Photo Location: Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area (part of Coronado National Forest) sits on the Northeast side of Tucson, Arizona, tucked into the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Surrounded on three sides by the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, the terrain ranges from relatively flat to rugged canyons and mountainsides. Miles of hiking trails and even a paved road (closed to traffic) allow easy access and provide ample photo opportunities.
Sabino Creek is a year-round stream running through the heart of Sabino Canyon, and forms a lush woodland riparian habitat of cottonwood, sycamore, and walnut.
Sabino Canyon lies in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, dominated by forests of saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)—those classic cacti with arms. Photo opportunities can be found everywhere, but look for ridges for broad landscape pictures of the desert.
The saguaros make excellent photo subjects as silhouettes, strong compositional elements in landscapes, and close-up detail shots. The mountains get some nice alpenglow-like light, but I’ve found it’s best in the morning when the air is clearer.
Sabino Canyon wildflowers
To get pictures of desert wildflowers, start looking in February; by mid- to late-March the wildflower season is in full swing. But don’t give up on wildflowers after that – many cacti flower well into late summer, such as the Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii), which blooms July to September.
All of the classic desert plants can be found in Sabino Canyon with little trouble: Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata), paloverde trees (Cercidium sp.), and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), along with an abundance of cacti, including Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii), Chainfruit Cholla (Opuntia fulgida) and Engelmann’s Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii).
Birds & wildlife in Sabino Canyon
Birders will want to migrate towards Sabino Creek, especially the Sabino Dam Trail and Sabino Lake Trail, to take advantage of the variety of birds attracted to the rare desert riparian habitat, including Lucy’s Warbler, Hooded Oriole, and Bell’s Vireo. The rest of Sabino Canyon is full of desert favorites including Cactus Wren, Curve-bill Thrasher, Phainopepla, Black-throated Sparrow, Greater Roadrunner, and a variety of hummingbirds.
Other wildlife in Sabino Canyon can be both a little shy (because of the people) and a little tame (because of the people). Mule deer and, occasionally, javalina can be easy to spot, but also keep an eye on the ground and watch for gila monsters, desert tortoise, and rattlesnakes. Mountain lions have been seen in the past, but don’t count on it.
When to go
The Sonoran Desert is beautiful any time of the year, but spring (Feb to April) is probably the nicest – the desert wildflowers are a real bonus, and the critters are stirring. (Winter is cooler, but everything is dormant.) Summer, of course, is hot, so earlier is better.
But the Sonoran Desert is a tropical desert, and in late summer when the monsoons come, and the air is heavy and thick and hot, the desert turns green and lush. Everything that can leaf out does, and from a distance, you’d never know you were in the desert.
Sabino Canyon is popular with Tucson locals, and weekends can be crowded, especially in the winter.
No matter when you go, bring more water than you think you’ll need!
- The main parking lot and visitor center is at 5900 N. Sabino Canyon Rd., Tucson. Parking is $5/vehicle, but they do accept national interagency Golden Passports.
- Get maps and field guides at the visitor center
- Useful websites