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Back to nature in Tucson's Ventana Canyon

Saguaro cactus and more inspiring desert beauty on this 6.4-mile climb.

Hiking through Coronado National Forest's Ventana Canyon, about 20 minutes north of Tucson.
Hiking through Coronado National Forest's Ventana Canyon, about 20 minutes north of Tucson.

The long section of Highway 8 heading from San Diego toward Tucson, Arizona, is mostly flat and dead, with the occasional string of mountains popping up across the landscape.

But as I barreled my way through the dusty town of Gila Bend, the scenery suddenly turned pleasant: A carpet of purple flowers lined the roadside. To the south, mountains began to tower into the bright blue sky. The desert floor was littered with yellow flowers like paint specks on a green canvas. Along the hillside, the towering saguaros that can reach heights of 60 feet stood out on the horizon like little green matchsticks.

In front of my bug-splattered windshield, the majestic desert faded away into run-down farmland and miles of half-dead scrub brush. The road veered southeast and worked its way through an off-season patch of walnut trees, passing Picacho Peak. The Old Pueblo was less than an hour away.

The Ventana Canyon trail

Nestled at the base of the Catalina Mountain range, my hotel was an ideal starting point for the Ventana Canyon hiking trail. The weather forecast called for near perfection, so I got an early start and began the trek up the mountain. The smell of creosote bush was strong in the air, and the warm sun beat down on the back of my neck. A barrage of nature’s beauty lay before me. The thousands of barrel cacti, teddy-bear chollas and jagged rocks were visible signs of nature’s threats – but it being early March, with warmer weather setting in, there was also the very real possibility of a diamondback rattlesnake lurking beneath a loose rock. Then of course there are the coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions that call Southern Arizona home.

But I grew up in the desert. These weren’t the types of things that concerned me, even with the eerie feeling that a big cat could very well be staking me from a hidden den or crevice that burrowed into the mountainside.

Video:

Tucson's Ventana Canyon trail

The well-maintained trail snaked its way through the canyon, climbing higher and higher. An occasional stream trickled down the hillside, carving its way through bright red cliffs. I stopped at a number of 360-degree vistas to take it all in.

I can’t recommend the beauty of the Sonoran Desert highly enough. Sure, there are the magnificent Rocky Mountains and California’s own Sierra Nevadas, but there’s nothing in the world quite like the desert of Arizona. The saguaro cactus only grows here, and the abundance of wildflowers, high skies, and magnificent sunsets that turn the mountains a shade of purple are like nowhere else I've seen.

After hiking back a couple of miles, I climbed up onto a large boulder and gazed out on the landscape. The wind picked up, blowing steadily through the canyon as cactus wrens, wild doves and the occasional cardinal chirped and sang all around. High above, a hawk glided on the breeze like the king of the sky. There was a great sense of peacefulness, and despite the occasional hiker passing by, I felt far removed from civilization. This was nature at its finest: pure and undisturbed.

Done right, a hike into the wilderness isn’t just an escape; it's a true exploration of the natural world, too. As I made my way through the jagged desert canyon, I found my inner explorer satisfied and my thirst for escape quenched.

Thank you, Tucson!

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Hiking through Coronado National Forest's Ventana Canyon, about 20 minutes north of Tucson.
Hiking through Coronado National Forest's Ventana Canyon, about 20 minutes north of Tucson.

The long section of Highway 8 heading from San Diego toward Tucson, Arizona, is mostly flat and dead, with the occasional string of mountains popping up across the landscape.

But as I barreled my way through the dusty town of Gila Bend, the scenery suddenly turned pleasant: A carpet of purple flowers lined the roadside. To the south, mountains began to tower into the bright blue sky. The desert floor was littered with yellow flowers like paint specks on a green canvas. Along the hillside, the towering saguaros that can reach heights of 60 feet stood out on the horizon like little green matchsticks.

In front of my bug-splattered windshield, the majestic desert faded away into run-down farmland and miles of half-dead scrub brush. The road veered southeast and worked its way through an off-season patch of walnut trees, passing Picacho Peak. The Old Pueblo was less than an hour away.

The Ventana Canyon trail

Nestled at the base of the Catalina Mountain range, my hotel was an ideal starting point for the Ventana Canyon hiking trail. The weather forecast called for near perfection, so I got an early start and began the trek up the mountain. The smell of creosote bush was strong in the air, and the warm sun beat down on the back of my neck. A barrage of nature’s beauty lay before me. The thousands of barrel cacti, teddy-bear chollas and jagged rocks were visible signs of nature’s threats – but it being early March, with warmer weather setting in, there was also the very real possibility of a diamondback rattlesnake lurking beneath a loose rock. Then of course there are the coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions that call Southern Arizona home.

But I grew up in the desert. These weren’t the types of things that concerned me, even with the eerie feeling that a big cat could very well be staking me from a hidden den or crevice that burrowed into the mountainside.

Video:

Tucson's Ventana Canyon trail

The well-maintained trail snaked its way through the canyon, climbing higher and higher. An occasional stream trickled down the hillside, carving its way through bright red cliffs. I stopped at a number of 360-degree vistas to take it all in.

I can’t recommend the beauty of the Sonoran Desert highly enough. Sure, there are the magnificent Rocky Mountains and California’s own Sierra Nevadas, but there’s nothing in the world quite like the desert of Arizona. The saguaro cactus only grows here, and the abundance of wildflowers, high skies, and magnificent sunsets that turn the mountains a shade of purple are like nowhere else I've seen.

After hiking back a couple of miles, I climbed up onto a large boulder and gazed out on the landscape. The wind picked up, blowing steadily through the canyon as cactus wrens, wild doves and the occasional cardinal chirped and sang all around. High above, a hawk glided on the breeze like the king of the sky. There was a great sense of peacefulness, and despite the occasional hiker passing by, I felt far removed from civilization. This was nature at its finest: pure and undisturbed.

Done right, a hike into the wilderness isn’t just an escape; it's a true exploration of the natural world, too. As I made my way through the jagged desert canyon, I found my inner explorer satisfied and my thirst for escape quenched.

Thank you, Tucson!

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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