A hike, at its bare essence, is simply a vigorous venture out of the city and into the wild — a test of legs and lungs against a backdrop of scenic splendor.
But something else, something more subtle, lures many of us to the trails around Tucson: a quest for a place that inspires quiet reflection, moments of meditation or private prayer.
It might be an overlook with panoramic views. It could be a forest glade. Even a niche in the rocks where time stands still can set the stage for contemplation.
“It’s quiet here,” said hiker Kara Bove as she sat for a while with a friend on a small rock outcrop with big views along the Douglas Spring Trail east of Tucson.
Another hiker, Dieter Berninger, paused at sunset on a rocky expanse along the Pontatoc Canyon Trail north of the city — a spot where many hikers stop to look, listen and perhaps clear the mind.
Routes to such sites — call them “trails to tranquility” — ring the Tucson area. Today, as we near the winter solstice and new-year milestones, we describe three trails with plenty of places to pause and reflect.
BROWN MOUNTAIN TRAIL
What’s to see: This fairly easy 2.4-mile trail in Tucson Mountain Park west of the city connects two trailheads and winds through classic Sonoran Desert terrain.
Saguaros dominate slopes and ridges, while robust cholla cacti, standing more than 8 feet high, form their own prickly forest along lower stretches of the route near its southeastern trailhead on McCain Loop Road.
Hikers often see hawks and desert birds, and you might catch a glimpse of javelina or deer.
Places to pause: The trail passes several rocky high points — and these flattopped spots invite hikers to plop down and ponder.
One of them, less than a mile into the hike from the northwestern trailhead on Kinney Road, is the first high point you’ll see up a slope on the right side of the trail. If you choose to make the very short ascent off the trail, watch your footing and stay on rocks to avoid damaging vegetation. Views from the top — across the Avra Valley — might put you in a meditative mood.
Something else along the Brown Mountain Trail can have a soothing effect: minimalist beauty.
Simply glance down beside the trail or along the slopes above it and watch for some small but striking displays of mustard-yellow lichen on rocks.
Also at ground level at various spots along the trail are inviting nooks in the rock trimmed with tiny green, fern-like plants — looking a little like refugees from the forest.
Get to the trail: Follow Speedway west out of Tucson and continue as it becomes Gates Pass Road. Cross the pass and proceed to an intersection with Kinney Road. Turn right (northwest) onto Kinney Road and follow it 0.6 of a mile to a left (southwest) turnoff for McCain Loop Road. Continue about 0.4 of a mile to the trailhead. A second trailhead is at the Juan Santa Cruz Picnic Area on Kinney Road just southeast of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
PONTATOC CANYON TRAIL
What’s to see: Rocky ridges, cerulean skies and cactus forests are the scenic standouts once hikers depart the trailhead area, which overlooks residential neighborhoods.
The canyon trail shares a route with the Pontatoc Ridge Trail before the two diverge at the 0.8-mile point. The ridge trail climbs to a ridge where hikers see wild country on one side and look down on the sprawl of Tucson on the other.
By sticking with the canyon trail, you’ll mostly avoid the urban interface as the route continues to a spot known as the Amphitheater — 2.2 miles from the trailhead and a good turnaround point.
Places to pause: Barely a quarter-mile up the trail, several broad outcrops have long been a popular spot for sunset watchers, meditators and people who just want to slow down, sit down, and focus profoundly on nothing.
It takes just a minute or two from the trail to make your way easily onto the rocks and find a comfortable spot to sit in the full-lotus position or merely stretch out on the stone. But be careful on the rocks and keep a close eye on children, because there are some steep drop-offs toward the canyon bottom.
Another good stopping point is about a mile up the canyon trail, just past its junction with the Pontatoc Ridge Trail. Views of distant, rugged ridges and the watercourse below can be calendar-quality in end-of-day light.
In periods after heavy rain or snowmelt, you might find a waterfall near the Amphitheater site — a setting favored by some hikers for quiet contemplation.
Get to the trail: Take East Skyline Drive to North Alvernon Way. Turn north on Alvernon and follow it for a mile to a hikers’ parking lot at its northern end. Start up the trail and watch for a trail junction just a minute or two into the hike when you reach the crest of a small hill. Take the right fork toward Pontatoc Canyon.
DOUGLAS SPRING TRAIL
What’s to see: The 6-mile trail, slicing into the foothills of the Rincon Mountains at Saguaro National Park east of Tucson, offers an almost endless number of good spots to stop and think a bit — or just stop thinking.
The lower reaches of the trail are saguaro cactus terrain, but you’ll see some mountain plant species as you move upward.
If you stop for a breather, look back the way you came to get grand views of the Catalina Mountains across the valley.
Places to pause: Less than a mile up the trail — after the route passes a deep, rugged drainage on the left and ascends a steep, rocky section — a small hill just off the trail provides a good view and a sit-down spot. You might chant “Om,” send up a prayer for peace or, OK, eat that peanut butter sandwich you brought along.
The site of Bridal Wreath Falls, even if water isn’t flowing, can be a peace-and-quiet kind of place. To reach the site, follow the Douglas Spring Trail 2.5 miles from the trailhead and then take a spur trail 0.3 miles to the falls.
Get to the trail: The trailhead is at the eastern dead-end of Speedway.
Another possibility is to engage in a sort of walking meditation. No less an outdoor authority than John Muir, a renowned naturalist and co-founder of the Sierra Club, reportedly didn’t care for the word “hiking” because it implied rushing along a trail with a destination in mind rather than searching for something greater.
Muir’s preferred word: sauntering.
“Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’” says a quote from Muir on the Sierra Club’s website. “It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ or ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”