Hike Arizona’s Catalina State Park’s Canyon Loop Trail

Park Trail Near Tucson, Arizona Offers Birding and Desert Scenery

A near-level trail 25 miles north of downtown Tucson, Arizona, is a great choice any time of the year for hiking, birding, another wildlife viewing, and photography.

Hikers and birders have two excellent state park choices to the north of Tucson. Oracle State Park is the furthest north, about 35 miles from Tucson, and Catalina State Park is approximately 18 miles south of Oracle. Catalina State Park lies in the Santa Catalina foothills where the day hiker will find extensive birdlife as well as other creatures, occasional streamflow, a variety of plant life, and spectacular scenery. There are eight trails in the park and the Canyon Loop Trail is a perfect introduction.

An Overview of Catalina Park’s Canyon Loop Trail near Tucson

The trail starts at the main trailhead parking lot, a mile and a half from the entrance booth. Since it is a loop, the hiker can choose either of the two starting points. The trail is 2.33 miles in length, changes elevation by only 150 feet, and can be hiked easily in 1-2 hours.


Water flows nearly year-round near the mid-point, and, consequently, more birds are often seen along this trail than on the park’s Birding Trail.

The trail description below follows the trail left from the parking lot. If hiked in reverse, the trail begins by crossing the road and walking straight to the wash.

The Sutherland Wash and the Canyon Loop Trail in Arizona

From the parking lot, at an elevation of approximately 2,730 feet, turn left at the road and follow it a short distance to the turnaround where the Canyon Loop Trail sign is found. The dirt trail parallels the Sutherland Wash, which is right of the trail and remains mostly level through a section of hackberry, amaranth, and mesquite. Birds commonly found in this area include the rare Rufous-winged Sparrow, Gila Woodpecker, Curved-bill and Crissal Thrasher, Northern Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia.

The trail crosses the Sutherland Wash twice in the first half-mile, then crosses a smaller wash where the Sutherland Trail begins. From the first crossing to the third, the trail climbs gently through and along with a magnificent stand of saguaro cactus, nearly 5,000 of which are found in the park.

Near where the trail leaves the wash, the wash becomes rocky and is more likely to show water flow. Oaks, sycamore and cottonwood trees, as well as Desert Spoon, are common along this stretch.

Returning on the Canyon Loop Trail

Just past the first mile, the trail climbs to about 2,860 feet, utilizing a staircase built with 92 railroad ties. The easy climb ends at two benches, giving the hiker an opportunity to sit down, drink some water and take photographs of sweeping mountain views to the north and east.

From the benches, the trail remains mostly level through ocotillo, prickly pear and mesquite, and returns through a high meadow. Beautiful Black-throated Sparrows are often found here.

At about 1.8 miles from the beginning, the trail joins the Romero Canyon Trail. From this point, the trail drops down, crosses the wash and ends at the parking lot.

The Birds of Catalina State Park near Tucson, Arizona

Southeast Arizona is a paradise for birders in general, and Catalina State Park is no exception. Due to the varied elevation and plant life, as well as two major washes, birds are abundant throughout the year. The park’s bird list shows 46 permanent resident species and 177 total species. Bird walks are regularly offered by park volunteers and typical bird counts on these walks range up to 50 or more species.

Steps to Ensure a Safe and Enjoyable Hike

The Sonoran Desert can be as harsh as it is beautiful. Days often warm up quickly and can easily reach 100 degrees during much of the year. The sun is intense year-round. Hikers should carry at least two liters of water even on short hikes, wear hats, use sunscreen and be alert for rattlesnakes.

Fifty-five hundred acre Catalina State Park is one of 27 magnificent Arizona State Parks. It is easily accessible from Tucson and offers wonderful birding and photographic opportunities in a diverse and beautiful setting.


Sutherland Trail in Catalina State Park near Tucson

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