Last Updated on September 5, 2023 by Grant
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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