With a wealth of trails through mountains and desert, Southern Arizona is an outdoor-lover’s paradise with year-round running opportunities within the Tucson area. It’s an adventure and a privilege running trails flanked with ancient saguaro cacti. Their imposing stature allows them to appear as sentinels guiding your way. Desert running isn’t conducive to tuning out. Instead, it cultivates concentration as you glide over rocky trails ever mindful of cacti and rattlesnakes. Tales are whispered of dehydration and tragedy from venturing into the merciless heat of summer days with too little water. Bring enough water and your phone; running in the low desert isn’t for the faint of heart.
Sweetwater Preserve is an 880-acre area in the northeastern part of Tucson. Sweetwater system features easy looping trails through dry washes and around rocky outcroppings, with a multiplicity of Sonoran plant life. Wildflowers are abundant during wet years, but you can count on deep red ocotillo flowers creating contrast against soil and the distant blue hues of the Santa Catalina Mountains. You will be mesmerized running on trails that snake their way through massive and mysterious saguaro cacti that give the impression of being sentinels of the trails. This is a multi-use trail system so you will have to yield to mountain bikers and the occasional horseback rider. While dogs are not permitted on many of the trails around Tucson, they are here. Be sure to bring water your for dog as well. Don’t let the name fool you; these trails are hot and dry. They are best ran in early morning as the season progresses into summer. You will be less likely to run into a rattlesnake here due to the significant traffic. It is an easily accessible trail system located close to the city. Sweetwater trails allow you to customize your run for short to longer distances.
Wasson Peak via Sweetwater trail (elevation 4,867 feet) is a nine mile round-trip out and back trail in Saguaro National Forest (West). Because the trailhead does not begin in the National Park, there is no entrance fee. The great thing about this trail, besides the 2,040 feet elevation gain, is the ability to take your run farther via several connecting trails that lead you through Saguaro National Park. This trail is known for its profound 360-degree views of Tucson and all of the surrounding mountain ranges. Running in spring means wildflowers, including the brilliant magenta flowers of claret cup cacti and bright red ocotillos. The trail snakes through dry washes and up stone steps hugging the edge of a valley until you arrive at a saddle that joins with the connector trails into the park. If you decide to continue on to lengthen your run, take the mile detour for the vista. This is the steepest and most challenging portion of the trail and well worth the effort. You will not be disappointed.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
Sabino Canyon is a popular destination in the Tucson area with a variety of recreational opportunities and numerous trails of varying difficulty. There is a small day-use fee. Like the other trails in this article, several link up to extend your run by accessing trails that will take you deep into the Catalina range. You may even elect to make the climb to Mount Lemmon, the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains (9,159 feet). This run is advanced at approximately 18.6 miles one way and a climb of 7,500 feet.
Don’t be dissuaded if you are looking for something a little less intense; Sabino Canyon has trails for every running level.
Blacketts Ridge is a 5.3 out and back trail rated difficult. Expect to climb 1,765 feet in 1.6 miles. The first part of the trail is relatively flat as it leads away from the visitor’s center until joining the Phoneline trail. At this point, the trail begins to climb. After turning off onto Blacketts Ridge trail, expect switchbacks. There are several false summits until reaching the final summit marked with a sign so you can be sure. In spring, the trail is lined with California poppies, ocotillo, and a variety of cacti. It is advised to finish the climb for the imposing views of Sabino Canyon and the tiny ribbon of the Phoneline trail on one side, Bear Canyon on the other, and in front of you, commanding views of the Catalinas with a clear view of Thimble peak. Beware, you may encounter an aggressive family of chipmunks. Watch your snacks! One attempted to steal my guacamole and corn chips while I was entranced with the views. Blacketts is a great training hike for increasing your cardiovascular threshold. This is a heavily trafficked trail with no shade. Start early to avoid heat and crowds.
Phoneline Trail is my favorite trail to run. This is a 9.8 mile out and back trail linking up with the East and West Fork of the AZT leading into the Catalinas. This trail is narrow and challenging in spots but overall is a relatively moderate run. The trail climbs and then parallels Sabino Canyon and the tram road far below with some serious drop-offs along the way. Be mindful of tripping as an abundance of cacti are ready to catch your fall. If you are scared of heights like me, this trail will be challenging for you. I mentally wrote my will until halfway through I managed to stop panicking and completely gave myself over by focusing on the abundance of wildflowers and air heavy with their honey smells. On the way, look for a slight spur leading to a rocky outcropping overlooking the canyon. Take advantage of the views here and recharge with some food for the return trip. The first part of the trail might be heavy with hikers, but soon it gives way to the rhythmic solitude of breath and feet. As a side note, the only runners encountered were women. Smile!
Post Run Refueling
Tucson has a wide variety of exceptional vegan or vegan/vegetarian friendly restaurants with filling but healthy menu choices. Because the local food movement is strongly interwoven within the fabric of Tucson’s culture, you will find several options where local ingredients are included on the menu.
Lovin’ Spoonfuls is my go-to restaurant in Tucson. It features a completely vegan menu with both unique items and veganized comfort foods such as: chili cheese fries, country fried chicken platter, and buffalo cauliflower wings. Locally owned, Lovin’ Spoonfuls has a relaxed atmosphere, beer and wine if you’re thirsty, and a variety of awesome vegan desserts. I’ve taken non-vegans here and they always fall in love. Closed on Sundays.
Desert Island Eatery
Desert Island Eatery is a local family owned Caribbean restaurant serving vegetarian, vegan, and meat dishes. Locally owned, this place is no joke so be prepared to want to eat here every day. The jerk barbeque tofu with fried plantains is the best dish I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. Desert Island Eatery is closed on Sundays and Mondays so plan accordingly.
Is truly a labor of love. A family owned vegan restaurant, Urban Fresh uses locally sourced produce as much as possible. They feature an entire menu of fresh juices and smoothies to help with post run recovery, as well as sandwiches, wraps, and salads. You can’t go wrong with the vegan French toast off the breakfast menu. It is ridiculously good. Hours are Monday through Friday 8:00 am to 3:00 pm and every second Saturday from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm.
The Running Shop
The Running Shop is locally owned and proudly supports the local running community. They have everything a runner needs or wants to make the trail an enjoyable experience. From shoes and apparel to accessories, they even carry a large selection to address running injuries. Staff are trained to evaluate your specific needs and will assist you to find the perfect shoes by assessing your running pattern. They will even let you test out your selection to make sure it works for you. Can’t beat that service!