Southern Arizona national parks celebrate the unique ecosystems of the Sonoran Desert and the various peoples who have made these places home.
Here, you will find Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Saguaro National Park. These parks celebrate their namesake cacti and provide visitors an uninhibited opportunity to explore the wonders of the surrounding desert.
But beyond the natural beauty is the impact of the early settlers of this seemingly inhospitable territory. From the Hohokam settlement at Casa Grande National Monument which dates back nearly 1,000 years to the Spanish missions of Tumacacori National Historical Park, these parks examine the difficulty of living in the desert.
Regardless of why the parks were established, there is a certain innate beauty to be found among the rugged landscapes of the southern Arizona desert.
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Southern Arizona National Parks Located Near Tucson
Saguaro National Park
Located on the outskirts of Tucson, AZ, there are two districts of this park dedicated to the saguaro cactus. This is the iconic cactus most folks think of when they think of the American West. The name is pronounced “suu waa row.”
The Rincon Mountain District is located on the east side of Tucson. It includes land at the base of the titular mountains and has an excellent scenic loop through the park, the Cactus Forest Drive. This drive has several informative and scenic pullouts, making for plenty of great pictures.
If you are looking to hike in the desert, we found a number of good trails right off the scenic loop. Many of the trails easily link together to make for hiking routes of just about any length.
The Tucson Mountain District is located on the west side of Tucson. It is a bit more rugged, with a dirt road for the scenic drive. That said, it has a higher density of the namesake saguaro cacti. You can also find petroglyphs on one of the hikes in the area.
The two units are located about an hour’s drive away from each other. Each unit takes about half a day to explore and get in at least one hike. If you had time to only do one of the two units, we recommend the western district. That said, both are truly worth your time.
Coronado National Memorial
Located about 90 miles southeast of Tucson, Coronado National Monument celebrates the expedition of Francisco Coronado into the Southwest. It also examines the impact of the expedition on both European colonists and the people who already lived in the area.
The visitor center here does a great job of telling the multiple stories associated with Spanish exploration. It also has a nice, short nature trail outside with identifying signs for local vegetation.
After the visitor center, drive up towards Montezuma Pass. Before you start ascending, be sure to stop at Coronado Cave. After a brief but steep hike, you can go into the cave on your own and explore. Make sure you have everything you need for exploring a cave, especially a light source before you go inside.
It takes a bit of some scrambling over rocks to descend into the cave. Once inside, the cave opens up to about 70 feet wide and 600 feet long. While there aren’t a ton of cave features to see, it is still a neat place to explore.
After visiting the cave, drive the dirt road up to Montezuma Pass for excellent views of the surrounding desert. Hike the brief interpretive trail to the top of Coronado Peak for panoramic views stretching all the way to Mexico.
There are a few more hikes in the park if you want to make a full day of your visit.
Tumacacori National Historical Park
Tumacacori National Historical Park is located about 50 miles south of Tucson. This site preserves three historic Spanish missions which date back to the late 1600s.
We visited the main site of Mission San Jose de Tumacacori, which has a well-preserved mission structure. There is an excellent visitor center with plenty of exhibits on the history of the mission and its impact, both positive and negative.
After the visitor center, take some time to wander the grounds. You will see the well-preserved cathedral and surrounding buildings. This site is an excellent example of a Spanish mission in the Southwest.
You can visit both Coronado NM and Tumacacori NHP in the same day if you want. Tumacacori NHP is located about 90 miles west of Coronado NM. That said, the drive goes through some pretty remote areas of southern Arizona, so make sure you have everything you need before you leave.
One odd note about Interstate 19, which is just west of Tumacacori NHP: it is the only interstate highway in the country where the distances are indicated in metric measurements.
Where to Stay and Eat Near Tucson
We stayed at the DoubleTree Suites in Tucson, which was quite comfortable despite its age. We particularly like the exterior corridors opening up to the rather nice courtyard and pool.
The onsite restaurant, Finnegan’s Restaurant and Pub, was also rather nice, especially after a long day driving around southern Arizona. While there are plenty of other hotels in the area, we found the best deal in terms of booking with points here and would certainly stay here again.
In terms of where to eat, I only have one recommendation, not because there aren’t plenty of great places to eat but because we ended up eating at the hotel restaurant one night due to being tired. We also tried out the Black Bear Diner, which is a Western chain we spotted in California on a previous trip but had never tried… It was ok and we would eat there again but it was nothing special.
Our recommendation, though, is to make a point to eat at Eegee’s, which started in Tucson and is an excellent sub shop. It is most famous for its signature frozen fruit drink, called an “eegee.” Especially after a hot hike in Saguaro National Park, that eegee was quite welcome and refreshing!
Exploring Organ Pipe National Monument
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is located about 150 miles southwest of Tucson just south of the town of Ajo along the Mexican border. This park is more than three times the size of Saguaro National Park and, ideally, you should plan on spending a couple of days here. We only had time for one day here and we wish we had more time.
As we normally say, start your visit at the visitor center to learn more about the only place in the United States where the organ pipe cactus grows in the wild. You can also read about Kris Eggle, a law enforcement ranger who died pursuing drug cartel members who had committed murders in Mexico and fled across the border into the park. The visitor center is now named after him.
Afterward, spend the heat of the day driving the park’s unpaved scenic roads. We made a point to drive both the North and South Puerto Blanco drives. While I would have loved to turn it into a long loop through the backcountry, the middle section requires a high clearance vehicle and my rental car was not up to that challenge.
