There is little doubt that Sabino Canyon is the most visited recreation area in southern Arizona. Surrounded by the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Sabino Canyon is wild and spectacular, yet very easy to access from the Tucson area. Most visitors ride a commercial tram or walk the road (closed to traffic) that runs four miles along the canyon bottom from the Visitor’s Center. An alternate way to reach the end of the road is to hike the Phoneline Trail, which traverses the steep and rugged canyon wall hundreds of feet above the creek bed.
Phoneline Trail was built in the early 1900's to facilitate the construction of a proposed dam about a mile beyond the end of the current roadway. Happily, the dam was never built. As you travel the trail, watch for a few remaining rusted poles that once supported the phone line for which the trail is named. A long section of the Phoneline Trail is surprisingly level, allowing you to fully enjoy the many commanding views of Sabino Canyon that the trail is well known for.
Thimble Peak rises above Sabino Canyon and the Phoneline Trail
There are many ways to enjoy the Phoneline Trail. My favorite is to make a loop by walking up the 5.2 mile Phoneline Trail and then return to the Visitor’s Center via the road in the canyon bottom. This loop is about 9 miles long and involves a 930 foot climb to reach the flattish sections of the trail.
Or, you might chose to purchase tickets at the Visitor’s Center, ride a tram to the end of the road and then walk the Phoneline Trail back to the parking lot. This 5.2 mile walk involves about a 330 foot elevation gain.
You can also create a shorter 3.6 mile loop by taking advantage of the Phoneline Link Trail, which leaves the Phoneline Trail about 1.75 miles from the Visitor’s Center and switchbacks down to the canyon bottom and the road below.
Long sections of the Phoneline Trail are nearly level
Park your car at the entrance of the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, a short drive from mid town Tucson. This is a fee area. To pick up the lower end of the Phoneline Trail leave the east end of the parking lot and follow a wide dirt path east until it joins a paved road. Continue east on the paved road as it swings into the bottom of Sabino Creek and a road junction where a sign will guide you right towards Bear Canyon. Just after crossing Sabino Creek, watch for the trailhead, marked by a sign “Phoneline Tr. #27”. A few steps from the pavement, turn left (north) onto the Phoneline Trail. From this point, it is about 4.5 miles to the end of the trail and the junction with the road’s end in Sabino Canyon.
McFall Crags seen from the Phoneline Trail
Season: Fall, winter and spring. This hike can be very hot, especially in the summer. (The hike does receive quite a bit of traffic in the summer months; an early start and plenty of water are recommended.)
Water: None. Bring plenty of your own.
Difficulty: Moderate; up to 9 miles with a 930 foot elevation gain.
Maps: USGS Sabino Canyon, AZ ; Green Trails Santa Catalina Mountains; or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.
Click map for larger image