Of the deserts which span the American Southwest, the Sonoran is one of the largest and one of the hottest. That doesn’t mean you need to drive around it though! There’s plenty of natural and man-made attractions lying in this space that are just a car-ride away from each other. And let’s not forget the recreational activities you can do in the desert’s many parks. If you can handle such a vast, arid space, then consider it for your next trip and check out any of these wonderful things to do in the Sonoran Desert!
It should be noted that, while deserts aren’t entirely unsafe, there are important precautions that should be taken before visiting:
- Bring lots of water and don’t waste it. Not all parks will provide it and those that do many not provide it everywhere. This is especially important if you’re camping.
- Bring sunscreen. Temperatures can easily reach the high 90’s and early hundreds in the summertime.
- Bring a first-aid kit. Hospitals and visitor’s centers will not always be close-by.
- Wear short, loose-fitting clothing. Bring back-up pairs in case you need them.
- In some cases, you may require special gear for hiking and camping expeditions. Do your research, buy it beforehand and keep it near you at all times.
- Use common sense. Don’t touch anything sharp and walk away from any flora or fauna that appear dangerous. Research also comes in handy here. Besides the internet, park rangers and tour guides are good people to ask if you have any concerns.
1. Saguaro National Park (Tucson, AZ)
One of the more well-known parks from the state, Saguaro National Park offers a chance to hike through Arizona’s wilderness. There’s around 160 miles of trail to explore and six different campgrounds if you want to rest for a while. Some trails can also be biked or traversed by horseback, if permitted. In terms of wildlife, Saguaro National Park is home to not just its namesake cactus but also various types of flowers, birds and reptile species. Tiny nocturnal coral snakes are present, but tend to avoid humans. Mexican jays (similar to bluejays) can be seen in some sections of the park. A must-see if you’re ever in Tucson!
2. The Sabino Canyon (Tucson, AZ)
The Sabino Canyon is one of the more impressive things to do in the Sonoran Desert. It’s a recreational spot known for its vegetation, waterfalls and overall beauty. Visitors to the region can hike up to 30 miles of trails or hop on a tram to the canyon’s highest points (and hop off for pictures or further exploration if you want). Popular places to go are the gushing Sabino Creek and the marvelous Hutch’s Pool, some of the most spectacular ways to see water in the desert! For those looking for wildlife, the beady Gila Monster makes its home here as well as the tiny Gambel’s Quail.
3. Ironwood Forest National Monument (Tucson, AZ)
One of the most fascinating protected zones in the area, Ironwood Forest is home to a number of natural and man-made wonders. There are the outstanding peaks of the Silver Bell Mountains, as well as the various ruins and petroglyphs left behind from the ancient Hohokam civilization. These are concentrated in special archaeological districts but they can be found all around the park. There are 200 of them in total!
4. Palm Canyon (Quartzsite, AZ)
Located in the Kofa National Wildlife Reserve, Palm Canyon is reachable by a gravel road off of US 95 followed by a half-hour hike. It’s notable for being the only place to find native California fan palms in Arizona. As well, the views of the Sonoran desert and the nearby Kofa Mountains you get while on the trail are spectacular. It really is a treat being surrounded by tall rock, both from a sightseer’s standpoint and an existentialist’s one.
5. Hot Air Ballooning (Arizona, in general)
Hot air balloon rides are one of the most exciting things to do in the Sonoran Desert. It’s commonly associated with New Mexico and the Chihuahua desert. But they can be done in the Sonoran and several companies around Arizona offer them as well. It’s not a cheap endeavor; prices range anywhere from $150 to $250 a person for one ride. On top of that, rides are often done in the early morning which equals an early wake-up time for prospective riders. But if you’re prepared to do these things, the reward is a spectacular view of the state, its cities and the Sonoran desert from above. And some companies even give you breakfast with the trip! Now that’s taking care of customers.
6. The Catalina Highway (Mount Lemmon, AZ)
The Catalina Highway spans from Northeast Tucson to the top of Mount Lemmon a little above the Sonoran desert area. Along the way, drivers can get a good view of the Santa Catalina mountains creeping up to the road. The Molino Canyon Vista is a very interesting place to stop, resting between the end of the desert and the woodlands around it. If you ever get sick of the heat and need a quick rest stop, this is one of the cooler things to do in the Sonoran Desert.
7. White Tank Mountain Regional Park (Waddell, AZ)
White Tank Mountain Regional Park is well-known for its trails and its biodiversity; Scorpions, mule deer, mountain lion, roadrunners and cactus wrens are all spotted in the park from time to time. If you’re interested in history, this may be one of the best things to do in the Sonoran Desert. White Tank is home to Hohokam petrographs and abandoned villages available for viewing on the 1.6 mile-long Black Rock trail. The ever popular 1.8 mile Waterfall trail is also worth a visit. It’s a natural desert landscape followed by a short but stunning waterfall.
8. Organ Pipe Cactus Monument (Ajo, AZ)
Organ Pipe offers hiking trails like other parks as well as shuttles to the various trails in case you want to save energy by not walking there. These trails vary from as long as eight miles to as short as .1 mile! But perhaps one of the best things to do in this national monument is go on a scenic drive. Quitobaquito Springs, a large oasis in the middle of the Sonoran, is visible by car. Various adobe houses are abandoned in the area. Wildlife in the area include the Bighorn Sheep, the Kangaroo Rat (actually related to the gopher), the Mesquite Bean, the Cholla Cactus and the Prickly-Pear, a bright red, sweet, seed-filled fruit that you can consume yourself. This monument is a great way to have fun near the U.S.-Mexican border. And speaking of Mexico…
9. El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve (Puerto Peñasco, Mexico)
On the other side of the border, El Pinacate Park shows examples of volcanic activity available nowhere else in the Sonoran desert. It’s all dormant, but the craters and cones left behind are marvelous to look at. They’re viewable via a one-way road that extends out into the park and traveling it takes around four to six hours at the most. Needless to say, you’re going to have to be ready with water and gasoline for one of the most time-consuming things to do in the Sonoran Desert.
10. Joshua Tree National Park (San Bernardino County, CA)
Joshua Tree National Park offers visitors plenty of trails that lead to a variety of interesting geological formations. Skull Rock, Arch Rock and the Hidden Valley (where rocks appear to be stacked like towers). But perhaps the most spectacular place to visit is Key’s Point, whose lookout provides views of San Jacinto Peak, the Coachella Valley and the San Andreas fault all at once! If you’re lucky, you might even be able to see Signal Mountain down in Mexico (although air pollution has made this difficult in recent years). If you’re going to be here at night, Joshua Tree National Park also offers great stargazing spots. In terms of wildlife, the park is home to not just Joshua Trees but also coyotes, desert tortoises, yucca plants and great-horned owls.
What are your favorite things to do in the Sonoran Desert? Let us know in the comments!
Hi! I'm Tyler and I'm a sophomore student at the University of Vermont. I'm an English major and I'm minoring in French and Linguistics. I'm particularly interested in reading, writing, philosophy and the natural world (although the Internet is somewhere I hang out often too).