Tucson, in terms of size, is the little sister of Phoenix, however, it has a completely distinct character. Furthermore, Tucson has a deep and diverse history which really makes it a special place to visit and explore. So, if you are visiting Arizona, don’t miss it. Of course, it goes without saying that where-ever I visit must include some hikes and Tucson has no lack of them.
In particular, this guide is meant to showcase two of my most favorite short hikes in Tucson. These are great nature walks for when you are short on time, or if you are dragging along someone who isn’t super jazzed about hiking. Tanque Verde is the more technical of the two, and Tumamoc Hill is very family friendly. Both are absolutely beautiful and if you do them together you will see two very distinct sides of the Sonoran Desert.
TL;DR : If you are in Arizona, you must do at least one hike, possibly one of these short hikes in Tucson. Tanque Verde is a beautiful oasis in the desert, but requires some bouldering. Tumamoc Hill is the perfect microcosm of the Sonoran Desert and is both beginner and family friendly.
- 1 The Wild Beauty of Tanque Verde Falls Wins the Short Hikes in Tucson
- 2 Tumamoc Hill Is the Urban Utopia of Short Hikes in Tucson
- 3 Safety on the Short Hikes in Tucson
- 4 Visiting Arizona?
- 5 Love it? Pin it!
The Wild Beauty of Tanque Verde Falls Wins the Short Hikes in Tucson
Of all the of long and short hikes of Tucson, Tanque Verde Falls is one of my favorites. You will get some mind-boggling beauty out here, without the need for a long trek. There is a particular character in the Sonoran Desert surrounding Tucson, especially in the foothills of the Sky Islands. These towering mountains reach so high into the sky that forests thrive on their crowns, despite the heat and drought of the lower elevations. In the foothills, where Tanque Verde can be found, the waters of the mountain storms flow down through the rocky foundations of the peaks. These conditions make for magical places, where water and desert meet to create splashes of greens and yellows not found elsewhere in among the stretches of creosote scrublands.
Of course, it goes without saying that finding a waterfall anywhere is a favorite of many. But finding a waterfall in the desert is something even more special… especially when the water is running. And as much as I love this hike, I will say, any visitors should approach Tanque Verde with the knowledge that water in the desert is a fickle thing, which can change its presence in a moment’s notice. You might come and find no running water, or you may come when the water is so high that you can’t safely make it to the falls. In either case, go with the right attitude and this beautiful place will not disappoint.
The Tanque Verde Falls Hike
Between these two short hikes in Tucson, Tanque Verde is the much harder of the two. This is primarily the case because you need to do a bit of pathfinding and bouldering in order to get to the falls. So, I wouldn’t suggest this, short as it is, for people who aren’t used to some more wild conditions on the trail.
After parking, you will follow the only clear section of trail on this short trek, down from the dirt parking area and into the canyon where Tanque Verde sits. Once you make it down to the creek bed, you will take a left turn and make your way up-creek. For a time, you might see some sections of trail, but overall, you will be on your own to keep moving. Stick to the left side of the creek, and know that you shouldn’t have to make any really technical climbs until you get to the end of the trail. If the water level makes any real rock scaling necessary, it may be necessary to turn around.
When you near the end, after making your way through the boulder fields of the creek, you will find yourself in a proverbial stone bowl. While this looks to be a dead end, if you can safely climb the stone wall, you will find a second alcove, which is where the falls themselves are, as well as the end of the trail.
Need to Know Information
Trail Difficulty: Moderate
Best for: Intermediate to skilled hikers
Trail Surface: Boulders
Length of Trail: 1.8 miles RT
Bathroom Facilities: No
Hours: Daylight hours
Take Tanque Verde road east out of Tucson, until it turns into Redington Rd. A short way down Redington, you will see the yellow sign for the trailhead and there will be a dirt parking area on the north side of the road.
(1) While the length of this hike isn’t long, plan on taking your time due to the conditions of the trail. This would not be an easy or safe hike to rush.
(2) Tanque Verde trail is located in a creek bed which can, and has experienced flash floods. Be aware of the weather when you are hiking. If there are thunderclouds up stream, there is possible danger.
(3) Don’t let the length of this hike fool you. This is a wilderness area (even so close to Tucson), go prepared. Good shoes, water, food, and make sure people know where you are.
