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Where to Run in Tucson, Arizona

A sunrise at Saguaro National Park new Tucson, Arizona

It’s October in Tucson, Arizona, and runners are breathing a little easier—literally.

After the summer’s monsoons, humidity and high heat, things get downright delightful now for runners, not to mention hikers and cyclists. Fall mornings and evenings are cool, perfect for working out, and the days are sunny and warm.

“Our weather is predictable, and people like that,” says Anne Stancil, owner of two Fleet Feet stores in Tucson. “You can be outside all year. Our winter is beautiful.”

Elite athletes come to Tucson to train all winter. Jobs also draw people, including defense contract work at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, a nearby Army intelligence center and related industries. Active retirees are attracted to the area because they can run and hike year-round.

And then they fall in love.

“I’m still in awe sometimes of the desert, how beautiful it is,” says Stancil. “It’s incredibly peaceful. You watch the desert change through the year, from lush and green with cactus flowers blooming to dry.”

Runners of all abilities appreciate various terrains easily accessible from downtown Tucson, from flat paths along river beds to easier trails in the desert to technical mountain trails.

Emily Maass grew up in Tucson and started running in high school. She talked with us by phone as she was relocating to western North Carolina. Maass will miss the city’s “super friendly” running community and how her wardrobe wasn’t much more than a T-shirt and running shorts year-round.

“You can see so much more running In the desert,” says Maass. Rather than climbing through woods to finally get a view from a peak, in Tucson, “the whole run is your destination. You can enjoy it the whole time.”

Maass’ top three Tucson-area runs:

A photo of Saguaro National Park in Arizona

1. Saguaro National Park East Loop (8 miles)

The city of Tucson is sandwiched between four mountain ranges with access to plenty of national and state parks. Saguaro (pronounced suh-wah-roe) National Park West is a favorite of cyclists; Saguaro National Park East also calls to runners and hikers. “It’s an amazing desert landscape,” Maass says.

Her favorite run is an eight-mile loop on the main road in the park. “There’s a hill at mile five that makes you work, but then you get this amazing vista of the Tucson Mountains west of the city.”

A woman wades into water during a run on the Sabino Canyon Trail Loop near Tucson, Arizona

2. Sabino Canyon Trail Loop (8.4 miles)

This run begins with about two miles of road in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, roughly 12 miles north of Tucson, featuring views of the Catalina Mountains, gorgeous canyons and stretches of the Sonoran Desert. A faucet at the end of the paved road is great for refilling water bottles, then the route switches to trail and gets a little technical.

Mile three is “a decent climb,” Maass says, but it’s worth it. The reward: a beautiful view of seven waterfalls in the middle of the desert! Fair warning: If it’s been dry, you’ll see seven puddles, not waterfalls, but Maass still loves the run. Feeling good? Extend your run to take in the more ambitious 16- to 17-mile Bear Canyon Loop. “That’s sort of a rite of passage around Tucson,” she says, “to say you’ve done the BCL.”

A group of runners on a trail at Starr Pass Resort Trail

3. Starr Pass Resort Trail (5- and 8-mile options)

Find miles of trails here near the resort, with options for all levels. The five-mile Starr Pass Trail Loop offers a few hills and varied, but easy, terrain with beautiful views of Tucson and Mt. Lemmon, the tallest mountain in the Catalina Mountain Range. For runners who want a little more, there is an eight-mile loop that is a bit more technical. Bring a water bottle—you won’t find faucets here.

Three Notes for Running in the Desert

  1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, warns Stancil. “Your perspiration evaporates so quickly, you don’t realize how much water you’re losing,” she says. Carry and drink water on your run, even for shorter distances, and continue to drink water throughout the day.
  2. Stay mindful about wildlife—including rattlesnakes. Even on roads, runners should stay aware. Some animals are fun to spot, like small ringtailed raccoons and their cousins, the coatimundi. You might also see tortoises and lizards. Other animals like coyotes and bobcats would just as soon keep their distance from humans. Tucsonians learn to coexist with the local fauna.
  3. Protect your skin. The desert sun is strong, without many options for shade. Local runners know to combine sunscreen and protective clothing but also to avoid the strongest rays mid-day.

Refueling After Your Run

What you eat after running is important. In Tuscon, local runners will point you to Le Buzz Caffe on the city’s east side for locally roasted coffee, healthy quiches and omelettes, and baked goods. Enjoy rubbing elbows—literally, it’s tiny—with plenty of fellow runners, cyclists, and hikers. Another lure: the French toast made with Challah bread at Beyond Bread (with three locations downtown).

After 5 p.m.

Tucson’s evening options keep expanding, says Maass. Downtown didn’t offer much when she was growing up, but “now it’s popping with restaurants and bars. People don’t expect Tucson to be this fun.” For nightlife, visit the University Avenue area. Try Fourth Avenue for quirky, funky places and street performers. Pueblo Vida has great local beers from the city’s burgeoning craft beer scene. Barrio Brewing Co. features good Southwest-style bar food along with a dozen brews on tap.

By Lisa Watts. Lisa started running nearly 40 years ago in college to clear her head. Seven marathons, countless half marathons, and a few two-day relays later, she still swears by early morning runs to sort things out. It’s even better when a few friends come along for the miles.

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