Picacho Peak at sunset, surrounded by a blooming desert.

Best Day Trips From Tucson To Take This Summer

Encircled by such adventure hot spots as Mount Lemmon, the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a Tucsonan has a variety of day trip destinations to explore when summer announces its arrival. To an outdoor enthusiast, the problem is not whether there are destinations worth checking out — but which one to pick. The whole stretch of Southern Arizona is packed with spots that will make anyone gasp. And that is without factoring in Tucson’s proximity to Mexico. A Tucsonan, for instance, will only need about an hour to mingle with street vendors in Nogales, Mexico — and sit down to a plate of Jalapeno salsa. Discover the best day trips from Tucson to take this summer.

Mount Lemmon

Dramatic overhead view of the scenic Santa Catalina Mountains landscape, Tucson, Arizona USA, with curving road to Mt. Lemmon and rugged, sculptural rock formations, no cars.
Scenic Santa Catalina Mountains landscape, Tucson, Arizona to Mt. Lemmon.

About an hour is all it takes to set foot in Mount Lemmon from Tucson, Arizona. Among Tucsonans, Mount Lemmon remains among the favorite day trip options. Soaring to a height of more than 9,000 feet, Mount Lemmon’s peak is the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains, making Mount Lemmon a summer day trip hot cake. The higher you go, the cooler it becomes. Boasting temperatures that are cooler than the city by an impressive 30 degrees on average, Mount Lemmon provides the perfect atmosphere for outdoor activities. Then again, the journey to Mount Lemmon may be as exciting as the destination. Many consider the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway one of the most scenic drives in southeast Arizona.

Picacho Peak

Blooming Flowers in the Sonoran Desert at Picacho Peak State Park
Sonoran Desert at Picacho Peak State Park with blooming flowers.

If you enjoy filling your lungs with clean, crisp air, hitting trails that are wide open and scenic, or gluing your eyes to vistas that will immediately make goosebumps set in, then Picacho Peak should be on your to-do list. First-time visitors often gasp at the beautiful views of wildflowers — and enjoy pitching tents at the many campsites on site. For hiking enthusiasts, many of the trails here are shaded and pleasant and provide the perfect conditions for a summer hike. You should peel your eyes for the distant views of both Tucson and Phoenix as you lose yourself in nature’s warm embrace. If this is something you feel like trying, ensure you carry gloves, comfortable boots, water, and sunscreen.


Fire sunset in Sonoita, Arizona. Santa Rita mountains in distance
Fire sunset in Sonoita, Arizona.

No, you are not in Bordeaux, France — even if you may feel like it. While Sonoita is a speck of a town many road trippers can pass in a blip, the region is the first in the Grand Canyon State to have earned the American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation. As many will agree, wine areas are among the most beautiful and visually tantalizing. Thankfully, the Sonoita area is no exception. Framed by rolling hills on every side, the Sonoita area is home to about twenty wineries. If you are looking for a representative sample, check out Rune Wines. The views from Rune Wines are such as you cannot exchange them for the world.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Looking out over the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Located about 25 minutes from Tucson, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is another destination a Tucson summer day-tripper will not regret exploring. If you want to learn about how special the Harris Hawks are in the world of birds, or just about any other prevalent bird species, this is the place to lace up for. The museum’s admission fee is $29.95, and while that may seem a bit steep, do not underestimate the experience you will have here. The Raptor flight demonstration, for instance, is one of the most educative you will ever come across. Make no mistake, a trip here can effortlessly steal a whole day. And if you have kids, the stingray exhibition is something you will not want to miss.

Texas Canyon

Aerial view of Interstate 10 in Arizona going through Texas Canyon, Cochise County.
Interstate 10 in Arizona through Texas Canyon.

Featuring rocks that are as big as buildings, Texas Canyon is a stunning site. If you want to check out this gem, schedule about an hour on the road. Texas Canyon is 60 miles from Tucson. While it may look desolate and dreary, Texas Canyon is mystically cool and has an air of awe that no pen can describe. To a first-time visitor, the giant rocks will look like something from a sci-fi movie. If you are cruising on I-10, pull up at the rest area, to max out on the visual experience. Pull out your camera and start snapping.

The Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead

View across the top of Cienega Creek from the Marsh Station Bridge, facing east toward the Cienega Bridge.
Cienega Creek from the Marsh Station Bridge, facing east toward the Cienega Bridge. Image credit $1LENCE D00600D via Wikimedia Commons

Located about 30 miles southeast of Tucson via I-10 E, the Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead is another must-do Tucson day trip destination worth exploring in summer. You will need about 30 minutes to set foot here. This trail is a portion of the vast Arizona Trail which stretches over 800 miles across the entire length of Arizona, from the US-Mexico border — right up to Utah. While the hike may be quite dehydrating, especially in the summer, and not appreciably shady, the saving grace is that the trails are nearly all easy and will not make your muscles twitch. Cienega Creek, with its towering cottonwood trees, and from which you can see the necks of the Rincon Mountains, is a favorite.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park

Rock formations inside the cave at Colossal Cave Mountain Park in Vail, Arizona, USA, near Tucson in the Sonoran Desert.
Rock formations inside the cave at Colossal Cave Mountain Park, near Tucson.

Last but by no means least, Colossal Cave Mountain Park, conveniently located just about 40 minutes from Tucson, is another mind-bending gem a Tucson day-tripper will enjoy exploring. The star of the show here is the enormous cave system that lends the park its name. An ancient karst cave classified as "dry" by guides, this cave maintains a pleasurable seventy degrees Fahrenheit any time of the year — and makes it ideal for those wishing to escape the Arizona summer heat. Featuring a nature trail that is short and sweet, first-time visitors will savor the wide-open spaces and the rustic scenery that defines this wonder. For maximum experience, ensure you explore the Ladder Tour, especially if tagging kids along.

The Takeaway

While you can stroll down to Monsoon Chocolate, located at 234 E 22nd Street—and cool your throat with an ice cream cone, a meaningful summer adventure should see you turning your back on Tucson. And you will not need to be on the road for more than two hours to find cool gems. Tucson is encircled by a mind-boggling number of outdoor pleasure spots. While the default is often Mount Lemmon, other options include Picacho Peak, Texas Canyon, and Colossal Cave Mountain Park.


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