The Santa Catalina Mountains are literally Tucson's front-yard mountain range. But when pondering a spring day hike, try heading south. The city's backyard range, the Santa Rita Mountains are every bit as geologically awesome and are 296 feet taller.
On the east slope, Gardner Canyon is a launch site for several great hikes. Point your boots skyward on the Gardner Canyon Trail, and you'll find the shortest and shadiest route (9.4 difficult miles round-trip with a 3,400-foot elevation gain) to the summit of 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson, which, on a clear day, provides 100-mile views in every direction. Or trek as far as you want toward Mexico along a segment of the Arizona Trail, through startlingly deep gulches with lichen-crusted granite protrusions that resemble ruined battlements. The trail is easy to follow and reasonably benign―even where it resembles a catwalk chiseled into the canyon walls.
Info: From I-10 east of Tucson, take State 83 south 20 miles to Gardner Canyon Rd. (Forest Rd. 92). Turn right; it's about 6 miles to Arizona Trail parking and 11 miles to the Gardner Canyon Trail. For trail and road updates, contact the Coronado National Forest (www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado or 520/761-6000).