Some people mistakenly believe southern Arizona is filled with nothing but sand, snakes and saguaros.
These people haven't taken advantage of the variety of breathtaking outdoor opportunities available within a day trip of the University of Arizona campus.
In a recent ranking of the top 20 universities and colleges for outdoor adventures, the Outbound Collective placed the UA at No. 13, thanks in large part to the more than 300 days of sunshine in Tucson and the University's close proximity to Saguaro National Park, the Catalina Mountains, Sedona's red rocks and the Grand Canyon.
It's the first time the UA has been ranked by this publication, and it is one of only three high-research, Association of American Universities schools to place in the top 13.
"A lot of people think of Arizona as this barren desert, but that couldn't be further from the truth," said Andrew Huff, assistant director of the UA's Outdoor Adventures Program. "People are blown away by all of the different outdoor activities available around here."
Huff and his crew at the Outdoor Adventures Program work to connect UA students, staff and faculty to these activities, which include hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, canoeing, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, bicycling, cross-country skiing and caving. The program organizes trips and provides rental equipment for those looking to engage with nature. Each trip offers opportunities for skill development, social interaction and safe recreation, with an emphasis on environmental awareness.
The program works under the umbrella of UA Campus Recreation and has grown to serve more than 2,500 participants each year, with an additional 2,400 renting equipment. Students with diverse backgrounds and areas of study join to share their love of the outdoors with others in a unique experience that is noted on their transcripts when they graduate as part of the UA's 100% Engagement initiative.
While many Outdoor Adventures Program participants are experienced adventurers, newcomers are welcome to take part and see which sports are right for them.
"We make a concerted effort to drive down costs and provide as many opportunities for people who don't have a car or their own gear to come out with us," Huff said.
Arizona rock climbers, Huff said, enjoy world-class climbing opportunities year round, with very few public research institutions in the UA's class in this regard.
For those who prefer to keep their feet on solid ground, the hiking opportunities in and around Tucson — from Mount Graham to Mount Lemmon to Picacho Peak — feature some of the best trails for hikers, regardless of skill level or experience.
But what about people who love to paddleboard, kayak or canoe?
"I didn't think it was possible in Arizona, but I experienced some of my best kayaking and canoeing trips while I was attending school here," said graduating senior Luke Stauffer.
Junior journalism student Tobey Schmidt echoed Stauffer's sentiments.
"Water is a natural phenomenon in the desert," Schmidt said. "It's not that long of a drive from Tucson to some incredible bodies of water."
Schmidt, who joined the UA's Outdoor Adventures Program as a freshman, has used it to help further her photography studies. Many of her best shots have been featured in outdoors publications, and one took first place in the 2015 Drew Gyorke Memorial Fund Photo Contest.
"This is more than just a student job for me," she said. "This program has helped guide me in the direction I want to go after college. It's opened up opportunities for improvement in my outdoor photography and journalism skills, and it's where I've met most of my friends in college."
Stauffer, who recently received his bachelor's degree in philosophy, will be continuing his adventurous pursuits as an outdoors studies graduate student at Alaska Pacific University.
"If it wasn't for the Outdoor Adventures Program, my life would not be what it is right now," Stauffer said. "It definitely had a major impact on me and my current career path."
With positive word-of-mouth around campus, social media posts from participants set against breathtaking scenic backdrops and, now, national recognition from high-profile outdoors publications, Huff hopes this encourages even more people in the UA community to seek adventure.
"Our program has been doing really good work for a long time and we're finally starting to get noticed," Huff said. "It feels good."