Sabino Canyon, located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, is one of the most stunning natural areas in southern Arizona. Beneath towering rock cliffs and surrounded by a desert terrain of saguaros and cholla, you’ll find the riparian corridors of Sabino Canyon and Bear Canyon. During our stay at nearby Catalina State Park, we spent two days hiking a couple of the longer trails at Sabino—Bear Canyon to Seven Falls and the Phoneline Trail to Sabino Canyon. As an added bonus, we got to spend one of those days with a friend who we hadn’t seen for thirteen years.

Early morning at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area

Logistics

Sabino is one of the most popular recreation sites in southern Arizona drawing over a million visitors a year. It is popular for hiking, jogging, wildlife viewing, photography, and picnicking. The Recreation Area itself has over 30 miles of trails. Click here for downloadable map or downloadable brochure. Bicycling is permitted, but times and days are limited. Pets are not allowed at Sabino (with the exception of Service Animals as defined by The Americans with Disabilities Act.)

Lower Sabino Canyon map showing trails around the visitor center & Sabino Dam
Map showing Sabino & Bear Canyon trails and shuttle stops

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area does not close its gates which allows visitors to hit the trail as early as they would like. This came in especially handy for us since we were visiting during the shortest days of the year. The bookstore, gift shop, and visitor center are open 7 days a week from 8:00 – 4:30. Volunteers are there to help with your questions about the area. Day use fees are $8 per vehicle or weekly for $10 per vehicle. We were able to use our Interagency (America the Beautiful) Pass to get in for free. Drinking water and restrooms are available at the visitor center and several of the shuttle stops.

An early start on the trail increases your odds of seeing wildlife

The roads up Sabino and Bear Canyons have been closed to private vehicles since 1978; however, shuttle services are offered by a third party concessionaire (click here for website). The Sabino Canyon Shuttle is a 7.4 mile (roundtrip) narrated tram ride up Sabino Canyon to the end of the road. Allow one hour round trip. Cost is $12 for adults and $7 for children. The Bear Canyon Shuttle is a non-narrated 4 mile (roundtrip) ride that travels to the trailhead for Seven Falls. Cost is $6 for adults and $4 for children. There are nine stops along the Sabino Canyon route and three along the Bear Canyon route. Passengers can get on and off the shuttle to enjoy the canyon at any of the stops. Hikers can purchase one-way hop-on tickets (down canyon only) when space is available for $7 for Sabino Canyon and $4 for Bear Canyon.

Views from near the visitor center

Bear Canyon Trail to Seven Falls

Our first hike at Sabino during our December 2021 trip was the Bear Canyon Trail to stunning Seven Falls, an intermittent series of waterfalls to the east of Sabino Canyon in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. The hike to Seven falls is 8.4 miles roundtrip from the visitor center and is rated as moderate to difficult with about 1,000 feet elevation gain. You can shorten this hike by taking the Bear Canyon Shuttle, but I recommend the full route by foot if you are able—the scenery is stunning the entire route. The majority of the trail has only minor elevation gain as it parallels Bear Creek. Most of the gain comes in the last half mile or so as the trail leaves Bear Creek and climbs up the canyon. We were fortunate to time our hike when there was water at Seven Falls and in Bear Creek, making for a much more scenic experience. There were several stream crossings along the way, but we were easily able to rock hop and keep dry feet. I imagine it could be more difficult during times of higher water.

Sabino Creek crossing on our way to Bear Canyon
Hiking along the Bear Canyon Shuttle road on our way to Bear Canyon
End of the road as we approach Bear Canyon
Towering canyon walls above Seven Falls
Seven Falls Overlook video
Seven Falls video

Bear Canyon to Seven Falls was a highly scenic hike that we’d recommend to anyone able to navigate the terrain and distance. The best part of our day was getting to share it with our friend Joe. We hadn’t seen Joe since he moved to Arizona roughly 13 years ago. When he heard we’d be in the Tucson area, he reached out to see about joining us on one of our adventures. It was great getting to catch up after so many years.

Jason & Joe in Bear Canyon

Phoneline Trail to Sabino Canyon

We enjoyed our hike to Seven Falls so much that we returned to Sabino Canyon a few days later to hike the Phoneline Trail. We had hiked the Phoneline back in 2012 and were so impressed that we both agreed to the repeat. There are a lot of options for hiking Phoneline, which contours high above Sabino Canyon over rocky and narrow trail on steep slopes. Those wanting a shorter hike could combine this with a one-way trip on the Sabino Canyon Shuttle. We made a 10.2 mile roundtrip hike by leaving the visitor center on the Bear Canyon Trail. Shortly after that trail crossed Sabino Creek, we caught the Phoneline Trail and hiked its full 4.0 mile length into Sabino Canyon. We then made a steep descent to the bottom of the canyon ending up at shuttle stop #9. From there, we hiked the road down Sabino Canyon, enjoying beautiful fall colors and stream views along the way. We then took the Bluff Trail to the Sabino Lake Trail which looped us back into the Bear Creek Trail and to the visitor center.

The Phoneline Trail parallels high above Sabino Creek
After traveling the Phoneline Trail for 4 miles, we dropped down to the shuttle route along Sabino Creek
We enjoyed getting to see fall colors in late December!
Lovely break spot along the creek
The shuttle road passes over Sabino Creek in many places, this was the only one with water flowing over the road

We ended our day with the short Bajada Loop Trail where we found an impressive cristate saguaro. According to the interpretive sign, “occasionally a saguaro will vary from the normal growth pattern and develop unique and sometimes grotesque growth patterns. These are called crested or cristate saguaros and really are quite rare. Though this growth is the matter of great curiosity, to date no one knows exactly the cause of it.” The Bajada Loop Trail is just a few steps from the parking lot and visitor center. The short 0.3 mile interpretive trail is a great leg stretcher for those wanting some nice views of the mountains and to learn about local flora.

I highly recommend a visit to Sabino Canyon National Recreation Area, even if you don’t care to hike. A ride up and back on the Sabino Canyon Shuttle would be a highly rewarding and scenic adventure, especially if you can do in it late fall when the cottonwoods sport their fall colors providing a stunning contrast to the desert landscape. If you are able, get off the shuttle and walk to the next stop. If you can do this somewhere between stops #2 and #6, you’ll get to walk across one of the stone bridges which will provide you with lovely up-close views of the stream.

Moon setting during an early morning hike at Sabino

The Adventure Continues

Be sure to join us for our next post as we visit Saguaro National Park. And don’t forget to check out our Amazon RV and Adventure Gear recommendations. We only post products that we use and that meet the Evans Outdoor Adventures seal of approval. By accessing Amazon through our links and making any purchase, you get Amazon’s every day low pricing and they share a little with us. This helps us maintain this website and is much appreciated!

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