As I researched our nine-day trip to Tucson, Sabino Canyon was listed on the "things you must do or you won't be invited back". Though I didn't check "Cat Fancy", I'm sure they would also have put Sabino in that category as well.
The big appeal of the canyon is the hiking, and it is a big appeal - it was easily the busiest trail of the half-dozen or so on which I hiked in the Tucson area. The entry fee gets you into the parking lots, and the optional shuttle ride provides a narrated ride to any of the nine stops along the paved road that goes three miles into the canyon. It's a relaxing ride up, and the driver provided lots of interesting information about the canyon history and flora / fauna.
A Sabino Canyon pro tip: Sit under the covered area right behind the shuttle tractor. The diesel fumes rolled over the canopy and onto the exposed portion of the shuttle where my daughter and I were sitting. If you're not bothered by fumes, or relish them - I know you people are out there - enjoy them with my compliments.
The final stop, #9, was where 95% of the shuttle crowd departed from. Most passengers took a look at the view, then started back on the paved trail. My daughter and I took a different track, heading instead for the zig-zag path up the canyon wall to the Phoneline Trail. This gave spectacular views down the canyon, even better than the one you see just getting off the shuttle, and into the eastern edge of Tucson. This path is also much less traveled than was the paved one below. And honestly, this path is also more dangerous, as there is little to catch you if you make a wrong step, so you'll need to watch your footing.
Not wanting to subject a 10-year old to the full length of this particular trail - I lost my "Father of the Year" award just taking her up there - we took the "Historic Sabino Canyon" cut-off trail that led back down to the main path back to the visitors center. This was still challenging, but at least it was downhill. Mostly. And there were enough rocks to climb on to make her happy. And we didn't see a single rattlesnake.
Though your mileage way vary, our trip involved several water stops. Runoff from Mount Lemmon cascaded through the valley, including one point where it ran over the road. Though not ideal for swimming, both because of the shallow depth and water that was quite cold - several spots provided fine places for wading. We encountered some non-dangerous wildlife in the form of little silver frogs who didn't seem to mind us too much.
Which brings me to Sabino Canyon pro tip #2: If you're tired, just wait for the shuttle at one of the designated spots. Don’t' try to hoof it to the next stop - relax, it's all good. On our way back, two of the three running trams were right behind each other, and if you wanted to catch a tram, you better be at one of the nine stops - they don't pick you up along the road. Only if you have a bear gnawing on your head will they even consider stopping to help. So in this case, we missed one, and so missed them both. But if you have a tired child, better just to sit and wait for the next one that to risk getting caught in the middle of two stops.
Verdict: If you're looking for a quiet hike with trails to yourself, Sabino Canyon is not the place for you. There are gobs of tourists on the main trail, though the Phoneline Trail was quite a bit quieter. My experience on the other Sabino Canyon trails is non-existent, which I hope to remedy someday. The park does have a good range of trails for each skill level, and if you're a beginner, or looking for an accessible hike, you can't beat it. The tram is very convenient for getting you to the end, and if it's too long a walk, just wait for the next tram to come along and pick you up. If you don't mind a small crowd sharing your hiking experience, and are looking for some nice scenery, you will enjoy Sabino. It has some of the best views around, and worth the price of admission.