Marana is synonymous with the outdoors, with several mountain ranges surrounding it, and a National Park, National Monument, and several state parks just a short drive away. All of these offer unique opportunities to capture amazing, diverse vistas of the Southern Arizona landscape. Visiting these parks may make you feel like you’ve stepped into a postcard or a screensaver – bring your camera and make sure your memory card is wide open!
Saguaro National Park West
Saguaro National Park is divided into two districts, and the West District (known as the Tucson Mountain District) borders Marana’s Town Limits! The park’s namesake, the iconic Saguaro cactus, can only be found in Arizona and parts of Sonora. Even though the Saguaro is associated with the whole state of Arizona, it can only be found in Southern Arizona, Southwestern Arizona, and Phoenix, with some of the largest concentrations being located right here, near the Tucson area. Saguaro National Park is home to the world’s largest cactus forest, striking sunsets, and a variety of wildlife including javelinas, bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, bats, a variety of snakes and lizards, and a variety of birds!
Saguaro National Park has many great hiking, biking, and equestrian trails, for all skill levels. All of these trails offer panoramic views of the expansive desert, the saguaros, and the back side of the Tucson Mountains. Stay into the evening and you can capture some of those cactus-and-sunset photos that Arizona is famous for. Or, hike the easy, 0.3-mile Signal Hill Trail, to catch a glimpse of some ancient petroglyphs.
Picture Rocks Road and Sandario Road both run through the park, and offer several pull-outs, for those looking to set up a camera and shoot photos of the cacti, sunset, or wildlife. The Tucson Mountains also block much of the light from Tucson and Marana, so the park also provides for some good stargazing. During the summer monsoon season, you can capture striking photos of rain curtains, lightning, and rainbows.
Another sight that is sure to amaze you are the cactus blooms, which can usually be seen starting in late April or early May, and running through August. The saguaros erupt with their white flowers, which is the state flower of Arizona, which are then pollinated and produce ruby-red fruit. The prickly pear and barrel cacti also bloom with yellow and magenta flowers, which then turn into fruit that is great in a margarita, ice cream, or lemonade!
Catalina State Park
Catalina State Park is located on the westernmost slope of the Catalina Mountains, just east of Oro Valley. The park is famous for its soaring granite formations, which may make you think of Yosemite. Hike, bike, or ride a horse through the savanna-like grasses and scrublands of the mountain foothills, tree-shaded stream valleys, and the steep-but-rewarding trails of the granite slopes.
The park offers the opportunity to capture (on camera, that is) a variety of plant species, including wildflowers (that turn the park into an explosion of color every spring), saguaros; and animal species, including mammals, reptiles, and over 170 species of birds.
Catalina State Park offers RV and tent campsites, which makes it the perfect home base for all of your Southern Arizona adventures. For equestrians, the park offers staging areas, pens and hitching posts for overnight campers, and plenty of trailer parking.
Ironwood Forest National Monument
For a true, secluded, desert experience, look no further than Ironwood Forest National Monument. This place is the definition of “off the beaten path” – which makes it prime real estate among its loyal regulars. The 129,000-acre monument contains several desert mountain ranges, including the Silverbell, Waterman, and Roskruge Mountains, a significant system of cultural and historical sites covering a 5,000-year period, and the park’s namesake, one of the densest concentrations of Ironwood trees anywhere.
Other significant and photogenic sites include the famous 80-Armed Saguaro (count them for yourself!), Ragged Top Mountain with its sawtooth rock formations, and the Waterman Restoration Site, where you can see the desert reclaiming an illegally-cleared airstrip once used by a mining executive.
In addition to the Ironwoods, you can also see saguaros (there’s even a site where several of them are in a circle, similar to Stonehenge), mesquites, palos verdes, creosotes, and plenty of wildflowers! You can also see a variety of mammal, reptile, and bird species, and the park’s remote location lets you capture some cool photos of the night sky.
