Two nights in Catalina State Park, AZ

We were in Catalina from February 8 to February 10, 2021.

Bugsy on a rock on the Alamo Loop Trail
Alamo Loop Trail

If you’re anywhere near Tucson, just go to Catalina State Park. Just go! Only about 20 minutes north of Tucson, Catalina is insanely gorgeous, the hikes are (mostly) dog-friendly, and the campground is super scenic. We absolutely loved our time there.

The park is so close to civilization that if you wanted to, you could pop down the hill for food or supplies or entertainment. We found, though, that once we were in the park, we didn’t want to leave!

Campground

the Airstream at sunrise in Catalina Mountains State Park
hanging by the airstream at the campsite at sunset in Catalina Mountains State Park

Camping at Catalina in high season (meaning, not the brutal Arizona summer) is very popular, so reserve early! Catalina has 120 power/water sites arranged along two loops. We were in Loop B, but we also scouted Loop A, and both are good choices, although maybe Loop A has an edge because it’s smaller. The best spots for views of the mountains without trailers in the foreground are generally along the right side and rear of each loop, but you can see the mountains from everywhere.

walking through the campground at Catalina Mountains State Park

Both loops are adjacent to the Bridle Trail which makes for a pleasant walk or bike or horseback ride through the scrub to the main trailhead area.

Hiking

hiking Canyon Loop in Catalina Mountains
Sutherland Trail

We did a few short hikes and one longer one, with and without Bugsy, to try to get a good feel for the different areas of the park. As I always say: go early! This park is extremely popular and the hikes can be crowded! Hike early, beat the heat and crowds, and spend the afternoon relaxing at your awesome campsite. Then, after everyone goes home for the day, you can sneak out for a quick sunset hike.

Most of the trailheads are clustered at the end of the park road: the Birding Trail and the Nature Trail, both short loops with informational signage, and the longer out-and-back Sutherland Trail and Romero Canyon Trail. We wanted to sample each direction from the center so did both of the loops plus some of Sutherland. Finally, to explore a different area, we hiked a trail that’s not on the official park map.

Birding Trail

Bugsy hiking the Birding Trail in the Catalina Mountains

This pleasant, super-short (1.3 miles) loop leads you through the forest and desert in prime bird-watching habitat with some wide mountain vistas. It was a lovely, low-key introduction to the park. To add distance, hike from the campground on the Bridle Trail.

Nature Trail

a sunset picnic on the Nature Trail in Catalina Mountains State Park

This sweet little one-mile loop was our sunset hike. We took a picnic, and there are lots of good spots near the trail, among the cacti, to spread a blanket, sip a beverage, and enjoy the changing colors on the mountains.

Canyon Loop and Sutherland Trail

the Sutherland Trail in Catalina Mountains State Park

For our long hike, we combined Canyon Loop with an out-and-back on Sutherland Trail. You can go as far as you want on Sutherland (all the way to Mount Lemmon!) (except dogs and bikes aren’t allowed after the first couple miles); we turned around after ascending under the not-so-scenic power lines for a while and totaled almost ten miles. Our advice is to picnic on a boulder in the creek and turn around there, and you’ll get most of the scenery for way less effort.

Alamo Loop

hiking the Alamo Loop with Bugsy in the Catalina Mountains

Wanting to check out a part of the park that wasn’t attached to the main trailhead area, Bugsy and I (J was working) went to the Alamo Loop for our final hike in Catalina. It’s easy to get lost on this trail, so I recommend following AllTrails or similar (I did and still got lost) (fortunately it’s easy to find your way back) (just watch out for snakes). This hike was a much less populated, extremely scenic 3.2-mile loop with fantastic mountain views, geology, and flora.

To do

Because we’ll definitely return.

sunset saguaro
Saguaro at sunset on the Nature Trail

Romero Canyon looks amazing. The first part of the trail goes to the Romero Pools, maybe the most popular hike in the park; the trail was closed while we were there and will be closed through early October 2021. Note that dogs aren’t allowed farther than a mile or so in, due to bighorn sheep management. Beyond the pools, it’s a tough climb to the saddle, totaling 7.2 miles one-way. And–not that we’d do it, but it’s super cool–you can do a 17-mile shuttle hike from Catalina to Sabino Canyon (another of our Tucson favorites) on this trail!

What else? I’d be happy to repeat any of the hikes we did this visit!

Next up: another gorgeous state park, Lost Dutchman.

4 Replies to “Two nights in Catalina State Park, AZ

  1. I too have found Catalina State Park a great place for hiking although I have not camped there.. You are correct, it can be very crowded even in my off peak period of September or October.. I’ve heard tales of many sightings of wildlife including mountain lions, coyotes, all sorts of creepy crawly creatures etc. but I’ve seen nothing more than a few scorpions and tarantulas.. By the way, I LOVE that sunset picture with the Saguaro and expect you to print it and give it to me for Christmas 🙂

    One thing I failed to mention about your visit to Tucson… I first visited 4th ave. about 20 or so years ago and it was THE place to be in the downtown section of the city around the university.. I don’t know what happened but it has turned into the drug capital of the city and is really not the place you want to spend any time.. When the Seed Store moved out several years ago everything else good seemed to go with it.. Sad to see actually as it was once a great spot to spend lots of time visiting and shopping..

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