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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Sonoran landscape great for academic escape

The UA campus is beautiful, and the surrounding city is filled with popular attractions, eclectic shops and exciting nightlife. But any student who chooses to spend their four or more college years in Tucson should be ashamed if they don’t take advantage of the spectacular natural landscape surrounding the city.

A desert—by definition hot, dry and hostile to life—isn’t the most obvious nature-lover’s destination. But wildlife not only survives here in Southern Arizona, it thrives. The most biodiverse North American desert, the Sonoran Desert overflows with amazing creatures and stunning wildflowers and is the only home of the iconic saguaro cactus, among other species.

The desert’s biodiversity is supported by bimodal precipitation, meaning that the majority of rainfall is split between the winter rains and the summer monsoons. This unique climate pattern allows different species to flourish at different times of year, making the Sonoran Desert home to more plant species than any other desert in the world.

Awe-inspiring mountains surround Tucson’s Santa Cruz Valley: the Santa Catalina Mountains and Tortolita Mountains to the north, the Santa Rita Mountains to the south, the Rincon Mountains to the east and the Tucson Mountains to the west. In the mountains you can find forests, flowing water, and plant and animal species absent on the desert floor.

The mountains are divided vertically into “life zones”: sections of species diversity that change with altitude. In addition to these zones, Tucson’s mountains are also known for something called “sky islands”, which are unique mountain habitats isolated by sudden changes in elevation. Sky islands are often home to rare and endangered species. Tucson’s Santa Ritas are also the only range used by a male jaguar in North America.

The city’s fantastic natural beauty is preserved through numerous parks and protected areas. Saguaro National Park, Catalina State Park, and Picacho Peak State Park are just a few of the areas you should explore. These parks are equipped with light infrastructure to allow ecotourists to access some of Southern Arizona’s most beautiful spots while keeping the ecosystem intact.

Inside the parks you can find secluded camping areas without neighbors, or more communal sites with shelters and full amenities. Trails guide travelers from point A to point B while providing stimulating exercise and breathtaking vistas.

The myriad ways to explore the surrounding landscape provide excellent outlets for students. You can cycle or dune buggy through the desert; hike, run, or ride horseback through remote trails; climb or mountain bike through the slopes. The largest nearby mountain, Mount Lemmon, even hosts a ski resort during the winter.

If you lack skills or equipment, the campus Student Recreation Center’s Outdoor Adventures team offers students guided trips at a low price, and they will bring everything you need.

Once you’ve explored all the landscapes Tucson has to offer, there are even more outstanding destinations within a reasonable drive. Near Apache county is Chiricahua National Monument, where you will find gorgeous rock formations and maybe even spot a Coatimundi. Flagstaff, Ariz., is home to even taller mountains, pine forests and plenty of snow. And, of course, every Arizona resident—make that every American—should visit the majestic and iconic Grand Canyon, our own natural wonder of the world.

I encourage everyone to seek adventure in Arizona’s stunning outdoors, but to do so smartly. Bring plenty of water, a hat, sunscreen and proper shoes. Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and scorpions, and keep your food out of reach from bears. Heed all park signs (especially those warning of flash floods,) and pay any camping or vehicle fees. Hunt or fish with a license and in the proper season.

And please, pack out anything you take in. Nobody wants to find empty beer cans and broken glass in what was once a pristine environment. Thoughtful outdoor recreation allows you to safely explore an equally harsh and breathtaking environment while preserving it for future generations of wildlife and nature enthusiasts. 

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