Do you like rugged backcountry expeditions that are miles from the nearest road? Or are you more into a gentle nature walk? Do you prefer a long, flat walk through desert lowlands, or are you a peak bagger, ready to scramble over a boulder of any size? No matter your hiking style, the trails in and nearby Marana have got what you’re looking for. With so many miles to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are our top three hiking adventures in and near Marana, AZ.
1. Wild Burro Trail
Distance: 11 miles, roundtrip
Wild Burro Trail offers hikers a little bit of everything. From its trailhead near the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain, the path quickly drops into the Wild Burro Canyon and then curls up the canyon walls to a high pass. All along the way, you can enjoy incredible views of the volcanic rock that forms the Tortolita Mountains. Giant saguaros are an obvious attraction of this area, but so are the remarkable mesquite and cottonwood trees that take advantage of the seasonal surface water after it rains.
After the pass, you’ll find yourself hiking through a remote and lush valley, an ecosystem which, in the spring, teems with desert life. Mature deer bound across the trail with their young fawns. Cacophonous songbirds chirp in the trees, darting from branch to branch, flirting with any potential mate in sight. And all around, an explosion of color announces the arrival of spring. Wildflowers bloom as far as the eye can see. The bright yellow of creosote mixes with the purple lupine blossoms. Even the saguaros get in on the fun with their pastel white petals luring the long-beaked cactus wren that helps it pollinate.
At the farthest point of the trail, you’ll know to turn around when you see a rusting windmill that offers a glimpse of this land’s history. In years past, ranchers would run cattle through these mountains, but today you’d be lucky to see even the occasional cow still wandering through the brush. Near the windmill, poke around enough and you’ll find the crumbling stone walls of an old goat corral. Now those walls provide the perfect shady spot for a rest and a snack before you begin your trek back. If you’ve got Marana’s Tortolita Trail Map, consider taking a different trail back, like Wild Mustang, but if not, then just retrace your step back across the valley, over the pass, and through the canyon.
2. Tortolita Preserve
Distance: 8.8 miles
Part of what makes Marana’s ecosystems so diverse are the unique biomes that result from the way water moves through the desert. Every winter and summer, water pours off the Tortolita Mountains through the Tortolita alluvial fan. The loose desert sand means that the water never flows the same way twice, and what results is a wide stretch of space that is constantly evolving, always adapting to soak up every last drop of water.
Trailhead access lies behind an unlocked cattle gate; hikers and mountain bikers are encouraged to drive through the gate, but please be sure to close it behind you. From the trailhead, you can hike either clockwise or counterclockwise through the Preserve. In the following description, we hike counterclockwise. For the first few miles, keep your eyes peeled for landmark signs that call out unique features of the trail. One sign points to two intertwined cacti, affectionately known locally as the “Cupid Saguaros.”
A little farther on, a many-armed beast is the “Candelabra Saguaro.” Everywhere you look, you’ll see incredible examples of Arizona’s most famous tree. Though dry most of the year, the occasional deluge of water passing over their roots means that these saguaros enjoy a plentiful water supply that lasts them all year long. In fact, a few saguaros lie toppled over along the trail because they took on a little too much water. Even as they slowly decompose, though, their demise is no tragedy for this land, as their decaying matter enriches the soil all around for the next generation of Sonoran Desert plant-life.
One thing that makes the Tortolita Mountains and alluvial fan so special is a unique genetic mutation that ecologists don’t entirely understand. For some reason, the occasional saguaro will be topped by a crown, turning it into a “crested saguaro.” And while no one really understands why this happens, we do know that there’s an unusual density of crested saguaros in this area. Just before you get back to the trailhead, keep a lookout for an especially rare find: a crested barrel cactus. Barrel cacti rarely grow taller than a few feet and resemble a wide, squat young saguaro. This cactus, though, is about a foot taller than your average barrel cactus and is capped with that same rare crest. Perhaps this variation of a variation holds the clue to what causes the “crested” effect in the first place. Will you be the one to solve the riddle?
During the mild winter and spring weather of Marana, there’s really no bad time to hike the Tortolita Preserve, but perhaps the best time is soon after dawn. That’s when early birds can take full advantage of all the, well, early birds. On a recent morning, it seemed like nearly every saguaro had a watchful raptor perched on its pinnacle, keeping a sharp eye out for breakfast. These hawks, falcons, and eagles didn’t seem to mind a few hikers ambling along the trail thirty feet below. For some reason, they thought it unlikely that the hikers were about to climb these particular trees. They were right.
3. El Rio Preserve
Distance: Stroll from the parking lot to the sitting areas or walk along The Loop, a multi-use shared path, as far as you'd like.
The Arizona desert may not be the first place you’d expect to see wetlands, but it is a desert that is full of surprises. As part of a Santa Cruz River flood control project, the town of Marana created El Rio Preserve in 2019. During the wet seasons, it is a birder’s paradise. This easy walking destination features a paved, ADA-accessible walkway and it is on the Loop, a multi-use shared path that connects all parts of the greater Tucson/Marana/Oro Valley/Catalina Foothills areas.
It is also located across the street from the Los Morteros Conservation Area, a unique archaeological preserve with signs to guide you through this ancient Hohokam village site. Besides the active fauna, you may also enjoy the mature trees and plant-life that depend on this water. All around the edge of the wetlands, Fremont cottonwoods, Gooding willows, and velvet mesquites spread their canopies over the path. Their branches offer a veritable playground for Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and many other birds that love to visit El Rio Preserve.
Hiking in and around Marana means exploring a variety of terrains, from the rugged mountains of the Tortolitas to the swampy wetlands of a desert oasis. Whichever trail you embark on, be sure to carry enough extra water, snacks, and sun protection. While beautiful, our trails can be brutal to the unprepared. In the late spring, mild temperatures gradually give way to the torrid summer, so be sure you’re ready for extreme temperatures if you’re setting out in these conditions.
The Town of Marana has published a helpful map of the Tortolita Mountains which you can download here. You can also pick up a hard copy at the Parks and Recreation offices at 13251 N. Lon Adams Road or at the Wild Burro Trailhead at 14810 N. Secret Springs Dr. Happy trails!
Feeling hungry or thirsty after your hike? Head to a local restaurant to refill your tank before continuing your southern Arizona adventure.