Top Trail Towns: Tucson, Arizona

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A desert paradise


In the middle of southeastern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert lies the oasis of Tucson, with its metro area of nearly one-million inhabitants, adobe-style buildings, xeriscaped lawns, diverse population and the University of Arizona. Says Wendy Roberts, a 30-year-old writer, Pima Community College writing instructor and trail runner, “Tucson is an artsy, sporty, college town blended with a backwoods, pickup-truck vibe. There’s something here for everyone—even humidity during the summer monsoon!”

Beyond the pancake-flat valley containing Tucson, which sits at about 2300 feet, a 
trail-running paradise emerges via the quiet desert mountains surrounding town. North 
and northeast of town rise Coronado National 
Forest’s Catalina Mountains. The Rincon Mountains lie to the east as part of both Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Forest. To the south are the Santa Rita Mountains, also in Coronado National Forest. The Tucson Mountains and their “fairy-tale spikes,” as Roberts calls them, hold court over the city’s west side in Saguaro National Park and Tucson Mountain Park.


> GET THERE / arrive via Tucson International Airport, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited or Texas Eagle Lines or Greyhound bus from multiple points, and then rent a car. Tucson is bike-friendly, too, with commuter lanes, wide shoulders and friendly drivers, so consider renting a bike for your in-town explorations (you’ll still need a rental car for most trailheads).

> BE A TOURIST / Visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert museum to learn about the animals, plants and human history that make up this unique ecosystem. Most Tucson folks say you’ve got to grub up at the Guadalajara Original Grill, which is best known for its tableside salsa service, made to order per your request.

> TAKE NOTE / Extreme heat is a serious summer consideration, says Roberts. “My rule of thumb in summer is, if I’m not out the door—or better yet done—running by 7 a.m., I wait until evening. An alternative is to go to a higher, more temperate altitude, but there you beware afternoon thunderstorms.” And rattlesnakes are common trail sightings, so pay attention.


60 Miles from downtown Tucson to the Mexico border.

350 The close-to-miraculous number of days of sunshine that Tucson experiences each year.

200 Number of years a saguaro cactus can live.

Photo by David Barger


> BUTTERFLY TRAIL AND BIGELOW ROAD / At just over 10 miles, this is Roberts’ favorite run.
“You start in a forest of tall pines and follow the slope’s rolling contours, occasionally dipping to cross streams or scramble up rocky slopes,” she says. “Look for the shiny aluminum fuselage of an F-86 fighter jet that crashed in the 1950s.” begin at the Butterfly Trailhead off the Mount Lemmon Highway and run 5.7 miles to the shoulder of Mount Bigelow in the Catalina Mountains. Take a right and run the dirt Bigelow road. Turn right once more when you reach the Mount Lemmon Highway and run a half-mile of pavement back to the trailhead.

> RINCON PEAK / At 8482 feet, Rincon peak is located deep in the saguaro national park back- country. Park at the miller creek Trailhead (4000 feet altitude) on Coronado National Forest land and run 1.3 miles to the national-park boundary. From there, it’s about 3.6 miles to the junction with the heartbreak ridge Trail. Go left and bear left again in another half mile on the Rincon Peak Trail. Grind your way up, and follow cairns through the rocky summit push. Return the way you came for a 16.2-mile outing, or add the rest of the Heartbreak Ridge Trail, Deerhead Spring Trail, Turkey Creek Trail, as well as a couple miles of dirt, national-forest road back to the Miller Creek Trailhead, to make a backcountry marathon. We’re talking seriously remote stuff here, no water and gnarly terrain, so plan ahead and run with caution.


> FLEET FEET ARIZONA TRAIL RACE / An 8.2-miler held in February on the trails of colossal cave mountain park, this race wends among the also colossal and ancient saguaro cactuses. Don’t look away from the trail too often, though, as rocky surfaces keep you honest ( racing/az-trail-race).

> CATALINA STATE PARK REVERSE THE COURSE 5.2-AND 10.3-MILE TRAIL RACES / Held in September, says Roberts, “This race requires guts because it’s rugged, insanely hilly, oh, and watch out for the spiny cactuses! It’s a smallish and friendly local race that supplies sharp-looking shirts and a full breakfast afterwards” (

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