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10 Best Tucson Trail Runs to Experience the Sonoran Desert

From mellow desert loops to brutal climbs in the Catalinas, you'll find it all in this guidebook!

Hiking, Trail Running Easy, Moderate, Difficult

Sweetwater Preserve
Photo: Greg Heil


When you hear the word "desert," you might envision a desolate landscape of blowing sand and rocky outcroppings, completely devoid of life. That mental image couldn't be further from the reality found in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona.

The Sonoran Desert, especially in the springtime, is a magical landscape filled with vibrant life! Here, you'll encounter almost every type of cactus imaginable, in all shapes and sizes and formations. In the spring, the cacti are covered with colorful blooms and the buds of new growth, and in between, wildflowers sprout in vast, colorful carpets from the desert floor. Birds flit from bush to tree to cactus, bees buzz amongst the flowers, roadrunners zip across the trail, and larger wildlife like javelina, coyotes, jackrabbits, deer, and more can be spotted at the right time of day. While yes, the desert is a harsh environment and every living thing fights hard to survive, life flourishes here in the rocky, rugged landscape around the city of Tucson.

Rising above the desert on both sides of town are impressive mountain ranges. To the west, the Tucson Mountains are a minor range that rises a few thousand feet above the city. The desert landscape climbs these low mountains all the way to their summits. But to the northeast, the Santa Catalina mountains positively soar above the outskirts of the city.

Tucson lies at a mere 2,400 feet above sea level, but the Catalinas soar to 9,157 feet at the top of Mount Lemmon! With almost 7,000 vertical feet of prominence above the city, the Catalinas strike an impressive profile on the horizon, inspiring the poetic mind with their beauty and the adventurous mind with the desire to explore. The mountains rise so high that the desert environment is left far below, with the ecosystem transitioning to alpine forests and meadows at the summit. Mount Lemmon receives enough snow in the winter that it's even home to a small ski area.

This guidebook features 10 of the very best trail runs in the greater Tucson area. In these selections, you’ll find everything from moderate loops with gorgeous views to brutal climbs in the Catalinas. If brutal is your game, consider this ascent of Mount Lemmon via the Phoneline Trail/@32.4263125,-110.7958559,34994.8743541,-65.4277598,7.0240961,2423.1151173,normal). Measuring over 21 miles long and climbing over 7,300 feet, this hill climb will challenge most any trail runner! The 17-mile Bear Canyon Loop is also a formidable challenge, but with just 2,700 feet of climbing, it’s a mite more achievable.

If you’re looking to simply enjoy the desert views and not brutalize your body, consider the Starr Pass Tour, Brown Mountain, or perhaps Sweetwater Preserve.

My final piece of advice? If you're coming from out of town to experience the Sonoran Desert, skip straight over Phoenix and drive another couple of hours south to get to Tucson. Yeah, sure, Phoenix has tons of trails that are objectively pretty damn good, but Tucson is a real jewel. An absolute gem. The vast expanses of open space, the miles and miles of singletrack, the beauty of the desert, and the impressive stature of the mountains are nearly impossible to rival.

Routes included

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