Saguaro National Park is named after the giant cactus that are native to the Sonoran Desert. These impressive plants live as long as 150 years or more, and may take between 75-100 years to grow their first arm (if they grow one at all!).
This minimally visited park is located just about 2 hours south of Phoenix, yet it only draws around 800,000 visitors each year. Sure, this park is relatively small (just over 91,000 acres) and easily ranks in the bottom-half of parks by size. Though this park lacks in size, there is a great deal to do and explore. You can easily keep yourself busy for a full day, even if you don’t like to get out of your car and trek too far. For those that like to hike, there is plenty to explore, both in one-day and multi-day trips.
While here, make sure you visit both districts of the park (separated by about a 60-minute drive), as they have very different geology. Even if you don’t do any hiking, there are nice, scenic drives in both locations that are worth exploring. The park has a wildflower bloom between March and May, which can also be beautiful if your schedule supports visiting during that time.
Saguaro National Park Map, courtesy of the National Park Service
We visited Saguaro in early 2018 and were so glad we made the effort to come to this part of Arizona. We put together some tips on how to plan a trip to Saguaro National Park, as well as what to do while you’re visiting.
Saguaro National Park, including what to do, what to pack, expected weather, useful Saguaro Maps, ranked hiking information and useful links are covered in our extensive itinerary for Saguaro National Park.
SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK HISTORY
Saguaro National Monument was created by President Herbert Hoover in 1933. Through the years the amount of protected land has grown. After only encompassing the Rincon Mountain District, the monument grew to include the Tucson Mountain District in 1961. The monument was given official National Park status in 1994.
Saguaro National Park (West) Map, courtesy of the National Park Service
Located just about ten miles northwest of Tucson, the Tucson Mountain District is the smaller of the two park locations. A typical day in the Tucson Mountain District includes driving around on the 20-miles of roads (most of which are paved) and taking short day hikes to a variety of overlooks if the heat isn’t too oppressive.
While visiting the Tucson Mountain District and the surrounding area, our recommendations include:
- Scenic drives. The Bajada Loop Drive is a 6-mile scenic drive on a level dirt road. The drive is suitable for all types of cars, though be advised that heavy rains can damage parts of the road. The park service does a great job of keeping this road in good condition, but you will have to watch out for potholes along the way if your car has low clearance. The drive is best accessed from the Visitor Center area, where you’ll want to travel counter-clockwise as part of the road is one-way. From this loop, you can also take the 5-mile Golden Gate Road that leads to the Cam-Boh picnic area, or you can stop at one of the several hikes and picnic areas along the way.
- Red Hills Visitor Center. This is the newer of the two visitor centers in the park, with impressive architecture and even better views. There are natural history exhibits and a bookstore as well as a short 15-minute video. Make sure you load up on water while you are at the Visitor Center, as this is the only location in this part of the park you can get anything to drink.
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This museum is located only approximately 4-miles from the Red Hills Visitor Center. Most of this museum is located outdoors and includes over 200 different animal species. If you drive by here early in the morning you can hear the howling of coyotes before they are fed (which can be quite haunting if you aren’t expecting it and you happen to be hiking-trust us!). You can find out more about the museum here.
Hiking. There are over a half-dozen hikes to pick from in the Tucson Mountain District, with a mix of half and full-day adventures all the way down to trails that can be experienced in 30 minutes or less. For the best Saguaro National Park hiking in the west district, we recommend the following (others are covered in our Saguaro National Park itinerary):
- The Sweetwater Trail is a moderately difficult 6.8-mile hike. Starting in the eastern part of the Tucson Mountain District, the trail gradually climbs until ending at the Sweetwater Saddle. From here, he views are outstanding. The trail can be extended by 0.9 mi (1.8 mi round trip) by heading to Wasson Peak, which also ups the total elevation gain to 2165 ft.
- The Hugh Norris Trail is a challenging 9.5-mile hike. This all-day adventure begins from the Bajada Loop Road and climbs steeply to the top of Wasson Peak. From here, there is a 360-degree view of the surrounding saguaro forest.
- The Valley View Overlook Trail is a short and easy 0.8-mile hike. Starting from the Bajada Loop Road just 3 miles from the visitor center, this trail winds among the saguaros before coming to an overlook of the Avra Valley. For those of you wanting some great hiking in Saguaro National Park without too much work, this is a great trail if you are short on time or only want to brave the heat for a few minutes.
Hiking through the Saguaros on the Valley View Overlook Trail
- The Gould Mine Trail is a moderately difficult 2.4-mile hike. Starting in the southern part of the park (at the King Canyon Trailhead), this trail leads to the site of an old mine. Though the mine isn’t overly impressive, there are nice views after the trail peaks out at the tailings. You can return on the Gould Mine Trail, or head back via the King Canyon Wash Trail. There is also the Mam-A-Gah picnic area about halfway through the trail, which is a nice spot for a picnic.
Saguaro National Park (East) Map, courtesy of the National Park Service
The Rincon Mountain District is about 30 minutes east of Tucson, and 1-hour from the Tucson Mountain District. This part of the park has much higher elevations than the Tucson Mountain District and thus offers different views and scenery from the western part of the park.
When you get a chance to visit the Rincon Mountain District, things to do include:
- Scenic drives. Similar to the Tucson Mountain District, no visit would be complete without taking a drive on the Cactus Forest Drive. This 8-mile scenic loop drive starts at the Visitor Center. Most of the road is one-way, so you’ll want to make sure you travel it in the clockwise direction. Unlike the Bajada Loop Drive, this road is paved. This loop is a must do, as it is the best way of getting an overview of the Rincon Mountain area in a relatively short period of time.
