One of the most famous symbols of “the desert” is a cactus with its arms reaching out to the sky. There’s even an emoji for it! 🌵
But actually, this kind of cactus is a Saguaro (pronounced sah-waar-o), and it is native only to the Sonoran Desert which spans Arizona (US), Sonora (Mexcio), and Baja California (US/Mexico). The Saguaros are some of the regions most impressive flora, and the Tucson area is home to the largest Saguaros in the world. Saguaro National Park, divided into East and West districts on either side of the city, is devoted to protecting this emblem of the American west. On a visit to Tucson, it is essential to see these magnificent cacti in all their glory. Saguaro National Park is unique in having two districts, and though both are worth a trip (in my opinion), here’s my guide if you do have to choose between them.
When to go: The great thing about Tucson is that it usually doesn’t get too cold, and cacti don’t exactly loose their leaves in the winter, so Saguaro National Park is great to visit any time of the year. However, given that this is a desert and that there is little-to-no shade on the trails, it’s important to consider timing. The desert is beautiful in the summer, but it’s imperative to avoid hiking int he middle of the day; dawn or dusk is preferable in the summer. These cooler times of day are also best for spotting wildlife, so that’s also something to consider when deciding what you want to see. Generally speaking though, the best season for daytime desert hiking is roughly November-March. However, my preference is to go in late April-early May when it’s still not too hot and you have a chance of seeing the cacti in bloom.
How long to stay: It depends what you want to do! If you’re planning on a long hike, that will obviously take a while and require lots of planning and water, but if you just want to check the park out and do a short trail, you could do either district in about half a day or less. To visit both districts, I would recommend doing a hike at Rincon Mountain District in the morning, breaking the day up with a picnic (or a stop at a great Tucson restaurant), then heading to Tucson Mountain in the afternoon to look at their indoor museum, take in the video presentation, and maybe do a loop drive around the park.
What to bring: WATER. Bring a lot of water, and then bring more than you think you need. As someone who got very dehydrated on her first 2 mile desert hike, do not underestimate how much water you should bring. If you’re doing a longer hike, I recommend also bringing Gatorade and some salty snacks like jerky, trail mix, or pretzels. Sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat are also important for protection. Though the trails at Saguaro are well marked, it’s never a bad decision to pick up a map at the visitor’s center or download directions for the trail you want to do. Finally, don’t forget your camera!
Other Important Things: There is a fee to enter the park for cars/motorcycles; however, if you are only hiking, then depending on where the trailhead starts, you may not have to pay. Backcountry campsites exist only at the Rincon Mountain District, and there is no running water or wifi. Though there is some cellphone service at both parks, it is not reliable, particularly (in my experience) at Tucson Mountain District. If hiking in the summer, pay particular attention to warnings about flash floods or wildfires.
Tucson Mountain District (West District)
If you’re looking for a lot of Saguaros all together, this is where to go. The Tucson Mountain District has an amazing Cactus Forest, and in my opinion, this is the one to visit if you’re short on time or don’t really want to walk – though there is still a lot of hiking available here. The main visitor’s center is located at this district, and in addition to the museum and gift shop, there is a fantastic orientation video that gives the Tohono O’odham perspective on the Saguaro. This is really the district to visit if you want history since the Signal Hill Picnic Area also has a lot of petroglyphs that are easy to see. If you’ve never seen petroglyphs, this is a great stop, especially with kids who might prefer this district of the park with more to do, such as the Junior Ranger Program. The museum includes features on local wildlife, some of which you might even see from the windows or patios. The Tucson Mountain District is also only a short drive away from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, though keep in mind that this has its own fees and that animals are more likely to be visible early in the morning.
If you’re looking to plan ahead with an organized trip or lecture, it’s worth checking out the official NPS page. In general, however, you can expect a variety of ranger-led talks and scheduled hikes to see Saguaros under the full moon or to just get more information on how Sonoran plants and animals survive in the desert. In the winter, the Tucson Mountain District also hosts Wilderness camps for kids where they learn about hiking and camping in the wilderness.
Rincon Mountain District (East District)
This is the Saguaro Park if you want to hike. The Saguaros are always not as concentrated here, but you can see them in all stages of life as well as in conjunction with lots of other desert plants. If you aren’t up for hiking, the Cactus Loop Drive will give you some nice views of the area, but if you really want to get into the park and feel that distance from the city, I recommend the Mica View Loop or this All Trails loop starting at Douglas Spring. The Mica View Loop is short, only about 2 miles total, but it gets you into the Cactus Forest. I visited this district of the park and did the hike with a group of kids from Tucson. It’s long enough that you get to see the park, but the kids (ages 10-14) weren’t tired enough to start complaining. (Specifically for kids, the Rincon Mountain District also hosts summer Junior Ranger Camps and scheduled bi-monthly Astronomy events.) The Douglas Spring Trail is a little longer – about 3 miles – and the path is very small in places. Most of the above pictures are ones I took on this trail at sunrise. It’s an amazing place to visit, and these are only a couple of the many possible hikes. I would recommend this district if you want to do more hiking than reading, though both are worth a visit if you can make it.