Starry Nights in Tucson’s Catalina State Park
Explore the great outdoors at Catalina Mountain State Park, a museum that is 85% outside, and Biosphere 2, an enormous glass terrarium.
People have been sleeping under the stars in Catalina State Park since at least 1,000 B.C. And it’s easy to understand why.
From breathtaking views of Santa Catalina mountains to ancient Native American ruins, Catalina State Park offers immaculate campsites, great hikes and even a concert series. As you walk by some of the park’s 5,000 saguaros, it may be hard to believe you’re just minutes from Tucson’s lively restaurant and shopping scene. The park did get hit by wildfire in 2019, and while the campgrounds and trails are open, they do look different than before the fire.
Choose from eight trails to explore this area. The Romero Ruins Interpretative Trail is an easy .75-mile loop that leads you to the Romero Ruins, an ancient Hohokam village dating to 500 A.D. Mountain bikers should check out the 50-Year Trail, an 8.6-mile one-way trail that weaves up and down the foothills.
Back at camp, you’ll find Catalina’s campgrounds offer flush toilets, hot showers, picnic tables and grills. Equestrians can camp with their horses in a first-come, first-served overnight area. Find more information at azstateparks.com/catalina
Nearby Parks and Attractions
Outside the park, visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum where 85 percent of your experience will be outdoors as you explore the zoo, aquarium, botanic garden and natural history museum. Or see a Wright Flyer and a 787 Dreamliner at the Pima Air & Space Museum, which boasts more than 300 historical aircrafts.
Visit Oracle State Park
In nearby Oracle, Ariz., visit Oracle State Park, a 4,000-acre wildlife refuge. It’s an official International Dark Sky Park and is located on the northern foothills of the Catalina Mountains. Most of its hiking trails are dog-friendly, and there are 15 miles of trails to discover. A highlight is that a 4-mile stretch of the Arizona Trail passes through the park, and you can access it by foot, horseback and bike. Hike the six-mile Arizona Trail Loop that leaves from Kannally Ranch House or take a shorter stroll on the 1.2-mile Nature Trail Loop that allows leashed dogs, mountain bikers and hikers. For some locals, it’s the area’s best-kept secret.
“It has a completely different feel than Catalina State Park,” says Michelle Thompson, chief of communications/PIO for Arizona State Parks & Trails. “It’s tucked away and has a historic ranch house you can tour, and it connects to the Arizona Trail.
While in Oracle, visit Biosphere 2, an enormous glass structure built in 1986 to explore what space colonization could look like in a closed system. Two missions in the 1990s sealed scientists inside as an experiment in human behavior and survivability. Today, the University of Arizona uses the facility to research everything from climate change to the impact of drought on the rainforest.
Explore Picacho Peak State Park
In between Tucson and Phoenix, you’ll find Picacho Peak State Park. It offers camping and trails. For a difficult 2-mile hike, climb to the top of Picacho Peak, which stands at 1,500 feet above elevation. There are steel cables anchored into rocks along the way to help you climb steep sections, so bring gloves to protect your hands from the cables. For a more moderate trail, take Sunset Vista Trail that’s 3.1 miles or take an easy .5-mile stroll along Nature Trail.
Head South to See Kartchner Caverns State Park
Located in Benson, Ariz., this state park allows you to cool down on even the hottest of Arizona days by exploring a cave. Make cave tour reservations and book your tickets to see the amazing formations inside the Earth. There are camp sites and two-room camping cabins that you can rent in the park.
For more information go to azstateparks.com.
Related: 10 Nearest Arizona State Parks to the Grand Canyon