The best way to enjoy Tucson, Ariz., is outdoors. With more than 300 days of sunshine and an average daily temperature of 72 degrees, why stay indoors? The vibrant desert and majestic mountains are the heart of Tucson so this post features some of the best things to do outdoors in Tucson, all of them are great for kids.
Best scenic drive in Tucson
Tucson is surrounded by five mountain ranges. The most dramatic range is the Santa Catalinas with Mt. Lemmon, capping out at 9,000 feet. The term “sky islands” refers to isolated mountain ranges that raise up out of the desert floor with cool islands of green forests high in the sky.
Driving the Mt. Lemmon Highway/Sky Island Scenic Byway is my top recommendation for a Tucson visit. This winding scenic road carries you up switchbacks and past vistas to the little village of Summerhaven and the southernmost ski resort in the U.S.
The University of Arizona has created a marvelous audio tour phone app that narrates the trip. You will see and learn about the diverse climate zones, geology, and unique wildlife of this sky island.
Tip: I recommend bringing a picnic to enjoy at the top and don’t forget a sweater or jacket, the temperature will change over 20 degrees from desert to peak.
Kid-friendly trails in Tucson
Tucson is a hiker’s heaven. There are trails of every level from the desert floor to the mountain peaks. Many of these trails are multi-use, meaning you can hike, mountain bike or horseback ride.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the Coronado National Forest is just 10 miles north of downtown. It’s packed with trails, picnic areas, a tram and wonderful Visitor Center. Sabino Canyon is part of the National Park Service and does have a $5 daily fee (your NPS Annual Pass will work, also).
Further north on the west side of the Catalinas is Catalina State Park. Here you will experience the plethora of desert life, the drama of canyons, washes and towering ridges. The park offers geocaching tours, ancient ruins tours, star parties and music in the mountains. Entrance fee is $7 per carload.
The old mining town of Oracle appears almost a ghost town at first glimpse. There are some gems to be found in this foothills town if you are willing to look for them. Oracle State Park and the surrounding area offers some interesting ranching, and prospecting historic sites. At the very end of the pavement, before the dirt road starts climbing to the backside of Mt. Lemmon, you will find the Peppersauce Station. Here you find Arizona Zipline Adventures and their Peppersauce Kitchen.
Where to experience the desert in Tucson
Of course, we cannot leave Tucson without experiencing the desert and the Wild West. On either side of downtown Tucson you will find the Saguaro National Park. There is an East Park and West Park. I prefer the West Park. Entering the West side from downtown takes you over the spectacular Gates Pass Road. At the bottom of this mountain pass you can see the Sonoran Desert and its iconic saguaros spread out for miles.
Related post: Where can you find a Sonoran Desert in the Midwest? Head to Omaha’s zoo to the Desert Dome!
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a mix of zoo, botanical garden and interactive museum. Start early, bring water and enjoy everything the desert has to share.
Also just a couple of miles away is the Old Tucson Movie Studio Theme Park. Old Tucson has gunfights and cowboys and all the cheesy fun your kids can endure.
About the guest blogger
Janet and her husband just recently retired to Tucson, Ariz., from Wisconsin. After a lifetime in the Midwest, they are now on a perpetual vacation exploring all that Tucson and the Southwest has to offer. Her website is packed with places to Go! Learn Things about the Tucson and beyond.
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