Things to Do in Saguaro National Park

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Saguaro National Park preserves two separate forests of the largest cactus in the United States. The saguaro cactus is generally regarded as the iconic symbol of the American West despite the fact that it only grows in a small area of the country, in the Sonoran Desert. There are many things to do in Saguaro National Park allowing you to not just view the majestic tree-sized cactus but also learn more about how they grow and the habitat they provide to wildlife.

The park is split between two different districts to the east and west of Tucson, Arizona. Scenic loops and hiking trails in both districts make viewing the cacti easy. And the two different visitor centers provide exhibits on the life of the saguaro cactus, the wildlife found in the park and the history of human interaction with the land.

Saguaro cactus
Saguaro cactus

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Planning Your Visit to Saguaro National Park

As you plan your visit to Saguaro National Park, you’ll first need to decide if you want to visit the eastern unit, western unit, or both. We definitely recommend visiting both units, if possible, as there are slight differences between them. That said, you can still have a complete visit to the park even if you only have time for one unit. 

Rincon Mountains at Saguaro National Park
Rincon Mountains with saguaro cacti in the foreground.

The Rincon Mountain District lies just east of Tucson and is the larger of the two districts. It is a little easier to reach and offers more miles of hiking trails. To the west, the Tucson Mountain District has a higher density of saguaros but is a little more rugged and farther outside of town. 

The driving time between the two districts is about one hour. Still, unless you want to do some longer hiking, you can easily explore both units in one day. That said, there are some other things to do near Saguaro National Park, so I’d suggest you spend at least two or three days in the Tucson area.

Best Time to Visit Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park lies in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona and has a decidedly desert climate. For this reason, the winter season (November through March) is the busy season and when we suggest visiting. 

During the winter season (late fall to early spring),  temperates range from the low 50s to the high 70s, making hiking and other outdoor activities pleasant. This is also when you’ll find the majority of the parks’ scheduled ranger talks and other activities.

Wildflowers in Saguaro National Park
Wildflowers in Saguaro National Park

The summer season runs from late spring to early fall. Mid-summer high temperatures range from the mid-90s to the 110s. During these times, you should limit your hiking to early morning or late evening and keep a careful eye on how much water you are carrying with you.

We visited in early April and the weather was already on the verge of being too hot for us. Honestly, the temperatures themselves weren’t that high. Still, with no shade and very little humidity, the intensity of the sun was magnified significantly. Even a short and easy hike felt difficult with the sun beating down on us. Seriously, don’t underestimate the heat here, even in the spring and fall.

Things to Do at Saguaro National Park

The most popular things to do in Saguaro National Park are driving the scenic loops in each unit and doing a few hikes. Bicycles are permitted on both scenic drives and are a popular way to explore the park. Additionally, a few trails are open for mountain biking and horseback riding. There are also some longer trails for overnight backcountry hiking and camping. 

Cactus Forest Drive in Saguaro National Park
Cactus Forest Drive in the east section of Saguaro National Park

Note: trailers longer than 35 feet or any vehicle wider than 8 feet are prohibited on both scenic drives.

Rincon Mountain District 

The Rincon Mountain District is located on the eastern edge of Tucson. In fact, from the visitor center and scenic drive, you can see a few residential neighborhoods. While it would be kind of neat to see a national park from my backyard, I have to say that seeing a neighborhood from a national park was odd. Still, it speaks to how easy it is to reach Saguaro National Park from Tucson.

Outside the small visitor center, you’ll find a lovely garden of cacti and other native desert plants. Inside, you’ll find a few exhibits and a gift shop. Be sure to pick up a park map and hiking guide and talk to a ranger to get any updated information. This is something that we always advise, but find is extremely important in a desert environment.

From the visitor center, the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive is an eight-mile paved drive. Several pullouts along the road offer closer views of the saguaro cactus, exhibits on the cactus and other plants and opportunities for hiking.

Hiking in the Rincon Mountain District  

If you want to do some hiking at Saguaro National Park, there are a wide variety of trails to choose from that start right off the scenic loop drives. The park’s official hiking guide provides a short description of each trail, along with the length and elevation change. In many cases, you can connect several trails together to create a loop that suits your ability and interests.

Desert Ecology Trail
Desert Ecology Trail

Our first hike of the day was one that I would recommend for everyone: the Desert Ecology Trail. This 0.25-mile loop was flat and easy. In fact, it is wheelchair accessible and open to leashed pets. Along this trail, you’ll get an introduction to many of the plants found around the Sonoran Desert.

For our second hike, we created a loop by connecting the Cholla Trail, Cactus Forest Trail and Mesquite Trail. All told the hike was about 2.75 miles and took an hour and 15 minutes. The trail was quite nice, passing by dry washes, small and large cacti and even some dead cacti. 

Hiking in Saguaro National Park.
Bonnie on one of the trails in the east section of Saguaro National Park.

I have to say, seeing the wide variety of shapes and sizes of cacti really is interesting. Seeing the skeleton of a dead cactus is even more fascinating! Basically, as the cactus decays all that is left are wooden spines, called ribs. 

There were several other hikes that we were interested in. But, honestly, at this point, I could definitely feel the intensity of the sun beating down on me and quickly zapping all of my energy.  We decided to finish up the scenic drive and then head into town to find some lunch.

Tucson Mountain District

On the west side of town is the Tucson Mountain District. Compared to the eastern unit, the western unit is much more remote. That said, the drive time from the center of town is about the same to each of the two units.

At the Tucson Mountain District, you’ll find the Red Hills Visitor Center, which is much larger than at the Rincon Mountain District. Be sure to watch the 20-minute park film to learn a little more about Saguaro National Park and the ecosystem it preserves.

Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park
The west section of Saguaro National Park has more of the namesake cacti than the east section of the park.

From the visitor center, the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive is a six-mile unpaved road that takes you to scenic pullouts and trailheads. While the road is unpaved, it is graded dirt and gravel and well-maintained. Any vehicle (within the aforementioned length and width requirements) should be able to handle the drive. 

Hiking in the Tucson Mountain District

While the Tucson Mountain District is the smaller of the two units, there are still a good number of hiking trails, ranging from short and easy to longer and more difficult. Even if you only have about half a day, you should be able to get in the three hikes below. 

Desert Discovery Nature Trail
Desert Discovery Nature Trail

One hike that everyone should be able to do is the Desert Discovery Trail. The trailhead is right off the main drive, about one mile northwest of the visitor center. This 1/2-mile self-guided nature trail provides another look at a wide range of native plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert. The trail is paved, wheelchair accessible and has benches if you need to rest or just want to sit and enjoy the views. There is also an audio tour for the visually impaired, which is available at the visitor center.

Turn right on Hohokam Road to reach our next recommended hike: the Valley View Overlook Trail. This trail does have a bit more rugged terrain and more elevation gain than our other recommendations. Still, it is overall a fairly short and easy trail for the average hiker. The 0.8-mile trail takes you gradually up a small ridge to an overlook of the Avra Valley. Even just this little bit of elevation change provides great views of the dense cactus forest surrounding you.

Hohokam Road in the western section of Saguaro National Park
Hohokam Road

Our final hike of the day was just a short trek at the Signal Hill Picnic Area. The trail is only about 1/3 of a mile but takes you up a few stone steps to some prehistoric petroglyphs. We found both a spiral design and a couple of antelope on the rocks at the end of the trail. Look closely and you may find a few others. 

Petroglyphs at Saguaro National Park
Petroglyphs on Signal Hill

Other Things to Do Near Saguaro National Park

There are many things to do in and around Tucson and southern Arizona. As you enter the western unit of the park, you’ll pass right by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Unfortunately, we did not have time to stop for a visit but my dad tells me that it is a very nice museum. 

Here, you can learn more about the native plants of the Sonoran Desert, along with many of the animals that call this desert home. You can also learn about the geology and prehistory of the area. We would have loved to have stopped in for a visit.  Unfortunately, we just didn’t have time to do both units of Saguaro National Park and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in one day.

Coronado Pass in Coronado National Memorial
Coronado likely came through this pass.

With the additional days that we had in southern Arizona, we made a point to visit the other national park sites in the area. From Tucson, we took a day trip to Coronado National Memorial and Tumacacori National Historical Park. 

From there, we took a couple more days to see a few other parks. Organ Pipe National Monument is located just south of Ajo, Arizona, and extends all the way down to the border with Mexico. Finally, we made a quick stop at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument as we made our way up to Phoenix for a night. 

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument at sunset
Sunset views along the Desert View Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Read Grant’s article on visiting these additional national park sites in southern Arizona. 

Where to Stay and Eat When Visiting Saguaro National Park

There are no lodges at Saguaro National Park, but you’ll find a wide variety of hotels and restaurants in Tucson. We stayed at the DoubleTree Suites by the Tucson Airport because we got a great deal using points there. The hotel itself was a little dated but it was still quite nice and we really enjoyed the space of having a suite. Additionally, the rooms are situated around an inner courtyard with a pool. 

DoubleTree in Tuscon
The DoubleTree in Tuscon

In terms of food, we enjoyed the restaurant at the hotel, Finnegan’s Restaurant & Pub. They had a wide variety of specialty cocktails, beer and wine. And I really enjoyed the build-your-own tostadas, which were definitely a unique menu item.

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If you’d like to eat out, we highly recommend Eegee’s, which is a chain around Tucson and Phoenix. Eegee’s serves a variety of grinders (a sub with sliced ham, salami, provolone and various veggies) and other subs and salads. But they are best known for their namesake “eegee,” which is a fruit-packed frozen treat similar to a thick icee. 

Lunch at Eegee's
Lunch at Eegee’s

For us, a stop at Eegee’s made the perfect lunch on our way from the eastern unit to the western unit of Saguaro National Park. The grinder was tasty and satisfying and the eegee was the perfect cold treat after a hot morning of hiking! I especially loved how you could see and taste actual bits of fruit in each frozen treat!

The only other place that we ate at was the Black Bear Diner, which is a large chain found in many cities around the western United States. We’ve seen it in many places but never had a chance to stop before this trip, so we decided to check it out. Black Bear Diner serves up classic dishes that were good but nothing special. We’re not in a rush to go back, but would eat there again.

Final Thoughts on Visiting Saguaro National Park

Since saguaro cactus grow in such a limited area, visiting Saguaro National Park really is one of the best ways to see these iconic plants. There’s just something special about this landscape that is so vastly different from other areas of the country. And visiting Saguaro National Park is relatively easy due to its proximity to Tucson.

Additionally, the developed areas of Saguaro National Park are fairly small. Compared to some other parks, there isn’t a huge variety of things to do in Saguaro National Park. But there are a ton of different hiking trails. Getting out of your car and onto a trail is the best way to see these fantastic plants up close. 

Saguaro National Park
Saguaro cactus

In one day, you can easily tour both units. Giving yourself a second day allows time for other museums or parks in the area. Or, if visiting during the hotter months, that allows you to do some hiking at each unit in the morning. 

And, if you think that looking at a bunch of cacti would be boring, remember that each one grows and branches a different way. Truly, the variety in how they grow is fascinating. I don’t know if you’ll find two cacti that are exactly the same. And that’s what kept me looking around and eager to explore more of the park. 

Travel Resources
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We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
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We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
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Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
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How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
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What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
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Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
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We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
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