Tumamoc Hill Is the Urban Utopia of Short Hikes in Tucson
Back home in Phoenix, I have a few trails that are my favorite for workouts. They are close to home, and challenging but not too long. In short, these are trails that I can complete in the morning before work and feel like I got some good exercise. Tumamoc Hill fits this profile in Tucson, which makes it one of the most popular short hikes in Tucson. Besides being a popular workout spot, however, Tumamoc Hill is also a fascinating place with lots of history and science.
In fact, Tumamoc Hill became the Desert Laboratory of Tumamoc Hill all the way back in 1902 (10 years before Arizona was a state!). Now it is run by the University of Arizona, and there are more than 35 years of annual plant data for this little hill. That basically means that we know more about the plants in this little corner of the Earth than we do pretty much anywhere else. There is also a ton of other science being done on the hill- including learning about the pollinators of the iconic saguaro cacti, and learning how to manage buffelgrass (a plant we brought to Arizona for cattle forage and later realized served as hot burning fuel for wildfires).
If you aren’t into ecology and biology, there are also cultural projects (like Cuentame Mas) and art projects with Tumamoc as their focal point.
You might overlook this little Hill if you didn’t know it was special. So, if you will be in Arizona, (1) visit Tucson, and (2) give Tumamoc Hill a walk. For those of you with busy schedules, it’s one of the best short hikes in Tucson that you can finish in an hour or so. If you are with kids, it’s a great place to take them on a hike to experience the desert. And if you are more of a cultural/historic tourist, this little mountain is a unique location where old and new culture come together and where science history has been made.
The Tumamoc Hill Hike
The hike up Tumamoc Hill is on a paved road; if you plan on going all the way to the summit, the walk is 1.5 miles in one direction (3 miles RT) and you will have a 700ft elevation gain. There are a few small buildings half way up the trail, and at this point you can refill your water bottle and take advantage of a portable toilet if you need it. There are also benches along the way up, so if you need a rest, you can stop to take in the view.
You will park along the road at the base of the hill, and on a busy day, this might mean that you will need to walk for a bit towards the trailhead, which it clearly marked with a sign. The walk up from the street is a straight shot for a time, and you will pass a few buildings at the base of the hill. One of which is home to an absolutely beautiful mosaic that I end up photographing for its beauty just about every time I do this trail.
Hiking to the Summit and Enjoying the Sonoran Flora
From there, you will start gaining elevation, and you will follow the road around the first major switch back, at which point you will approach the research station that is about half way up the hill. This is the area where you will find the basic bathroom facilities as well as some information about the hill.
From there, the trail will become more difficult, with more elevation gain and the beginning of several switchbacks. The best views of the city can be captured from this higher section of the trail. So if you find yourself flagging, take your time and enjoy the sights.
Of course, no matter how high you make it up this #2 of my favorite short hikes in Tucson, be sure to take in the natural wonders of the Sonoran Desert. There are those who think that the desert is empty, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Sonoran Desert is one of the most biodiverse deserts in the world, and Tumamoc Hill is a wonderful microcosm of the beauty of Arizona.
In particular, be sure to take a peek at the wonderful creosote. This unassuming bush can live up to 100 years. It is hugely important to the many plants and animals of the desert (including the saguaro), and it defines the scent of rain in Arizona (give the leaves a sniff). It also has numerous medicinal uses. However, they should not be sampled without instruction from a knowledgeable source. Any plant can be dangerous if prepared and consumed improperly.
Need to Know Information
Trail Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Best for: Hikers of any skill level
Trail Surface: Asphalt
Length of Trail: 3 miles round trip (700 ft elevation gain)
Bathroom Facilities: Yes, midway up the mountain
(1) Please do not park in any of the lots near the trailhead. Several are for the hospital, and you may get towed. More importantly, you will be taking up spaces for medical personnel, family, and patients.
Safety on the Short Hikes in Tucson
(1) Always, always bring water on any hike in Arizona, even if they are short. It is often hot here and always dry. You can easily get dehydrated without even noticing.
(2) Do not hike during the day in the summer- heat kills here.
(3) Even on a short hike, you should let people know where you are going before you leave and let them know when you get home.
(4) Remember, your safety is your responsibility when hiking. Be prepared. Let people know where you are. And turn around if you are too tired, thirsty, or the weather looks bad.
We are Arizona natives, and we have a thorough guide to exploring the state. Read more in our Guide to Arizona!
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