Gates Pass: Tucson’s Finest Mountains


One thing I didn’t realize the extent of when moving to Arizona was how beautiful the nature and landscapes are. Coming from Chicago, Illinois, the mountains and cacti are all new to me. The landscape in Illinois is pretty much all flat land with an occasional bunch of corn fields depending on where you go. Of course, the city skyline is beautiful and the views of Lake Michigan are breathtaking but there is something about Tucson and its charming scenery that is so special to a non-Tucson native like me. I had chosen to come to Arizona because it always felt so calming to me. From the stunning nature to the freshness in the air, it drew me here.

The first visit…

One afternoon at the beginning of my first semester at the University of Arizona, a few girls in my sorority invited me to go with them to Gates Pass. I gladly joined them as it was a great way to view more of what Tucson has to offer as well as hang out with some new friends. They had all visited before and raved about how spectacular it was. We planned to head up there and take some “cute Instagram pics” of the sunset. So after our classes were finished for the day, they picked me up and we drove the twenty-minute drive up to Gates Pass.

As we drove up the hill and the curve-filled road to one of the stopping points. We pulled into a rocky parking lot and walked up onto the beginning of one of the hiking trails as the sun was beginning to set over Tucson. Our feet scuffled beneath us kicking up pebbles and dust on the trail. Orange and pink took over the blue sky as the sun went down, casting a yellow light over the mountains around me. Birds chirped and insects buzzed, as we all looked around in awe. This was something I had never seen before as Illinois has beautiful sunsets but nothing compared to the pretty sunset and nature combo Tucson has to offer. I had never seen a sunset slowly dip below a mountain peak, as the light it shines upon it begins to darken. I had never even been those high up on a mountain before.

Some fun background

After this experience, I researched what exactly Gates Pass has to offer. It was established in 1929 by the Pima County Parks Commission and is one of the largest natural resource areas owned by the government. In its 20,000 acres, there are multiple trails open to hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers. Picnicking and wildlife viewing opportunities are also scattered throughout the trails, in addition to the breathtaking views of the Tucson Mountains. When I visited I came across maps of Gates Pass and all its hiking trails which is a great resource for people who are visiting for the first time or are looking to find a different trail. For me and my friends, this was useful as the map provided some information about the hiking trails they had so we could plan for a hike in the future as well as give us some context as to where we were in the mountains.

The sunset visit

After my first visit, I made a plan to visit again with some more friends who like me, are from the Midwest and are experiencing Gates Pass for the first time. After classes, we headed up to

Gates Pass, around 5, right as the sun started to set. The drive isn’t too far from campus but we enjoyed each other’s company as we headed up there. On our way up through the mountains my friend Liv, said that the cacti spread across the mountains looked like a “forest of fingers”. I questioned the statement at first but then noticed that all the cacti on the mountain did look like fingers as they stuck out from the mountains. There had to be thousands of them, we were shocked because we had never seen anything like this before. Liv is from Minnesota where similarly to Illinois, the forests are filled with evergreens and pine trees, not cacti. There also aren’t any mountains so seeing multiple, steep, rocky, hiking trails is something so new to us. We pulled into another parking lot, just a small distance from the previous spot I had visited before, and got out.

As we pulled in, multiple cars were parked in the lot, and people were out looking around at the sunset and taking photos. What was different about this spot, was that there was a small brick lookout area with a bench where you could sit and get a perfect view of Gates Pass. I looked out and this time, the sun had set a stunning yellow and orange glow across the sky. The same calming feeling came over me, similar to how I felt the first time I visited. The air felt crisper and smelled so fresh, it was a good way to get away from campus and experience something different. We took some photos at the lookout spot and then went down a stony path beside the lookout. There, we came across a map, shown in the image above, which contains information about the trails at Gates Pass, which is super helpful to people like me and Liv who have only visited once. The sun had begun to vanish and we decided it was time to drive back. On our way back we reminisced on how breathtaking Gates Pass is. We even made a plan to visit again with some other friends who have never been and go on a hike on one of the many hiking trails at Gates Pass.

I once had a conversation with a friend who is from Tucson and they had asked if I had ever been hiking, when I replied no because the hikes we take in Illinois are a walk through a forest preserve, they were shocked. Going up to Gates Pass has allowed me to realize that there is so much nature out there that I haven’t ever experienced, even though it is sometimes right in front of me.

At Gates Pass, I felt a sense of peace as the birds chirped and the crisp desert air brushed past my face. The air is so clear there, which is one reason I came to school in Arizona. I always loved the scenery but the calming environment of Arizona has always made me so happy. Gates Pass not only opened my eyes to a whole new part of Tucson that I had never seen but also reminded me why I came here in the first place.


Olivia Cabrales is a freshman student from Illinois at the University of Arizona.