the "Land of Standing-Up Rocks". About 27 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions took place, dumping huge layers of ash on the surrounding landscape. Over time, this ash became eroded into finely shaped columns and spires of rhyolite tuff. The area is now a wonderland of otherworldly rock formations and evergreen forests that can be explored along a network of scenic hiking trails.

Recommended Day Hikes:
Echo Canyon Loop with a detour to Inspiration Point - Chiricahua National Monument
Round Trip Length: 6.5 miles
Trailhead location: Echo Canyon parking lot
Level of Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Attractions: This hikes combines all or parts of the following trails: Echo Canyon, Hailstone, Ed Riggs, Mushroom Rock, and Inspiration Point. Scenery includes intimate views of rhyolite tuff formations, lush evergreen forest, valleys, and panoramic vistas from Inspiration Point

Sugarloaf Mountain Trail - Chiricahua National Monument
Round Trip Length: 1.8 miles
Trailhead location: Take Utah 149 into the West entrance of the Monument (where the Dinosaur Quarry is located). The trailhead is 1.9 miles from the Entrance Station on the park road
Level of Difficulty: Moderate
Attractions: This trail climbs to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain (elevation 7,310 ft). The summit features grand vistas of surrounding canyons, mountains, forests, and rock formations. In the far distance is Sulphur Springs Valley, a desert grassland that borders the mountains of Chiricahua National Monument

Massai Point Nature Trail - Chiricahua National Monument
Round Trip Length: 0.5 miles
Trailhead location: Massai Point, located at the end of the main park road (Bonito Canyon Drive)
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Attractions: The end of this trail offers some of the best views in the park, including close-up vistas of mountains, valleys, and the famous balanced rock formations

Signal Hill Petroglyphs Trail - Saguaro National Park (Tucson Mountains District)
Round Trip Length: 0.5 miles
Trailhead location: Signal Hill Picnic Area, located off Golden Gate 5 five miles from the Red Hills Visitor Center
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Attractions: This hike leads to dozens of ancient petroglyphs etched on to rocks by the Hohokam Indians. At the end of the trail, there are broad views of the Tucson Mountains and saguaro-covered desert

Valley View Overlook Trail - Saguaro National Park (Tucson Mountains District)
Round Trip Length: 0.8 miles
Trailhead location: Located on the Bajada Loop Drive 3.5 miles north of the Red Hills Visitor Center
Level of Difficulty: Moderate
Attractions: Passing through a forest of saguaro cactuses, this trail ascends a gentle ridge to a sweeping overlook of a wide valley with cliffs and mountains in the distance

Desert Discovery Trail - Saguaro National Park (Tucson Mountains District)
Round Trip Length: 0.5 miles
Trailhead location: On Kinney Road, 1 mile northwest of the Red Hills Visitor Center
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Attractions: A paved, self-guiding trail that uses exhibits and panels to explain the native plants, animals, and ecology of the Sonoran Desert

Recommended Points of Interest:
Tucson Mountain Regional Park; Sky Island National Scenic Byway; Catalina State Park (near Tucson); Picacho Peak State Park (a hour north of Tucson on I-10); Ironwood Forest National Monument; Sabino Canyon (just outside Tucson); Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum; San Xavier del Bac Mission

Helpful travel tips and observations
Avoid visiting this dry, desert region in the summer, as the temperatures are uncomfortably high; wildflowers (given enough prior rainfall) and pleasant temperatures make Spring the best time to visit. Tucson is surrounded by spectacular scenery, much of it preserved in National and State parks and National Forest land, making this Southwestern town an ideal base of operations.

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More Photos:  Page 1 > Page 2 > Page 3

Sky Island National Scenic Byway, Coronado National Forest, (March 2006)

Sky Island National Scenic Byway

Windy Point Vista - Sky Island National Scenic Byway, Coronado National Forest, (March 2006)

Sky Island National Scenic Byway

Sky Island National Scenic Byway, Coronado National Forest, (March 2006)

Sky Island National Scenic Byway

Sky Island National Scenic Byway, Coronado National Forest, (March 2006)

Sky Island National Scenic Byway

Sky Island National Scenic Byway, Coronado National Forest, (March 2006)

Sky Island National Scenic Byway

San Xavier del Bac Mission, near Tucson, (March 2006)

San Xavier del Bac Mission, near Tucson

Tucson Mountain Regional Park, Tucson, (March 2006)

Tucson Mountain Regional Park, Tucson

Tucson Mountain Regional Park, Tucson, (March 2006)

Tucson Mountain Regional Park, Tucson

More Photos:  Page 1 > Page 2 > Page 3

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