- Rincon Mountain Visitor Center. This is the smaller of the two Saguaro National Park visitor centers. Outside you’ll find an exhibit that shows details on the main plants that live in local desert. The same 15-minute video that shows in the Red Hills Visitor Center shows here as well. Make sure you load up on water while you are here, as this is the only place in this part of the park you can get anything to drink.
Hiking. There is a maze of trails in the Rincon Mountain District to keep hikers busy over a period of a few days if they so choose. There is also backcountry camping in the region. The top recommended hikes include (others are covered in our Saguaro National Park itinerary):
- The Douglas Spring Trail to Bridal Falls is a moderately difficult 5.9-mile hike. Starting at the end of Speedway Blvd, the trail branches off from the Douglas Spring Trail about 0.3 miles from the end. The trail is flat before It heads up a set of rocks and logs for about a mile. At the end of the trail, you’ll find Bridal Falls, which will have water flowing if it has been raining recently. Don’t expect a ton of water, but expect nice views along this walk.
- The Mica View Loop Trail is an easy 3.8-mile hike. Starting about 2-miles north of the visitor center, the trail is mostly flat, rising only 134 ft. in elevation throughout the hike. Wildlife is commonly seen on this trail (jackrabbits in particular). The trail provides great views of Mt. Mica, which is the highest peak in the park. This hike is particularly well-suited for families.
- The Desert Ecology Trail is an easy 0.3-mile stroll that provides a quick introduction to the area vegetation. The trail is wheelchair accessible.
WHERE TO STAY IN AND AROUND SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
- Saguaro National Park Lodging: Like many other small parks, Saguaro National Park does not have a lodge affiliated with the park.
- Lodging near Saguaro National Park: Tucson, AZ is centrally located to both areas of the park and has ample lodging for all types of budgets. Tucson also has plenty to do along with a ton of restaurants (as it is the home of the University of Arizona, which houses over 40,000 students). We stayed at the Cat Mountain Lodge right outside of the Tucson Mountain District, and we absolutely loved it. The rooms were all unique and immaculate, the location was perfect (close to the Tucson Mountain District) and the staff was very helpful.
- Saguaro National Park Camping: The only campgrounds inside of Saguaro National Park are those on backcountry trails, accessed only by foot (or on the back of an animal). Reservations are not accepted.
If you decide to stay in or near Tucson, we advise making sure you book well ahead, as college events can eat up availability during certain times of the year.
HOW TO GET TO SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK, WHEN TO GO AND WHAT TO EXPECT
There are a few options for airports near Saguaro National Park. The closest airport is in Tucson, AZ. However, there tend to be a ton of flights into Phoenix, which is only a couple hours away and is quite a bit cheaper than Tucson. Another option is Albuquerque, NM, which is about 7 hours by car (making it only a good option if you intend to make a loop when visiting other locations, like Petrified Forest National Park or White Sands National Park).
Saguaro is open year-round, with attendance picking up in the winter months and peaking out in March. Crowds are at their lowest in June, when only around 40,000 visitors come the entire month.
Temperatures in Saguaro fluctuate wildly throughout the year, with highs in July reaching over 100 degrees routinely and lows in the winter dipping below freezing. Needless to say, if you plan on visiting in the summer, be ready to be in the car most of the time (unless you hike in the early evening or morning).
WHAT TO BRING TO SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
- Above all, make sure to bring plenty of water (preferably a hydration pack) to the park. Water refill stations are limited, and you need to make sure you have plenty with you when you enter the park.
- Sunblock is an absolute must. Certainly, it’s no surprise that there isn’t much shade out here, so it’s best to be prepared.
- We really like the National Geographic Saguaro National Park map. It’s super durable and very detailed.
- There are critters running around all over the place here, but they are elusive. We recommend a low-cost set of binoculars to help see them, especially the birds!
FURTHER INFORMATION ON SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- What to do in Saguaro National Park, what to pack, things to do nearby and much more detailed information on the park is included in our itinerary for Saguaro National Park.
- One of the easiest hikes in the park is the great Valley View Overlook Trail, and our blog covers this hike in detail.
- About 4 hours to the east are gypsum sand dunes that some say should be a National Park. Check out what you can see and do in White Sands National Park.
- We’d love to work with you to take one of your photos and turn them into one of our unique, custom, vintage-style travel posters. If you haven’t tried this yet, we guarantee you won’t be disappointed!
OTHER USEFUL INFORMATION ON SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
- For sure, the National Park Service’s website on Saguaro National Park is something you need to check out. There is a ton of great info on the site. Make sure you look at it before you go, as internet access via a cell phone is essentially non-existent in the park.
- Joy (from “A Jaunt with Joy”) provides a list of 25 things to see and do on an Arizona road trip in her blog. This is a very thorough list, and will give you other great ideas on what to add to your list of things to do while you are visiting Saguaro.
- Shoshannah (from “The Weekend Guide”) has a great list of things to do in Saguaro National Park, but also covers some interesting things to do while you are in Tucson.
- Max and Kim (from “Backobeyond”) provides their perspective on why you’ll love Saguaro National Park. They also include some great food tips. If you are not a resident of the southwest, you must check out the food that is native to the area.
Saguaro National Park isn’t one of the most visited parks in the country, but it certainly is worth seeing. We loved our visit there and plan on going back and exploring it further.
If you have been to Saguaro National Park and have favorite spots that we didn’t include in this post, please leave a comment or email us directly. We’re also happy to answer any questions that you might have!