Ironwood Forest National Monument offers 2 primitive campgrounds, which are popular among RV and Tent campers, so you can spend a night in the secluded desert.
Three areas within the monument, the Los Robles Archeological District, the Mission of Santa Ana del Chiquiburitac and the Cocoraque Butte Archeological District are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Tortolita Mountains are located on the northwest edge of the Tucson area, right between Marana and Oro Valley. The smallest of Tucson's mountain ranges, the Tortolitas feature rugged peaks, gullies, canyons and alluvial fans, with rocky soil and vast stands of cacti.
The mountains include extensive cultural resources. Hohokam Native Americans heavily occupied the area for approximately 700 years beginning around AD 500, and if you look hard enough, you can still see some remnants of their civilization. The Tortolitas were also home to ancient Native American tribes, whose petroglyphs have remained secluded in the mountains for millennia. Ruins of a homestead from the Wild West era also remain in Wild Burro Canyon, and can be seen from several of the trails in the mountains.
The Town of Marana maintains a system of 9 trails in the mountains, which pass over diverse terrain and varying terrain, and offer excellent hiking, biking, and equestrian experiences for people of all skill levels.
If camping’s not really “your thing”, the Tortolita Mountains are home to basically the opposite – the Double Five-Star, world-renowned luxury of the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, which still offers amazing views of the canyon it’s located in and the valley down below, as well as access to all the range’s hiking trails. Wind down after a hike with a dip in the pool, a treatment at the luxury spa, or an excellent gourmet meal and craft cocktail.
Picacho Peak State Park
Located just under 20 miles north of Marana, this prominent peak can be seen for nearly 50 miles in either direction. Its prominence made it an ideal navigational landmark for thousands of years; for the Native Americans, early European settlers, cowboys and stagecoach drivers, and even today, is a sure sign that you’re getting close to the Tucson area once you see it headed south from Phoenix.
A 360-degree panorama of the surrounding desert and mountain ranges is visible from the top of the peak, which is accessible via a steep, challenging hike. Portions of the trails are precarious, and hikers are aided by cables and catwalks, making the routes some of the few via ferrata in the United States. Slightly easier hikes bring you to The Saddle, which still offers great views of the surrounding landscape, or let you stroll through the wildflower meadows around the peak.
During the spring, the park is covered in a yellow, orange, and purple carpet of wildflowers, helped along by the winter rains and cooler temperatures. These wildflower blooms draw people from all over the state and country to Picacho Peak to stroll through the meadows, and take photos of the colorful phenomenon. Spectacular sunsets can also be seen and captured year-round, but are especially striking when complimented by the wildflowers. The Sunset Vista trail winds its way through the wildflower meadows at the base of the peak.
Picacho Peak State Park has 85 campsites for RV’s and tents. That, combined with the park’s location right off of Interstate 10, makes it another great home base for further Southern Arizona adventures.
El Rio Preserve
If you’re looking to capture some unique bird photos, look no further than the El Rio Preserve! The preserved riparian ecosystem is located along several bird migration routes. Egrets, vireos, herons, comorants, warblers, mallards, and hummingbirds are just a few of the 227 species that have been documented at the Preserve. The site is well-known within the birding community. The El Rio Preserve is located a short distance from the Twin Peaks & I-10 Interchange, just north of the Continental Ranch area.
Oracle State Park
Oracle State Park is located in the northern foothills of the Catalina Mountains, about an hour’s driving time from Marana. Its excellent stargazing conditions make it well worth the trip. The park is a certified International Dark Sky Park, due to the lack of light pollution. Tourists and locals alike flock to Oracle State Park for stargazing, star parties, and night-sky photography. The Milky Way can be seen faintly with the naked eye from Oracle State Park, and it can be seen even better through a telescope or with some more advanced camera equipment.
Ironwood National Monument photos courtesy Bureau of Land Management and the Friends of Ironwood Forest.