Wasson Peak Trail: Explore the Sonoran Desert

wasson peak trail

Trail Summary

The Wasson Peak trail is a great option for hikers in the Tucson area looking for a trail with some fair length (around 8 miles). There is just a bit of elevation gain, and some beautiful views of the Sonoran Desert. It is moderate to difficult due to its length and the climb to the summit of the mountain peak. If you are prepared, however, the climb offers some amazing vantage points on the city. You can also see the sky islands that surround it, making Wasson Peak the perfect place for photographers.

This is a great hike for challenging yourself without tackling the massive slopes of the Catalinas or the Rincon mountains. It is also a wonderful place to explore and enjoy the Sonoran Desert. There is a huge array of desert plants that you can enjoy on this trail, as well as the artifacts of Arizona’s extractive, mining industry. There is also a beautiful picnic area towards the beginning of the trail for people looking for a more relaxing day with the family. In short, the Wasson Peak Trail is a moderately difficult track that can cater to a wide variety of (prepared) travelers. It is also near some great attractions that you can check out for a full day of exploration.

wasson peak trail

If you’d like to learn more about some hiking options in the area, check out our Guide to Arizona.

Length: 8 miles

Elevation Gain: 1863 ft

Difficulty Level: Moderate to difficult

Cost: Free

Bathrooms: None

Safety Considerations

The Wasson Peak Trail passes through a very dry, and sometimes extremely hot landscape. This means that you need to stay appraised of the weather when visiting. During the summer, the heat in central Arizona is dangerously high. Do not mistake the saying, “but it’s a dry heat” as a safety exclamation. It is not. Hundreds of people have to be rescued on Arizona trails every year because visitors don’t respect the heat. Rescues, heat stoke, and sometimes even deaths can happen on the trail if you aren’t prepared. If you are planning a hike for the summer, I would avoid this one. Save this for a cool spring, fall, or winter day.

Not matter the season that you plan on visiting this trail, be sure to pre-hydrate the night before your hike. Then pack plenty of water and snacks when you leave. Always turn around when your water is halfway gone. There are no water stations or sources on this trail.

wasson peak trail

Make sure that your attire is appropriate for a desert hike. Sturdy shoes are a must, and pants are suggested so that you can avoid having your skin come into contact with any prickly plants. Sunscreen is also essential, as there is no shade on this trail.

Finally, take stock of all the things that you might need. Some important stuff to park include a map, compass, sunscreen, a list of emergency numbers, plenty of food, and any clothes that you might need for inclement weather. Of course, inform several people about where you are going, how long you think it will take, and let them know when you get started and when you leave the trail.

Your safety is your own responsibility. Never do a hike that you don’t think you can complete. And do not hike alone if you are not very experienced.

Getting There and Where to Park

The trailhead is located just across from the entrance of the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum on Kinney Road outside of Tucson. The Wasson Peak Trail starts at a small dirt lot. You will follow Kings Canyon Trail up then take Hugh Norris to Gould Mine on the way down. While much of the trail is on National Park land, this particular trailhead is just outside, so you can park and hike for free.

To get to the trailhead, you will take the I-10 into Tucson from the north or south. You will get off of the freeway on Speedway Rd and head west. This will change into Gates Pass road and take you up through the mountains. Then hang a right on Kinney road. The trailhead will be on your left, opposite the road to the Desert Museum.

On the Trail

Upward Climb

wasson peak trail

When you hop out of your car in the dirt parking lot, you will get started on the wide, well-maintained King’s Canyon trail. This will rise gently through the hills and eventually take you to a lovely picnic spot on the shore of a sandy wash. If you continue to follow the trail at this point, instead of stopping for a nice lunch in the shade, you will follow the wash for a time, before starting a steeper climb into the foothills of Wasson Peak.

At this stage, the trail will twist through the increasingly tall hills. And you will do some up and down climbs through the vibrant desert. The mountain will slowly become more and more apparent at this point, before you start heading up its slopes. While there is some incline at this point, this doesn’t intensify horrendously until you reach the base of the mountain and start up the mountain.

wasson peak trail

Part way up Wasson, you will find yourself in the lower saddle where you can catch some beautiful views of the city. From here you can consider the rest of the trail as it begins zigzagging up the mountain. When you get high enough, you will start to follow the spine of the mountain.  You will get a bit of a break when the trail dips down towards a higher saddle and skirts the side of Wasson for a short, relatively flat stretch.

At the saddle, you will need to hang a right, towards the city, in order to summit the peak. There is a bit of a climb here, but nothing too intense. After reaching the top and stopping for a snack, however, you will need to back track down to the saddle before completing the second half of the loop.

Downward Climb

wasson peak trail

There are three different trail segments that you follow on this leg of your trip. In the higher reaches of the mountain, on the Hugh Norris Trail, you will find yourself walking through a chalky, dry part of the desert, lined with ocotillos. It is a desolate feeling area, but one with many views of the desert.

