Coronado National Forest
Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region
1,859,807 acres (1,786,620 federal/ 73,187 other)
Coronado National Forest is sprinkled across the southeastern Arizona landscape, encompassing many forested “sky islands” that rise above the surrounding Sonoran Desert. The isolation of these ranges has led to the evolution of some endemic species of plants and animals unique to this region. That isolation also allows for clear night skies, so there are several peaks with astronomical observatories. The most visited portion of the forest is the Santa Catalina Mountains, easily accessible along the paved 35-mile-long Catalina Highway east of Tucson, Arizona.
Catalina Highway, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, Mt. Lemmon, Windy Point, Madera Canyon, Sky Island Scenic Byway, Mt. Graham, Onyx Cave, Madera Canyon, Mt. Hopkins Observatory, Pena Blanca Lake, Ramsey Canyon, Miller Peak, Cochise Stronghold
The Santa Catalina Mountains offer many recreational opportunities, from road biking to downhill skiing at the top of 9,157-foot Mt. Lemmon (the southernmost ski area in the U.S.). The scenic beauty and expansive vistas along the Catalina Highway are worth the many switchbacks, and you might drive past some of the most famous triathletes in the world who train here in the winter. The drive ascends through multiple life zones from saguaro-dotted desert to ponderosa pine forest. At the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains is the busy Sabino Canyon Recreation Area (fee).
Box Camp Trail is special to us as it was the site of our first date, marriage proposal, and wedding ceremony. Over the course of 13 miles, Box Camp Trail drops 5,000 feet in elevation from ponderosa pine forest through pinyon-juniper woodland to the desert of Sabino Canyon dominated by saguaro cacti. The rugged trail disappears in places, but offers incredible views along the way. Route finding is required as the trail is somewhat overgrown (with downed trees from wildfires), plus the one-way hike requires two cars, one left at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area and one at the trailhead on the Catalina Highway.
The Sonoran Desert is home to numerous unique wildlife species from roadrunners to Coues white-tailed deer. Many of the animals are nocturnal to avoid the heat of the day, including ringtails (or ring-tailed cats), kangaroo rats, and javelinas (or collared peccaries). The “sky islands” provide habitat for black bears, coyotes, skunks, mountain lions, bobcats, pronghorns, mule deer, and elk. Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is known for its coatis, relatives of raccoons that typically travel in packs.
Windy Point is a spectacular overlook along the Catalina Highway in the pinyon-juniper woodland zone. Not a bad spot for wedding photos, if we do say so ourselves.
Spring and fall
There is a fee to park at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, plus a charge for the tram ride. Check the USFS website for details.
The paved Catalina Highway is sometimes closed due to snow and ice in the winter. There are some rough roads in this part of the Sonoran Desert, and especially be aware of the potential for flash flooding.
There are designated campgrounds along the Catalina Highway and throughout Coronado National Forest. We dispersed camped near Dragoon Springs Station south of Interstate 10, but the access roads were in bad shape.
Miller Peak Wilderness
Mount Wrightson Wilderness
Pusch Ridge Wilderness
Santa Teresa Wilderness
Coronado National Memorial (Arizona)
Tumacácori National Historical Park (Arizona)
Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona)
Nearest National Park
two-needle pinyon pine, alligator juniper, ponderosa pine, Chihuahua pine, Apache pine
Emory oak, Arizona oak, Mexican blue oak, Arizona rosewood, black alder, Arizona walnut, velvet ash, Arizona sycamore, quaking aspen
Explore More – Who was the famous ecologist that studied the similarity of increasing elevation to increasing latitude more than a century ago in the Santa Catalina Mountains?
Learn more about this and the 154 other National Forests in our new guidebook Out in the Woods
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