Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

Sabino Canyon: A Hike Along the Phoneline Trail 

Tucked within the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona lies Sabino Canyon, one of Tucson’s most popular parks for exploring the spectacular desert landscape and wildlife of Southern Arizona. Ever since my parents moved to Tucson in the mid-90s, it has been like a second home to me and Sabino Canyon has been my playground. Less than a five minute drive from my parents’ home, Sabino Canyon affords an endless supply of hikes and walks within some of Arizona’s finest scenery.

Over the past twenty years, I have done almost every hike within the canyon countless times with my favorite being the hike to Seven Falls and the Phoneline Trail. However, one thing I have never ever done is a hike in the rain. Rain in the desert? This may sound a bit confusing and surreal for a place that receives on average less than 12 inches of rain a year.  However, I just happened to be in Tucson when a storm rolled in from California bringing heavy wet snow to the mountains and pouring cold rain to the desert below.

Deeply dismayed by the unusual poor weather I decided to turn lemons into lemonade. I put on my rain coat, packed a sandwich and took off on one of my most favorite hikes in Sabino Canyon, The Phone Line Trail. My kids didn’t want to come and I didn’t blame them. They had no rain gear. However, my favorite all time hiking partner, my dad, of course was up for the challenge. So together we set off into the unknown.

Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

The Phoneline trail climbs up high above the canyon giving you a unique perspective and panoramic view of this amazing place. There are several ways to do the Phone Line hike. You can do the entire 7.6 mile roundtrip hike on the trail or you can take the tram all the way to the end at Stop #9 get off and hike the trail back cutting the hike in half. What I prefer is to hike the Phoneline trail to Tram Stop 9 (which is where the pavement ends) and walk back on the pavement below. This way I get the bird’s eye view walking into the canyon and the lower level cactus and creek view from down below. It all depends on what you want to see and if you prefer to have solitude or company. (Important update: Since this was last written, the tram service is no suspended while the park service decides on its environmental impact.).

To reach the Historic Sabino Trail and the Phoneline Trailhead, we followed the trail towards Bear Canyon and picked it up about ten minutes later. (If you continue on into Bear Canyon, you can take another fantastic four hour roundtrip hike to 7 Falls).

Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

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Phoneline Trail, Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

Discovering the raw beauty of Sabino Canyon

As I always say, there is no better way to experience the raw beauty of nature than to do it by a good hike.  Sabino Canyon is just one of those places. It is achingly beautiful and perhaps one of the most stunning places in all of southwestern Arizona.

Nestled in the southeastern foothills of Tucson, Arizona in the Santa Catalina  mountains, Sabino Canyon is a true gem. The formation of these mountains began over 12 million years ago, long before the first sign of man.  Over time, a significant canyon formed that would eventually turn into a lush, verdant desert oasis deep inside the canyon.

A massive earthquake in 1887 centered in Northern Mexico caused even more change to the canyon.  Massive boulders dislodged and crashed down thousands of miles below creating an even more dramatic landscape.  In 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was created and took over the administration of Sabino Canyon.  Nothing much happened to the area until the 1930s.  The onset of the Great Depression prompted the US Government to put people to work by building infrastructure and one of the places that benefited was Sabino Canyon.  The Sabino Dam as well as over nine bridges were built during this time, creating a 4.5 mile paved road up through the canyon.  Plans had been made to continue the road all the way up the canyon up to Mount Lemmon but fortunately they ran out of money and the project was dropped.  Had the road been built, the entire beauty of Sabino Canyon would have been destroyed and lost.

Sabino Canyon officially opened as a State Park and recreational area in 1978.  Today, it ranks one of the top tourist destinations in all of Tucson and is a haven for hikers, walkers, bikers and anyone else who wants to enjoy its raw beauty.

A tram service runs daily every half an hour up the canyon and back.  For only a few dollars, you can ride along and listen to an informative narration on the history, geology and flora and fauna of Sabino Canyon.   This is a great thing to do as a family and of course we have done it many times.  However, the best thing to do in Sabino Canyon is to get out there and experience it firsthand with a hike.

There are several hikes in Sabino Canyon and over the years I’ve done many of them.  However, my most favorite hike of all is called The Phoneline Trail, which is about an eight mile round trip hike, located about two-thirds of the way up the canyon, giving you a bird’s eye view of this spectacular place.

The start of the trail is flat but not for long. 

 There are many types of cacti found throughout Sabino Canyon.  The Saguaro Cactus is perhaps the most well-known.  It takes on average 65-70 years for this cactus to grow an arm.  They also can live for over 200 years!  What also is amazing about the Saguaro cactus is its root system.  Saguaro’s roots only go down about twenty inches deep, however, the roots spread out as wide as they are high.  Pretty unbelievable!

After a mile or so of flat walking, it is time to climb up!  It is best to be prepared with tons of water, hiking polls, lots of sunscreen and of course extra stamina.  It is not uncommon to see college aged kids running up the trail!  I even saw some people running barefoot.  Crazy given all the rocks and obstacles. 

Soon the hike leads you gradually and then steeply up the side of the canyon walls. 

My favorite barrel cactus which bloosom beautifully in the springtime.

Finally after a couple of hours hiking we are nearing the top of the hike where the Phoneline Trail flattens out and you basicaly walk along the edge of the canyon.

Down below is the paved trail which is another option for seeing the canyon.  But I prefer to view from up top!

At the end of the canyon in back is Mount Lemmon, a beautiful area that hosts many pine trees as well as a ski resort. 

Sabino Canyon is home to a wide variety of wild life including the elusive mountain lion, bobcats, ocelots, skunks, foxes, deer, javalinas, raccoons and coyotes.  They also have lots of different kind of venomous and non-venomous snakes (I’ve seen a rattlesnack but not on the trail) as well as scorpions and tarantulas (yes, unfortunately I’ve seen these two things yet at my parents house!  Not on the trail!).


I only wished this photo could have turned out better but we were hiking right into the sun.  I have never seen the canyon as verdant as this in December.  It was simply spectacular.  Who would have ever imagined a desert could be so green?  It is even better in March and April when the brilliant desert flowers are in bloom and the green is a vibrant lime-color that almost hurts your eyes.

There has been a ton of rainfall and snow in the upper mountains causing the streams to flow with force. 

The Canyon also has an ample and diverse supply of beautiful trees such as the Cottomwood (in this picture, which still has its golden leaves on from the fall), the white-barked sycamore trees, and the dark-wooded mesquite trees.  Another favorite is the Palo Verde tree which means “Green Stick” and has green bark and green leaves. 

The white-barked tree in back is an Arizona Sycamore.  The bark is lovely. 

This is a mesquite tree which proves great firewood as well as a food source for many animals within the canyon.  The tree produces bean pods which are enjoyed by many small canyon critters. 

After an eight mile strenous hike through record-high heat (who would have believed it was December?), I was exhilared and fatigued.  It was a great hike and I can’t wait to do it again!  

Stay tuned…I am headed back to a wintery Minnesota tomorrow.  I’ve heard that we finally have a few inches of snow and am looking forward to it!  I am not looking forward to the cold January weather, though. 

Adventure Travel Arizona TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking United States