KGUN 9NewsAbsolutely Arizona


Sabino Canyon: Tucson's playground for 140 years

The remarkable history of the canyon in the Catalina Mountains
Posted: 1:10 PM, May 22, 2023
Updated: 2023-05-23 08:00:47-04
View up Sabino Canyon

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Sabino Canyon is one of the most popular hiking and recreation areas in Southern Arizona. For more than a century, Tucsonans have made their way into the Catalina Foothills to picnic and play in the scenic canyon.

"It was kind of stunning," said David Wentworth Lazaroff as he remembered the first time he ever saw Sabino Canyon.

It was 1977. Lazaroff had just moved from the Bay Area to started his job with the National Forest Service at Sabino Canyon.

"Just to see these enormous, beautiful slopes with Saguaros," said Lazaroff. "You know, we live here awhile, we get used to it. What's it like the first time you see it? It's startling and stunning."

Sabino Canyon Saguaros

So taken by Sabino Canyon, Lazaroff became an environmental education specialist for the Coronado National Forest, passing along his knowledge of the unique canyon nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

"It's interesting on so many levels," Lazaroff said. "It's interesting geology, the biology is fascinating. But the human history came to dominate my interests in it. That's a whole dimension of Sabino Canyon I've wanted to open up."

Lazaroff just published his third book on Sabino Canyon. Picturing Sabino chronicles a century of the recreation area, from 1885 to 1985.

Imagine in 1885, traveling by carriage or on horseback to reach the canyon.

Traveling to Sabino Canyon in the 1880s

"It took hours," explained Lazaroff. "You stopped, the halfway point was Fort Lowell. You stopped at Fort Lowell almost always. Then you came on up here and you spent most of the day, and came back at the end of the day."

Lazaroff points out that in 1885 not many knew about Sabino Canyon or what to expect.

"So they got together in large groups, I'm sure they because they felt safer."

Pictures from the time show 1880s visitors to Sabino Canyon got all dressed up.

All dressed up at Sabino Canyon

"Women in their Sunday best, long dresses, fancy hats wading in the creek. You can't beat that."

According to Lazaroff's research, the remarkable beauty of Sabino Canyon was threatened several times during its early history.

Colonel C. P. Sykes claimed to have found gold here in 1892.

"He formed a company called the Sabino Gold Mining Company," said Lazaroff. "He claimed, I guess, it was 10 mines in all. Then the whole thing just vanished, it disappeared."

Gold mine at Sabino Canyon

You can still see one of those mines at the end of Rattlesnake Canyon, near the first shuttle stop.

Sykes also named a famous landmark in Sabino Canyon: Sykes Obeservatory. Today, we know it as Thimble Peak.

Thimble Peak

Around the turn of the last century, there were plans to damn the upper portion of Sabino Canyon.

The idea was to pipe water down to Tucson to help alleviate a major drought in the early 1900s.

Fortunately, for the future of Sabino Canyon, it never happened.

A small dam was built in Lower Sabino Canyon near the end of the Great Depression.

During the depression, many of the bridges were built over Sabino Creek as part of government works projects.

Cars were allowed to drive up the canyon through the 1950s and 60s.

The first shuttle began operating in June of 1978, with cars only allowed in teh lower canyon.

Cars were finally banned in 1981.

Today, the electric Sabino Canyon Crawler is the only vehicle allowed, helping reduce pollution in the canyon.

Sabino Canyon Crawler

It takes you on the 7-mile round trip to the top of the canyon and back.

While no one can question the beauty of Sabino Canyon there is some question surrounding the name.

In Lazaroff's new book, he debunks a common misconception. This Sabino Canyon was not named for a wealthy rancher.

"As it turns out, there is another canyon named Sabino Canyon, and it's way off west of Tucson," he explained. "That one was named for Sabino Otero."

Others have suggested it was named for the Spanish word sabino—referring to a reddish-colored horse found grazing in the canyon.

Sabino is also a local Spanish word for juniper or cypress trees, which grew in the canyon in the 1800s.

"If there had been just one of those trees, like a big Christmas Tree standing out, people would have said that's the canyon with the Sabino in it, Sabino Canyon."

Regardless of how it got its name, Sabino Canyon is a real Tucson treasure.

Road up to Sabino Canyon

With more than a half million visitors each year, it's one of the most visited recreation areas in the state.

Also in the book Picturing Sabino, you will learn the tragic 1948 death of a deputy sheriff falling to his death during a rescue.

A Daily Star photographer captured the horrific moment. Two weeks later the photos appeared in Life Magazine.

That photographer was Sam Levitz, who went on to run his family's furniture business in Tucson.

Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.