The rugged and varied landscape of Southern Arizona makes it a paradise for active adults who love the outdoors. Combined with its sunny weather and easy access to big cities, it’s no surprise why this part of the state has become a popular retirement destination for those seeking an active lifestyle.
From quick hiking trips to multi-day excursions into the wilderness, there are many outdoor activities that draw visitors and locals alike. We’re taking a closer look at some of the top spots for outdoor recreation that Southern Arizona has to offer.
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is named after the saguaro cacti, which are known for their towering height and arm-like branches. These cacti are native to the area and do not naturally grow anywhere else. Because of that, they've become an unofficial symbol of the southwest.
Saguaro National Park is divided into two sections: the Tucson Mountain District (to the west of Tucson) and the Rincon Mountain District (located to the east of Tucson). While both have similar plant and animal life, each section offers its own unique charm that warrants a separate visit. At the Tucson Mountain District, visitors can take in views of distant mountain ranges and the Avra Valley after a short hike.
For those interested in the historical aspects of the area, the visitor center has an orientation program that provides insight into what the Native Americans thought about the Saguaro cactus. Visitors can also view hundreds of petroglyphs etched onto the stone at the Signal Hill Picnic Area.
At the Rincon Mountain District there are plenty of trails and paths for biking, driving, and hiking while taking in views of the Rincon Mountains. For those seeking outdoor adventure, the park has campgrounds that are only accessible through the backcountry, making it a popular spot for backpackers.
Sabino Canyon allows visitors to experience the natural beauty of the Southwest without requiring a difficult trek into the mountains. Located in the Santa Catalina Mountains, this popular recreation area has a shuttle that goes directly to the head of the canyon. The shuttle has several stops along the way, allowing people to explore the trails at their own pace or stop off for a picnic.
During April, May, June, September, October, and November, Sabino Canyon offers visitors the chance to experience the desert landscape from a different perspective: at night. The special evening rides during these months are a great opportunity to see the desert come alive with wildlife after the sun goes down.
Chiricahua National Monument
Chiricahua National Monument is known for its stunning geological formations. The park offers an eight-mile scenic drive that meanders through towering rock formations that reach heights upwards of hundreds of feet. There are also 17 miles of hiking trails that take visitors past the rock spires and other geologic features, including caves and evidence of ancient lava flows.
The Bonita Canyon Campground at Chiricahua National Monument offers visitors a more immersive way of experiencing the natural beauty in this area. And for visitors seeking a shorter stay, there are plenty of picnic areas. The park also offers miles of trails for horseback riding.
Patagonia Lake State Park
For locals in Southern Arizona, there’s nothing better than spending some time on the water at Patagonia Lake State Park. This state park is like a hidden oasis in the desert, offering boating, fishing, camping, and more. The beach-like shore of Boulder Beach at Patagonia Lake is a wonderful spot to relax, get some sun, and swim. Besides the boat launch areas, swimming is also permitted throughout the rest of the lake.
This seemingly hidden lake in the desert foothills is a popular destination for boating and nature watching. Both motorized and non-motorized boating is allowed, so visitors can kayak through the calm waters while spotting herons or rent a pontoon boat for the day. There are also plenty of fishing opportunities, and the lake has a healthy population of large-mouth bass, catfish, rainbow trout, and more.
Mount Lemmon Ski Valley
While Southern Arizona is known for its hot, sunny weather, the area also offers an excellent ski destination during winter months. Instead of heading to Colorado, locals can find trails of powdery snow without even leaving Southern Arizona. Mount Lemmon Ski Valley is in the Santa Catalina Mountains, just about an hour-and-a-half from Tucson. It is the southernmost recreational ski destination in the country.
Ski Valley has 200 acres of skiable area, with 22 trails tailored to novice, intermediate, and advanced skill levels. The ski lift is also available during the offseason, treating visitors to stunning views of the mountains and valleys in the distance.