As you transition back into the hills, you will come to a crossroads. There are four directions to choose from at this point. You will need to take the Sendero Esperanza trail away from the peak and city. This trail will be a short 1 mile stretch that will bring you back down into the dark soils of the desert. You will also notice signs of old mines in this area, before you reach the final stretch of the loop.

wasson peak trail

Half a mile from the Mam-a-gah picnic area that you saw on your way up, you will turn onto the Gould Mine Trail. You will follow this all the way through the wash and back to your car! If you miss the final turn, the trail will take you back the King’s Canyon and you can also follow that back.

About Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park was protected as a National Monument by Herbert Hoover all the way back in 1933. It wasn’t until 1993 that the park was officially made into a National Park. Of course, the main attractions of the park are the massive, beautiful saguaros (pronounced sah-wah-roh, you don’t pronounce the “g” sound). There are two separate halves to this park, one on the east side of Tucson and one on the west. In either, you will be able to enjoy forests of saguaro; it’s the kind of place that all visitors to Arizona should see and support. Saguaros are found nowhere else in the world outside of Arizona and northern Mexico, afterall.

Saguaro isn’t just home to its towering namesakes, however. The park also protects some ancient human habitation sites, which date back to 3500-2100 BCE. There are also more recent sites that were once built and inhabited by the Hohokam people. They were also known to have lived in the valley that Phoenix now calls home. Now, these special places are carefully handled so that the needs of the saguaro are balanced with the work that is needed to maintain the ruins, petroglyphs, and burial sites in the park.

wasson peak trail

Most recently, Saguaro National Park lands were home to the Tohono O’odham (or desert people). Harvest of saguaro fruit was an important part of the traditional ceremonial cycle. In particular, this was done in relation to calling down rain and fertility into the new-year. If you are really interested in learning more about this ceremony you can pay to attend a few different events around June. It is illegal to harvest on national monument land, however. So you will likely end up learning about this else where. In Ajo, for example, the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center put on a weekend long event. This was led by Lorraine Eiler in 2019 where guests could learn to make the tools for harvesting, and then learn to cook the fruits.

Attractions Near the Wasson Peak Trail

The Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum is right next door to the Wasson Peak trailhead. If you haven’t been or if you are a visitor to Arizona, I consider it a must-see. This beautiful, outdoor museum mixes a botanical garden experience with a zoo experience. It also features only species native to the Sonoran Desert. It is a great place for kids and adults alike. And you will have the opportunity to see and learn more about the many amazing animals of the desert in a state-of-the-art park that leaves visitors wondering where the exhibits end and the desert begins. If you plan on visiting in conjunction with Wasson, get an early start to your day. I would also suggest that you be sure to choose a cooler day as well, as both of these activities are outside.

“A” Mountain is a favorite of locals, and it’s a great place to have a picnic with views of the city at hand. You can drive to the top of this small hill and take in the many spectacular vistas from there- including Wasson itself and the many larger mountains that circle Tucson from the north and east. It can be crowded up there, so I suggest picking a weekday to visit.

Rooster Cogburn’s Ostrich Farm is a great place for a quick stop if you are coming down from Phoenix. Feed lots of little farm animals including (of course) ostriches, goats, deer, ducks, and lorikeets.

Old Tucson is located close to the Desert Museum and the Wasson Peak Trail. Sadly, it is only open during the weekends, but if you are around at this time, it is definitely worth the stop. It is the remnants of an old west replica town that was built by Columbia pictures in 1939. In particular, I enjoy the Halloween festivities that Old Tucson puts on every year, so if you hike in October, give it a look.

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8 Comments

  1. Wasson Peak trail looks great fun if the weather isn’t too crazily hot! Do you normally hike early in the morning to avoid the midday heat?

    I’ve never hiked in the desert, so I guess I would need to double my water for this!!

    • waitingforrain28

      It just depends on the season that you visit in! In the winter, this would be a great hike all day. In the summer, I would definitely only try to hike early in the morning. And yes! Bring all the water. 😀

  2. joy

    wow you really outdid yourself with the detail on the blog! clever mentioning the lack of bathrooms. definitely a good detail that i’m sure people would want to know about.

    Joy at The Joyous Living

    • waitingforrain28

      Thanks! I have a thing about bathroom accessibility. Lots of people (female people in particular) need them, so it’s nice to be able to plan ahead and at least be mentally prepared for the trailhead situation.

  3. One day, I hope to take up hiking. Once my health is better. And I want my family to come along. Seeing posts like yours renews my drive to get there! Loved the pictures of the desert.

    • waitingforrain28

      There are all different kinds of hiking trails! If it’s something you really want to do, start with something that you can handle now. It doesn’t have to be an eight mile hike through desert mountains. For instance, here we have lovely nature trails where you can start hiking shorter routes that are 0.5 miles to 1 mile. We even have some ADA accessible trails for people trying to build back up their health and strength or just get out and explore.

  4. Jan F

    Wow, what a great source of information here.
    I just want to travel there this August. But I probably will do it in October. Thanks for all the info!

    • waitingforrain28

      October would be far nicer. August in AZ is pretty overwhelmingly hot.

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