By Rob Samuelsen

For thousands of years, people have flocked to Sabino Canyon to use and enjoy the water because water is the lifeblood of the desert. Sabino Creek was a perennial stream funneling water from the higher elevations of the Catalina Mountains into an alluvial fan at the foothills of the mountain slope. More recently, the creek dries up in the hot summers leaving a few stagnant ponds in crevasses and pools. It’s still a premier riparian habitat and wonderful place to hike, even on the hottest of days.

Up until 1978, people could drive up the canyon and picnic at one of the many pullout picnic areas. Today, access is limited to foot, bicycles (with restrictions), and the Sabino Canyon Crawler – an electric shuttle that provides a natural history tour up the canyon.

After the vehicular closure until 2018, a local cash-only, first-come-first-serve commercial tour company provided the tour in noisy diesel-powered shuttles. In 2017, the U.S. Forest Service decided to seek proposals for a more modern approach to honor the serenity of nature and convenience to customers. The Regional Partnering Center, a local non-profit, submitted a proposal backed by TEP to provide electric shuttles, automated narration with earbuds, and electronic ticketing to the canyon. Almost immediately, wildlife returned because of the cleaner air and quieter ride and sales went from 100% cash to 98% credit/debit. Furthermore, tourists can purchase tickets in advance via the web ( or at on-premises electronic kiosks.
Unfortunately, the National Forest shut down all public lands a year later because of covid-19 and to add to the grief, the massive 120,000 acre Bighorn fire decimated the mountain causing further closures for fear of landslides, fire debris, and spot flareups. Somehow, Sabino Canyon was mostly spared from the fire save ash-ladened water flows. Because of last year’s draught, this summer’s monsoonal rains, if any, will be the ultimate litmus test on residual fire debris to the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. In a way, the dry “nonsoon” from last year might be a blessing in disguise in terms of fire-related erosion and debris flows. We’ll know for sure soon!

The Sabino Canyon Crawler offers two different routes, one up Sabino Canyon and the other to the mouth of Bear Canyon where the popular hike to Seven Falls begins. The road up Sabino Canyon includes nine historic one lane “vented crossings” – bridge like structures that allow water to flow through the vents AND over the road! When the water is flowing strong, it’s an uncertain thrill to watch the talented Crawler drivers plow through the water in what seems to be a violation of Arizona’s Stupid Motorists Law. However, the vehicles are capable and drivers trained to navigate in up to nine inches of water. If there is more water than that, the canyon is closed and drivers proceed with a deviated tour. Many people also walk up the road rather than take the shuttle. The Bear Canyon route to the Seven Falls trailhead is very popular in the spring and fall especially if the water is flowing. The trail crosses the creek bed multiple times as it rises almost 1,000 feet in elevation. From the trailhead, it’s 2.5 miles one way but if you hike from the Visitors Center, it’s 4.1 miles. That’s why many people prefer to ride the trailhead shuttle. The only thing the shuttle lacks are “magic fingers” devices to massage sore feet after the long hike.

Rob Samuelsen is an executive and adventurer supported by his long-suffering but supportive wife!

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