There is a hard truth ahead for those who love Sabino Canyon — the gates will be open for everyone as usual, but not everyone will able to get to Seven Falls or other scenic spots in the popular recreation area.
The shuttles that look like they were taken right off the Universal Studios tour lot will stop their daily loops over two routes beginning July 1, the end of an era for private concessionaire Sabino Canyon Tours, which has held the permit since the mid-1980s.
A new tram provider was selected by the U.S. Forest Service to ferry passengers up and down the canyon, but because of legal action involving the current permit holder, the new shuttle service may not begin right away. In fact, forest officials sent out a news release Wednesday warning that a gap in shuttle service may occur and that it “may be short or may last for several months, depending on the duration of the appeal process.”
The legal challenge filed by the current operator has tied the hands of the Coronado National Forest Service officials to turn over the route to the new 20-year permit holder, leaving tens of thousands of people who count on the shuttle to travel miles deep into the canyon to decide whether they want to walk into the popular recreational area north of Tucson.
Many cannot physically make the trip without using the tram, especially in the hottest months of the year.
It is unclear how many of the estimated 150,000 annual riders who used the shuttles will be affected, but Friday morning, the Road Runner watched young children, senior citizens, some visitors using canes and others climbing aboard trams. Many would probably have a tough time visiting the canyon on foot.
The trams take passengers through the 3.8-mile Sabino Canyon tour and the 2-mile Bear Canyon tour. Complaints about the current operation ranged from the use of diesel- and gas-powered trams to the noise generated by the amplified narration coming for the open-air vehicles.
A 52-page legal complaint filed by Sabino Canyon Tours in federal court faults the Forest Service for its decision to give the contract to Regional Partnering Center, stating the agency violated a number of policies and rules. It is asking a federal judge to overturn the decision.
The new permit holder, Regional Partnering Center, is a nonprofit managed by the Pima Association of Governments.
Its proposal for the permit included plans to phase in electric vehicles and limit the noise from amplified narrations by using enclosed vehicles.
Forest Service officials can’t say how long Sabino Canyon will be without a shuttle, but are searching for interim solutions with the expectation that the court battle will take months to unravel.
For those with plans to visit Sabino Canyon in the near term, please remember to drink lots of water on your trip, wear appropriate gear and know your limits if you do decide to walk/hike into the canyon.