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 one of the places I’ve visited the most while living in Tucson, and I absolutely love both halves of the park and can’t recommend this place enough! So here’s my guide to visiting the park and how to do both halves or choose between them if you’re short on time!
First a bit of history because history is fun, and you can’t read this blog without running into some of my favorite historical facts. The Tucson Basin (where Saguaro National Park and Tucson are located) has actually been inhabited since the Pleistocene Era, and archaeological evidence along the Santa Cruz River suggests that this may be the oldest continuously inhabited place in the United States! Which is pretty amazing for a desert known for its brutal heat and the stamina it takes to survive here! If you’ve done much traveling or any research about the area, you’ve probably heard of the tribes I’m going to mention, the first of which is the Hohokam, an incredible culture that just vanished in the 15th century (Casa Grande National Monument preserves some structures from the Hohokam culture and is a good place to learn more). Other tribes have also inhabited the area, but most famous is the Tohono O’odham Nation who continue just outside of Tucson and who have deep connections to the surrounding land.
Following the surrender of Geronimo, a famous leader of the Apache, white settlers moved further into the Tucson basin (previously they had stayed closer to the U.S. Army base at Fort Lowell near the Chiricahua Mountains). Ranches were the first white settlements in the area, and remnants of these old homesteads can still be found within Saguaro National Park. Tucson grew throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and, like many National Parks, Saguaro’s infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s as part of FDR’s New Deal Program. Today, the part of their work that you’re most likely to notice is the Cactus Forest Loop Drive in Saguaro East.
Saguaro National Monument was established in 1933, and a visitor center was erected in the 1950s. This prompted further research into the saguaros themselves and learning about their life cycle. In 1994, the National Monument officially became Saguaro National Park and one of the best and most popular places to visit near Tucson!
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 in the 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 or doing any longer hikes is roughly November-March. 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, something that is especially beautiful at sunrise.
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 (East) in the morning, breaking the day up with a picnic (or a stop at a great Tucson restaurant), then heading to Tucson Mountain District (West) in the afternoon to look at their indoor museum, take in the video presentation, and maybe do a drive through the park. I’ll offer other possible itineraries in talking about each park individually.
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. The trails at Saguaro are really well marked with small signs at the junctions between trails. This makes it easy to create a loop of your own through the park depending on how far you want to walk and what you want to see. Multi-trail loops are some of my favorites and make up a lot of what you’ll find on AllTrails (like these: at East; at West) However, to be safe, it’s still a good idea to pick up a map at the visitor’s center and/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 unless you have an America the Beautiful Parks Pass. If you are only hiking, the parking for your trailhead may not require you to pay, but you’ll have to look at the map to check. 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 great 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 also 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.
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. While I generally prefer the hiking at Saguaro East, there are still a couple of great trails here, like the Gould Mine Trail.
The Tucson Mountain District is also only a short drive away from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Old Tucson. While both of these have their own admission fees, you can spend a whole day on this side of the city in visiting these three places. (Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Old Tucson is closed indefinitely and ownership has been transferred to Pima County. Hopefully the park will re-open soon, so I’ll leave it in my recommended itinerary here; however, check ahead of time to see what the opening status is. According to TripAdvisor, the gift shop is still open, and take-out food is an option.)
It’s best to visit the Desert Museum as early as possible to see the animals. In winter (October-February) the museum opens at 8:30, and in summer (March-September), it opens at 7:30. If you’d like to do a short hike (under 3 miles) at Saguaro West, I would suggest starting your day there and hiking right around sunrise (i.e. arriving around 5-5:30 am in the summer). You can then head to the Desert Museum when they open and see the animals. The Desert Museum is similar to a zoo but the enclosures are a bit wilder, and it can be difficult to spot some of the animals. Hence, the earlier the better. You can spend most of the morning here and, if you’re hungry, grab something to eat. In the late morning/early afternoon, I would suggest heading to Old Tucson (if they’re open). This little town has been in over 400 movies as a wild west setting, and even if you’re not that into Westerns, it’s still really fun to walk through the town. There are some museum exhibits to learn about the films and actors as well as shops and restaurants. I also enjoyed the little train ride that gave you a tour of the park. I’d recommend at least two hours here. Following that, I’d suggest a trip back to Saguaro National Park to visit the visitor center’s museum and gift shop before returning to Tucson for dinner. If Old Tucson is not an option, I would suggest going back to the Saguaro visitor center, doing the drive through the park.
Rincon Mountain District (East District)
This is the Saguaro Park if you want to hike. The Saguaros are not always 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, though you can also hike much further into the forest. I visited this district of the park and did the Mica View Loop 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 below pictures are ones I took on this trail at sunrise. The Tanque Verde Ridge (pictured above) is also a great out-and-back trail where you can go as far as you like (up to 11 miles) and turn around when you’re tired. The park is really an amazing place to visit, and these are only a few of the many possible hikes. I would recommend this district if you want to do hiking more than anything else, though both are worth a visit if you can make it. Also because the Cactus Loop Drive is 9 miles, this is also a good place if you just want to see the Saguaros without getting out of your car.
Expanding Your Trip
I’ve loved living in Tucson while in college, and I’ve written a good amount about other things to do in the area. Check out my tags for Tucson or Arizona for ideas on other places to go and things to do. Or, if you’re hungry after hiking at Saguaro, visit my blog on where to eat in Tucson!
Want to learn more about Tucson and the Sonoran Desert as a region? Check out one of my favorite Tucson books: A Border Runs Through It by Jim Griffith.