The South Puerto Blanco Drive, in particular, was quite pretty, in spite of the recently erected border wall. On the one hand, it is obvious why we need border security, especially in this area. That said, this area is a fragile ecosystem and many of the animals need large areas to range. I hope we have not cut off animal migration in the area by erecting the border wall.
The other really nice scenic road is the Ajo Mountain Road, which loops 21 miles through the foothills of the titular mountain. The views along this drive are fantastic and there is a really lovely arch carved into Ajo Mountain at about the halfway point.
For dinner, we decided to head into town and grab a couple of sandwiches from the local grocery. We then drove back to the park to hike the Desert View Nature Trail, an easy 1.2-mile loop that offers some of the best sunset views in the park. The Park Service even erected some benches along the western end of the loop to make this picnic dinner the perfect way to experience sunset in the desert.
If we had another day, we would have spent it hiking some of the longer trails in the park. We definitely are looking forward to coming back to this park more.
Where to Stay and Eat in Ajo
We stayed at the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center in Ajo. This hotel is a repurposed school and the rooms in this hotel were both eclectic and comfortable at the same time. They were working on the courtyard while we were staying there but the covered veranda made for a great place to hang out in the shade. We would gladly stay here again.
For breakfast, we found the excellent Arriba Mexican Food, which had some amazing huevos rancheros! It was quite tasty and we would certainly eat there again when we go back to Ajo.
Southern Arizona National Parks Located Near Phoenix
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Located southeast of Phoenix proper, this site preserves a large adobe structure dating back nearly 1,000 years, along with the remains of several small structures surrounding the “big house.”
The structure was created by the Hohokam people, who developed wide-scale irrigation in the area. It appears the structure was abandoned by around 1450 CE. The structure has a complicated history with European settlers, who have alternately defaced and pushed for preservation through the years. The modern roof covering was built in 1932 and was designed by famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Be sure to keep an eye out for the owls who roost in the rafters of the roof.
The visitor center has extensive exhibits on the Hohokam people and how they lived in this area all those centuries ago. This site is not that extensive and you can probably visit it in about 90 minutes and feel like you have really “done” these ruins.
Hohokam Pima National Monument
The site preserves the Snaketown ruins, a village of pit houses made by the Hohokam people starting around 300 CE. It was excavated in 1930s and 1960s, then backfilled to protect it for further research.
I would love to be able to tell you about this site more than what anyone can find online. Unfortunately, this park is mostly on the Gila River Indian Reservation which has permanently closed off public access to the site due to the sensitive nature of the land. Technically, you visited it when you drove on I-10 between Casa Grande and Phoenix as the interstate passes through the corner of the monument boundry. You can also see some of the artifacts from the site at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson.
So, if you’re “collecting” national park units like we are, this is one that you pretty much have to just accept that you really can’t visit. Perhaps that will change one day but probably not anytime soon.
Tonto National Monument
Tonto National Monument, located northeast of Phoenix, preserves two Salado-style cliff dwellings. This is another site I would love to be able to tell you more about. Alas, we were not able to include it on our southern Arizona trip itinerary for a variety of reasons.
When we visited the southern Arizona national parks in April 2022, we were unable to get tickets for the ranger-guided tour of the upper cliff dwelling here. Reservations for these tours open for the winter to spring season on October 1 and typically sell out quickly. Unfortunately, we did not plan far enough ahead to get tickets.
You can visit the lower cliff dwelling on your own, though. We thought about doing that and “settling” for a less-than-perfect visit. We changed our minds when we realized that just getting to the site would have been difficult for us. While we hate leaving one park site in any given area unvisited, we decided to hold off until we could do it right.
If you are visiting the southern Arizona national parks and want to include Tonto National Monument, be sure to plan ahead. Tours of the upper cliff dwelling are only offered from November through April and must be booked in advance. Contact the park at 928-467-2241 in order to get a reservation for a tour. Also, pay close attention to the driving directions and times listed on the park’s website.
Where to Stay and Eat in the Phoenix Area
We ended up staying at the DoubleTree in Gilbert, due to its proximity to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. It was a perfectly good hotel and we would certainly stay here again.
For dinner that night, we met up with a friend from #ParkChat on Twitter, R. Scott Jones, at the Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company DTPHX. The brewery had a great outdoor seating area, making for an excellent spot for conversation. The beer was quite tasty and the food from the attached restaurant was a hit.
This location was in downtown Phoenix, so it was not really convenient to the hotel but we were happy to make a bit of a drive to meet up with a fellow park lover.
After our night in Phoenix, we drove up to Scottsdale to stay at The Boulders Resort & Spa, a Hilton resort, where we used two free night certificates to make our stay affordable. Wow, what a great couple of days!
Stay tuned for more on our stay here when we update our article on using the free night certificate we get from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Final Thoughts on visiting Southern Arizona National Parks
One of the things we kept saying while we were out in the desert on this trip: “Wow! This is so pretty!”
The desert is a very different kind of beautiful. This isn’t the lush mountain valleys teeming with wildlife of Yellowstone National Park. Instead, you will find small blossoms of flowers in a rugged and harsh environment.
But the quiet is simply intoxicating, as are the golden hues that dance across the land at sunset.
We truly enjoyed visiting these sites, especially Saguaro NP and Organ Pipe Cactus NM. When we go back to explore Tonto NM, we are looking forward to spending more time exploring those two sites.
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