Tucson is a hiker lover’s dream. With plenty of sunshine, a desert climate and four different mountain ranges surrounding the city, there are endless opportunities to take a beautiful walk or challenging hike in nature. Whether it be to the Santa Catalina Mountains in the north, the Rincon Mountains in the east, the Santa Rita Mountains in the south or the Tucson Mountains in the west, you will find no shortage of trails to explore.
Fortunately for me, Tucson is like my second home as my parents have lived in the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains for over 25 years and their home is only five minutes away from one of the best places to hike in all of Tucson, Sabino and Bear Canyon. Over the decades Sabino Canyon Recreation Area has become my outdoor playground and I try to hike every day when I’m visiting my parents.
One of the best shorter yet difficult hikes in Sabino and Bear Canyon is the hike to Blackett’s Ridge on the Blackett’s Ridge Trail. In less than three hours roundtrip (4.6 miles), you will definitely get your heart pumping and your legs burning in both the rocky ascent and descent. However it will be worth your effort as the panoramic views are perhaps some of the best ones in all of Tucson and you will so spellbound by your surroundings, you will soon forget how tired your legs feel.
During a recent visit to Tucson, my dad and I decided to take a mid-morning hike to Blackett’s Ridge as I realized I hadn’t done this hike in years and had never written about it on my blog. Despite the sore knees and exhaustion once we finally reached the top, I was really glad we did it. I had simply forgotten how incredibly stunning this hike is and why it has now become one of my favorite hikes to do in Tucson. If you have only one hike to do in Tucson and want to go for the most incredible views, then the hike to Blackett’s Ridge is the one to do.
We set off around 9:30 am and were soon to realize that it was already a little too late. The sun was beaming down on our backpacks and it was pushing almost 75 degrees. Normally hiking in 80-90 degrees weather (or even hotter for the locals or those who aren’t adverse to the high desert heat of an Arizona summer) works out just fine for hiking however not when you are doing a “butt burner” as my dad likes to call this hike. I had conveniently forgotten that it feels at least ten degrees warmer when you are hiking and even hotter when you are going straight up the side of a mountain!
The hike to the trailhead can begin one of two ways. First, you can follow the paved road towards Sabino Canyon and then veer off to the right into Bear Canyon. Second, you can follow a nice wide trail located at the right side of the parking lot that will bring you for about ten minutes through the desert and dump you off on the paved road towards Bear Canyon. You used to be able to take the Bear Canyon Tram service however it is no longer running. We chose option 2 as I prefer to be in nature right away.
After about fifteen minutes walking, you reach the turnoff for the Phoneline Trail (#27) and Blackett’s Ridge Trail (#48). I have done the Phoneline Trail many times and love it. The trail meanders high up above the ridgeline of Sabino Canyon all the way back to the end and provides incredible views of the canyon and surrounding area. We used to hike all the way to Tram Stop #9 – the last one – and then take the tram back however the tram service ended in July. As I write this post, I’m not sure what will happen and if there will be another tram service or some kind of alternative. The upside is that the tram was loud, old and stunk like diesel fuel meaning it wasn’t the most environmentally friendly. The downside is that the parking lot and area is about half as full as it used to be because many tourists simply can’t hike all the way down and back up the Canyon meaning a lot of lost tourism revenue. The tram service was also educational as it had a tour guide telling visitors all about the park’s flora and fauna as well as the history of the area. I actually learned quite a lot from taking it over the years with my children. In my opinion, the stop of the tram is a bit bittersweet.
It takes about 20 minutes leisurely hiking (0.4 miles) until you reach the turnoff from the Phoneline Trail to Blackett’s Ridge Trail. Once you reach this point, the real hike begins and you start going up.
Less than five minutes after we passed the trail sign, I had soaked through my dry-fit t-shirt and sun hat with sweat. I was drenched. Thank goodness I had a ton of water with me and a good sturdy set of hiking shoes and poles. I needed the extra support going up the rocky, steep trail.
The heat made the hike a bit more challenging yet the higher we climbed, the more stunning the views became. What I love best about this hike is all the incredible lookouts and views. Looking back, you can see all the way across the Tucson Valley to Mount Wrightson, the tallest mountain in Tucson reaching 9,456 feet, located in the Coronado National Forest (another all time favorite hike of mine). Looking in front of you, are the Santa Catalinas, the Rincons and the Santa Rita Mountains. It is pretty darn incredible!
There are also tons of beautiful variations of cactus along the way and I was even more surprised to find lots of wildflowers at this time of year. Apparently the past month has been surprisingly wet for Tucson so the Fall has been filled with flowers, waterfalls and lots of water which is something that is more common when visiting Tucson in the Spring.
I enjoyed stopping to grab some water, catch my breath and snap a few photos of the flowers along the trail.
I also liked to look back and see how incredibly far and fast we’d come up the ridge from the valley far below.
Just when I thought we were almost there, we were reminded that the trail has three false summits which seems like a rather unfair trick when you are feeling pretty tired by this point. The switchbacks become rockier and steeper as you continue on up the ridge passing one false summit after the next one.
After leveling off in one of the flatter saddles there is one more final push until you finally reach the last summit and the trail comes to a very abrupt end. All that lies in front of you is magic! You can see for miles and are not too far from Thimble Peak, the highest point in Sabino Canyon at 5,323 feet. You don’t want to move to close to the ridge to get that “selfie” as it is a very long steep way down.
I captured the moment by laying down and taking a shot of my feet (of course from a safe distance back). By far, my perch was magnificent with perhaps one of the best views in all of Tucson.
As we turned to leave and began our descent down, I soon realized how incredibly steep the trail was that we just climbed. My knees were not thrilled but I was glad to be heading back home just in time for lunch. The hike took us a little longer than anticipated given the heat (1 hour 25 minutes up and 1 hour 15 minutes down) but it was well worth the effort.
As we neared the end of trail, we were delighted to see a beautiful cactus in bloom. It reminded me of why I love Tucson so incredibly much. It is always full of lovely surprises.
And we can’t forget the sunsets either.
If you go:
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is located at the northeast corner of Sunrise Blvd and Sabino Canyon Road in the Catalina Foothills and is about 15 miles northeast of downtown Tucson. For more information on Sabino and Bear Canyon (including hours of operations, trails, and more), click here.
Related posts on hikes in the area:
Important note: As of July 2018, the tram service is suspended. Please double check before hiking as some of these hikes involve taking the tram one way.