By now it’s not a scientific mystery that spending time outdoors is good for your health. Numerous studies illustrate that time in nature can help you feel good physically and mentally. For starters, exercise can help reduce stress, build bone and muscle strength, and improve your cardiovascular system. Beyond that, spending time outside is said to improve mental health by reducing stress, improving concentration, and elevating your mood. And on most Southern Arizona days, you can expose your skin (in small doses and with sunscreen, of course) to natural Vitamin D, which is said to help fight osteoporosis, cancer, depression, and heart attacks.
Here are a few of our favorite hikes to get you outside.
Rillito River Trail
Trailhead: Rio Vista Park at the north end of Tucson Boulevard is a midtown access point, but there are many.
This Pima County trail park runs along 12 miles of the Rillito Riverbed from I-10 to Craycroft Road. It’s an easily accessible walk along a waterway (often dry, but floods during monsoon season) that gives you the feel of the wild. The paved pathway makes for easy walking or jogging, but note cyclists and strollers, too. Find great views of the Santa Catalina Mountains here, along with soaring hawks and shy coyotes.
Trailhead: Camino del Cerro
Directions: From I-10, exit on El Camino del Cerro and head west until the end of the road.
Distance: 9.3 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to hard
This hike leads to Wasson Peak, the highest peak in Saguaro National Park, at 4,674 feet. Follow the Sweetwater Trail through saguaro forests and, after a wet winter, wild flowers to join King Canyon Trail, where you’ll head north towards the peak. Signs mark the trail. With over a 2,000-foot elevation gain, this trail will get you breathing hard. If offers spectacular views of the Tucson basin.
Butterfly Trail, Mt Lemmon
Trailhead: Upper Butterfly Trail, Coronado National Forest
Directions: From the start of Catalina Highway, drive 27 miles to trailhead
Distance: 5.7 miles one way, 11.5 out and back
If you’re wanting to “bathe” in the forest, head into the Coronado National Forest and Mount Lemmon Recreation Area. The up-and-back route along the Butterfly Trail leads you through various tall ponderosas, Douglas fir and alligator junipers, giving you views of Mt. Bigelow, and the northwest side of the Catalina range. You’ll drop into a canyon to see Novio Falls before climbing towards Mt. Bigelow. Follow a side trail to find an old plane crash. Elevation gain is a little under 2,000 feet, down then up again.
Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon Trails
Trailhead: Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead
Directions: From Tucson, I-10 east to exit 281 (Sonoita/Patagonia), turn left to cross I-10 to Marsh Station Road. Northeast on Marsh Station Road, about 3 miles to trailhead.
This trail commemorates the life of Gabe Zimmerman, a political aide killed on January 8, 2011 by a gunman at a public event where six others were killed and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was seriously injured. For that reason alone, it’s a special place. But there’s more. Follow a well-marked sunny path to Davidson Canyon then walk along a sandy wash to arrive at Cienega Creek, one of the few precious riparian areas in the desert. The creek is part of a 4,010-acre natural preserve designated by Pima County to protect wildlife habitat and allow for the recharge of groundwater. Water in the desert always feels miraculous.