Straddling two side of Tucson, Arizona, Saguaro National Park protects the iconic symbol of the desert southwest–the Saguaro Cactus. With a western and eastern district, visitors can explore the desert and see its rich landscape and wildlife. Perfect for fall to spring exploring, visitors can hike, bike or take a scenic drive through the Arizona National Park. Though as the day fades, the landscape darkens as the sky pops a vibrant orange as it slowly deepens to indigo then to star-stubbed black. Plan ahead and here are the best things to do in Saguaro National Park.
Saguaro National Park at a Glance
|Year Established: 1994|
|Located: Southern Arizona|
|Size: over 91,000 acres|
|Top Features: iconic Saguaro Cactus and Hohokam Petroglyphs|
Is Sagauro National Park Worth Visiting?
Saguaro National Park is the only national park dedicated to one species of cactus. It’s also an easy road trip stop for those driving along Interstate 10, that’s why I’ve visited several times with my kids. many people’s to-do list. It is an icon of the desert southwest and the best place to see the Sagauro cactus is in Sagauro National Park.
On my first visit years ago, I planned to explore the park for a few hours and walk amongst the Saguaro. It was a road trip stop on my way to Southern California. Looking at the map, the west side of the park was most convenient to reach. To my surprise, the park ranger on the west side of the park informed me the majority of the saguaro lived on the east side of the park. I didn’t have time to circle back so I missed the majority of the cactus.
So plan ahead to make the best use of the vacation time.
Which Side of Saguaro National Park is Better
First, decide what you want to see. If it’s a quick visit, you can’t visit both sides in a couple of hours, due to traffic in-and-around Tucson. I made this mistake on my first visit. Though both sides offers a visitor center, hiking and interesting sites to discover.
With two sides of Saguaro National Park separated by the majority of Tucson (and its traffic), first time visitors will want to visit the east side if limited on time with the desire to see the Saguaro cactus. The east side of the park (Rincon Mountains District) features the Cactus Forest Loop Drive that takes cars through a forest of Saguaro.
If you want to take a short hike, get out and walk the Desert Loop Ecology Trail. It offers a high concentration of the famed saguaro cactus and you might even see a roadrunner. I did this one with my kids.
For desert mountain scenery and petroglyphs, the west side of the park (Tucson Mountain District) offers both. After stopping in the visitor center, take the Desert Discovery Trail to get a sampling of the desert landscape. Then head to Signal Hill for the petroglyphs. Both trails are short.
Top Things to do in Saguaro National Park
- Stop by the Visitor Center on the Side of Saguaro National Park you are visiting
- Enjoy the Scenic Drive
- Take a Hike in Saguaro
- Learn more about the Desert Southwest by attending a Ranger Program or completing a Junior Ranger Badge
- Picnic in Saguaro National Park
- See the Sun Set over the Desert
Visitor Centers in Saguaro National Park
Each side of Saguaro National Park offers a visitor center with restrooms and watering stations. Visitors will find maps, Junior Ranger booklets and rangers to ask questions. Each visitor center offers interpretive areas and outside visitors can stroll through its cactus garden with interpretive signs explaining the unique plants of the desert.
Red Hills Visitor Center is located on the west side of the park. On the east side, visit the Rincon Mountains Visitor Center. Each are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Scenic Drives in Saguaro National Park
One of the top things to do in Saguaro National Park is to drive through the park, enjoying its unique landscape. During our trip we even spotted animals, like the Jack Rabbit and road runner.
For a scenic drive on the east side of the park, take the 8-mile Cactus Forest Drive for its Saguaro cactus and views of the Rincon Mountains. It offers parking areas with interpretive signs along with pull-outs.
On the west side of the park, the Bajada Loop Drive is a 5-mile route with ironwood trees. Also find views of the desert landscape along with pull-outs perfect for photos.
Hiking and Mountain Biking in Saguaro National Park
See more of Saguaro National Park on a hike. Each side of the park offers hiking trails from easy to more advanced. For questions about hiking trails and conditions, check in with a Park Ranger at the Visitor Center. A map is also advise and available at the visitor center. Remember to carry water regardless of the length of the hike.
West Side of the Park
- Desert Discovery Trail—A .4-mile trail west of the Red Hills Visitor Center.
- Wild Dog Trail—A 1.8-mile in-and-out trail off of Hohokam Rd.
- Petroglyphs at Saguaro National Park
East side of the Park
The Cactus Forest Loop Drive offer a few hikes.
- Desert Loop Ecology Trail—A .25-mile accessible nature trail suitable for most. This is the only trail open to pets.
- Freeman Homestead Trail—A .9-mile trail with a 100-foot elevation to an old homestead.
- Mica View Trail—A 1.5-mile in-and-out trail off Cactus Forest Loop Drive, can be joined with Cactus Forest Trail to make a 2-mile loop.
- Loma Verde Loop—A 3.8 mile loop (60 foot elevation gain) in the Cactus Forest area that joints the Pink Hill Trail and the Squeeze Pin to form a loop.
The west side (Tucson Mountain District) features over 200 prehistoric petroglyphs that date back to 550 to 1500 years ago. Hikers can see them along the trail in the Signal Hill area.
Located off Golden Gate Rd., it’s a short walk (.1-mile with 40 feet elevation gain) This area features a picnic area and restrooms. Note: roads to Signal Hill are unpaved.
Saguaro National Park with Kids
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about a National Park Service site. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet.
Pick up a booklet at the visitor center and complete during your visit to be sworn in by a park ranger. If you don’t finish, no worries, you can mail the booklet back to Saguaro National Park.
Learn More about Saguaro National Park
If you have time during your visit, attend a Ranger Program. Saguaro National Park offers a calendar with Ranger Programs so you can plan before your visit.
