I recently spent a day in Sabino Canyon Recreation Area hiking to Seven Falls in Bear Canyon. This was the first hike I took in Tucson and four years later, it is still one of my favorites. Any trail with water in Tucson is exciting, but the river in Bear Canyon flows throughout the year, making it a continuously rewarding hike. At the end, hikers are greeted by a series of seven waterfalls and a few pools of ice cold water for wading and cooling off. It’s a beautiful place to rest up and enjoy a snack before hiking back.
Parking at the recreation area costs $5, and provides access to three main trails (map), a tram line, and several shorter trails. The trail through Bear Canyon to Seven Falls is about 8 miles roundtrip, or 4 miles roundtrip if you pay to take the park tram to the trailhead. Otherwise, you have to walk two miles through the park to reach the canyon start. NOTE: This trail has got to be one of the most popular hikes in Tucson. It is very rare to be completely out of sight of other hikers if you do this trail anytime after 8:00am.
The first time I hiked Bear Canyon was in August, so it was oppressively hot, muggy and a monsoon storm had just hit the day before. With more rain than Tucson knew how to handle, we actually had to take our shoes off and wade across the bridge seen below, as the river was completely flooded. Even standing on the bridge, it was almost up to our knees.
I didn’t want to pay $8 for a tram ride to the trailhead, so I ended up walking the initial 2 miles through the park. The easy route is to walk along the paved road that the tram runs on. However there is a trail parallel to the road that I like to take (it warms you up for the uneven footing you’ll experience in the canyon). Since I was out early, I got lucky and spotted a rabbit!
After a little less than two miles you can see the beginning of Bear Canyon. The last chance for a restroom is about 0.3 miles away from the trailhead.
While the footing is rocky and sometimes sandy, the trail is for the most part level. As you walk deeper into the canyon, the trail crosses the river seven times (or five, one crossing is optional). Normally, the river crossings are pretty dry and there are plenty of rocks to hop on. After a recent rain you may have a splash or two.
Shortly after the seventh river crossing, the trail begins to climb. There are three easy switchbacks until you reach the maximum elevation. At this point you can turn around to find great views out of the canyon, and the refreshing waterfalls are only a couple tenths of a mile away.
The falls are hidden behind part of the canyon wall until you are pretty much right in front of them. The real way to tell if you’re close is to look for people sitting at the base waterfalls, where the pools stick out a bit more. You get a great view of the falls from your high elevation before taking the quick descent down to the pools.
Once you arrive at the pools, you can spread out between 3-4 of them for some privacy (but not much). There are a few shady places, but most people prefer to stick their feet in the pools to cool off.
After about an hour’s break (what can I say, I’m leisurely), I began the hike back.
All in all, I probably spent about 4.5 hours actually hiking the 8 miles. This could surely be done faster (some hardcore people jog it early in the morning), but it’s decent timing considering all of my stops for pictures. Although it is seemingly always crowded, this remains one of my favorite hikes in Tucson.