Sabino Canyon, a spectacular slash in the Catalina Mountains northeast of Tucson, now attracts 1 million visitors a year — and federal officials say the canyon’s 21-year-old recreation plan is due for a makeover.
They’re inviting members of the public to weigh in at a Thursday meeting on a host of possible changes including:
- An updated canyon tram system — possibly involving alternative fuels and quieter operation.
- An expanded visitor center.
- New visitor-access facilities north of the main canyon entrance.
- A new scenic trail.
- New bicycle routes.
“We have raised some specific topics, but we want to hear ideas from the public on any aspect” of recreation in the canyon, said Larry Pratt, district recreation officer for the U.S. Forest Service. The agency manages the canyon.
“The goal is to revisit the 1993 Sabino Canyon Recreation Concept Plan and determine what parts of the plan we wish to carry forward,” Pratt said. “We’re seeking ideas and comments from the public about additions or subtractions from the plan.”
The Forest Service has compiled data from visitors and user groups for several years to formulate recommendations for the plan update. Here’s a look at some of the topics likely to generate discussion — and possibly controversy.
The tram, or shuttle, which carries visitors to a series of stops along the main 3.8-mile road in the canyon, has drawn praise from some visitors and criticism from others who disapprove of its noise, intrusiveness and biodiesel and diesel fuels.
“There are various opinions about the tram, but in general the public has seen a need for a basic transportation system in the canyon,” Pratt said. Discussion of the tram could include matters such as alternative fuels, quieter operations and environmental impacts.
David Lazaroff, a naturalist who has written two books about Sabino Canyon, suggested some alternatives for tram operations.
“When the canyon was closed some years ago for repair work (that halted tram operations), people remarked about how quiet it was,” Lazaroff said. “So we might consider asking: Does it have to run every day? Could we have quiet days” when trams don’t operate in the canyon?
Another thing to consider, Lazaroff said, is the narration by tram drivers, which has frequently drawn criticism from canyon walkers who find the amplified narration intrusive.
“Do we need to have narration on the shuttle?” Lazaroff said. “Could we maybe have it quiet most of the time and occasionally have a narrated tour?”
The Sabino Canyon visitor center contains informative exhibits, but it is considered by many to be too small for a site that gets a million visitors a year.
“We are open to all sorts of ideas for the visitor center,” Pratt said. “This is a highly desired destination, and we need to be planning for the future as to how to create the best visitor experience possible.”
Some canyon visitors interviewed in recent months say an expansion of the visitor center might be needed to adequately introduce and explain aspects of the canyon ecosystem — especially to visitors unfamiliar with desert landscapes.
Lazaroff said any expansion should be thoroughly studied in advance and limited in scope.
“My view,” he said, is that Sabino Canyon is an extremely valuable and sensitive natural and historical landscape. People love it as it is. That means to me that we should be very conservative about making physical changes.
“If changes are made, they need to have very good justification.”
NEW ACCESS FACILITIES
A new parking lot has been built about a half-mile north of the main canyon parking lot and visitor center, which are at 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road. The lot isn’t yet open for public use.
Pratt said people attending the meeting are welcome to comment on the need to open the new lot to augment parking at the existing lot, which has about 370 spaces and often is full during busy seasons.
“At this point, it’s a proposal,” he said. “Such an addition to the recreation area would have numerous review processes.”
POSSIBLE NEW TRAIL
Among ideas under consideration at the meeting will be a proposed new scenic trail.
The trail, Pratt said, would be built on the southeast side of Sabino Creek — extending from an area near Mile Marker 1 on the canyon road to Tram Stop 8, near the upper end of the road.
“The biking community desires more access to Sabino Canyon,” Pratt said. “This is an opportunity for them to tell us how to facilitate that.”
Cycling now is permitted on the canyon road only before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. — and not at all on Wednesdays and Saturdays.