Ranger programs include 30-minute garden walks where visitors can experience the diversity of the desert. Kids might enjoy a talks on the animals of Saguaro National Park, like the lizard or the mountain lion. There’s even talks about the night skies over Sagauro.
Where to Watch the Sunset at Saguaro National Park
Beach sunsets are inspiring though desert sunsets are surprisingly impressive for first-timers. Each side of the park offers a prime sunset viewing spots so try to celebrate the sunset during your visit.
In the Rincon Mountains District (the East Side of the Park) head to the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail, a .5-mile hike. It is located off of Cactus Garden Dr. The Javalina Rocks Pull Out is another top spot without a hike.
On the west side of Saguaro National Park, Gates Pass Scenic Lookout is popular, located in the Tucson Mountain Park, just south of the Saguaro National Park.
The Plants of Saguaro National Park
Some find it hard to believe though over 3,000 different species live between the two sides of the park. Adapted to survive the long periods of hot and dry weather, the plants will burst with color in matter of days after a rain shower. The desert will transform from lifeless to lively with blooms and new green leaves.
Saguaro National Park is home to 25 different species of cactus, including the Saguaro. With blooms from hot pink to yellow to white, cactus flowers are showy. Though looks can be deceiving with cactus and always be weary of its thorns, like soft-looking Cholla Cactus also knows as the Teddybear cactus. It’s thorn might be small and soft-looking but still hurt, especially those curious enough to touch, like kids and pets.
The Saguaro Cactus
Native to the Sonoran Desert, the Saguaro is the largest species of cactus in the park. It’s the star of the show.
First time visitors are amazed how tall a full-grown Saguaro actually is. Extremely slow-growing, Saguaro Cactus grow about an inch a year in its early years so the tallest cactus are hundreds of years old.
To see its blooms, visitors should come between April until June. The creamy white blossoms open overnight. A favorite of nectar-feeding bats and other insects, the flower closes the following afternoon. If pollinated, it will form a fruit.
Rain in the desert can be short-lived and intense. The Saguaro’s pleated skin helps it adsorb water quickly and store it for the long, day days ahead. Its skin is a favorite for other creatures, like the Gila woodpecker, one of a few birds that nest in cavity’s in the Saguaro.
Wildflowers in Saguaro
For wildflower blooms, visitors should visit during late February through March. The saguaro bloom in late April and with their fruit ripening in June. From California poppies to desert globemallow to Indian blanket, wildflowers are the best after winter rains.
As a desert environment dedicated to cactus, there’s more to the desert landscape in Saguaro. From Ironwood to the Pinkflower hedgehog cactus, the desert offers a striking landscape.
Animals in Saguaro National Park
To the first-time visitor, the desert might seen devoid of animals, especially during the summer. Though even as visitors drive through the Saguaro National Park, animals can pop out of their hiding places.
With warm winter temperatures, Arizona is a birder’s paradise.
- Vermillion Flycatchers
- Whiskered Screech Owls
- Gila Woodpeckers
- Mexican Jay
- Yellow-Eyed Juncos
Gila monsters, Jack rabbits and kangaroo rats are numerous at the lower elevations. In the higher regions of the park visitors might spot a black bear and white tail deer.
The History of Saguaro National Park
Community support and several prominent residents of Arizona worked to preserve the native desert landscape starting in the 1920s. Like many national parks, Saguaro was protected as a national monument first. In 1933, President Herbert Hoover designated the land as Saguaro National Monument.
Over the years additional land has been added and the Tucson Mountain District (west side) was integrated into the national monument in 1961. In 1994, the national monument was elevated to a national park by President Bill Clinton.
The People of Saguaro
In addition to the desert landscape, visitors will find cultural resources during their visit. The Hohokam people lived in the area from 500 to 1400 CE and left markers in several rocks in the Signal Hill Area. Before the Hohokam people, evidence of Archaic people has been found (3500 to 2100 BCE) by archeologists in the park.
In more modern times, old homesteads and equipment has been discovered, like the Freeman Homestead. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also developed the area during the Great Depression by constructing several picnic shelters across the park.
Picnic Areas in Saguaro National Park
Find picnic area in both side of the park.
- Javalina Picnic Area
- Mica Picnic Area
- Mam-A-Gah Picnic Area
- Signal Hill Picnic Area
Where to Stay in Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park doesn’t offer lodging inside either side of the park. Though both locations are close to Tucson with numerous options for lodging, dining and other activities.
Camping in Saguaro National Park
The camping in Saguaro National Park is primitive and requires a multi-mile hike with an elevation change of at least 1,000 feet. Wilderness camping permit will need to be filled out.
Tucson Mountain Park
On the western side of the park, campers can find developed campsites. The Gilbert Ray Campground offers 130 RV sites (with hook-ups) along with five tent-only sites and rates start at $10 a night for tents and $20 for RV sites. This is a better place to camp than Saguaro National Park. The Tucson Mountain Park also features three picnic areas.
Located at 8451 W. McCain Loop. Free to enter.
Where’s Saguaro National Park
Both side of Saguaro National Park area located in Tucson. To reach the west side of the park, it’s about 15 miles from downtown Tucson to the Red Hills Visitor Center. The Rincon Mountains Visitor Center is about 18 miles east from the city center. To travel from one side of the park to the other will take about an hour, depending on traffic and they are about 30 miles apart. Tucson offers an mid-sized airport along with all travelers services.
Saguaro’s West Side is about 115 miles from Phoenix, Arizona. Phoenix is a better option for travelers arriving by air since it offers more flights from more air carriers.
It is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $25 per vehicle.