All About Visiting Saguaro National Park

Guide to Visiting Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is located in southern Arizona, in the city of Tucson.  The park is split into two sections:  the western section, known as the Tucson Mountain District, and the eastern section, known as the Rincon Mountain District.  The city of Tucson lies in between the two districts which makes it a great place to stay while exploring the park.

First of all, why is Saguaro a National Park?

The giant Saguaro cactus only grow in the Sonoran desert, which is located in southern Arizona and parts of northern Mexico.  The cacti grow to be an average of 40 feet tall.  Saguaro are iconic symbols of the American west with their green ribbed exterior and arms growing out from the main trunk.  

A sea of Saguaro Cacti

Saguaro cactus are slow growing, part of the reason they are a protected plant species.  An eight-year-old Saguaro, for example, may be only 1-1.5 inches tall!  Imagine, hikers and wildlife traipsing over these little guys, how many would survive?  Thankfully, mother nature helps them out.  “Nurse Trees”, such as mesquite, ironwood, and palo verde, protect them as they are growing.  Once the Saguaro reach a mature height, the nurse tree often dies, believed to be from competition for water and nutrients in the soil from the Saguaro.  

Saguaro begin to grow their famous “arms” between 50-70 years old.  So when you see these massive cacti, they have been around for decades!

How to Plan Your Visit

A visit to Saguaro National Park is best spent over two days, giving each section of the park one day to full explore.  However, if you only have one full day, we share how to best do it below.

The Two Sections of Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is divided into two sections, separated by the city of Tucson.  Each section is about 30 miles apart.  

The two sections of Saguaro National Park, separated by the city of Tucson

The Tucson Mountain District (western section)

This part of the park is the most popular, which also means it is more crowded.  This area contains the largest concentration of Saguaro cactus which you see as soon as you drive into this district.  Saguaro grow up the mountains and as far as the eye can see!

Also located near this section of the park is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (this will be listed as “Desert Museum” on signs on the road).  While the museum lies just outside of the park, we started our visit to the western district here to gain a better understanding of the flora, fauna, and history of the area.

The Rincon District (the eastern section)

This district is smaller and less visited, however that is part of the appeal.  We drove the Cactus Forest Loop Drive at sunrise one morning and practically had the park to ourselves.  This section of the park has mountains as its backdrop.  The Rincon Mountain District is a great place for sunset.

SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK FACTS

Saguaro National Park protects the largest cactus species, the Saguaro

  • LOCATION:  Arizona
  • CLOSEST CITY:  Tucson, Arizona
  • ANNUAL VISITORS:  908,000 (2022)
  •  28th most visited national park (out of 63)
  • BECAME A NATIONAL PARK:  1994
  • TOP THINGS TO DO:  The Tucson Mountain District (western section of the park):  Drive the Bajada Loop Drive; Hike the Valley View Overlook Trail; see sunrise at Gates Pass
  • TOP THINGS TO DO:  The Rincon Mountain District (eastern section of the park):  Drive the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive; see sunset at Javelina Rocks.

Our Experience

Where we stayed

We had an Airbnb during our time in Tucson and it was fabulous.  It comfortably fit the ten of us with 5 bedrooms, a hot tub, swimming pool, and kitchen plus washer and dryer.  When traveling with a group, we usually prefer Airbnbs so we can comfortably spread out, have common areas to hang out together, and be able to cook and do laundry.

The Airbnb was located just a few miles from the Rincon Mountain District (eastern section) of the park.  That is why we opted for sunrise in this part of the park.

When we went

We traveled to Tucson shortly after Christmas and stayed through New Years. 

Mornings in the desert are cold in the winter, with temperatures increasing throughout the day.  During our visit, it was in the 30s in the morning we visited the park at sunrise.  Brr!  Temperatures increased throughout the day, and were generally 60s to low 70s during our visit in late December.  These temperatures were great for hiking and exploring!  We highly recommend a visit here in the winter months as the summer months are extremely hot.

Visiting the Tucson Mountain District (western section)

We started our visit off here at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  The park is located just outside Saguaro National Park borders, however it is a fabulous place and warrants a few hours to fully visit it.

Ava and cousin Drake at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Part historical museum and part zoo, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum features docents who share interesting facts, hands on exhibits, and even an aquarium.  This is a great place to learn all about Saguaro National Park. 

You can see people on the paths at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

After purchasing tickets on site, we checked out the reptiles and amphibians that call this area home.  Next are caves, gemstones, and learning about geological features.  We then walked the loop out into the desert, a great way to see a variety of flora and fauna. 

The path, taking you out closer to the plants and animals

Gigantic Saguaro cacti, my favorite – prickly pear, and the super cool Organ Pipe Cactus are just a few of the cacti you will see here. 

The brown “tree” is in the inside of a Saguaro cactus!

My favorite, the prickly pear!

An Organ Pipe Cactus

There are wolves, coyotes, javelinas, and pumas in fenced in areas. 

A wolf at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

There is also a gift shop on site, coffee shop with smoothies, snacks, and my personal favorite, iced coffee.  The views here at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum are incredible!

From here, we drove the Bajada Loop Drive, and reached the Valley View Overlook Trail.  The Bajada Loop is a graded road.  All vehicles should be fine on it, however we found it bumpy and no where near as nice of a road to drive on as the Cactus Forest Loop Drive in the Rincon Mountain District (eastern section).

We were among giant Saguaro, rock formations, and many types of other cacti and plants. 

This Saguaro seems to be pointing the way

So many Saguaro!

It is a relatively easy trail, just watch your step continuously – snakes and scorpions live here!  

The Wild Dog Trail (1.8 miles) continues on from the Valley View Trail, heading further into Saguaro country. This trail ends at the Golden Gate Road, unless you turn around and head back to where you started (an out and back).  If a non-hiker is in your group, they could pick up hikers on Golden Gate Road, otherwise, this will be an out-and-back.  When we hiked this trail, we heard a lot of coyotes howling in the distance.  Could this be the reason for the name of the trail?!

The beautiful Tucson Mountain District (western section) of Saguaro National Park

On our way out of the park, we stopped at Gates Pass.  The views here were astounding.  The elevation really provides incredible views in every direction, including a sea of Saguaros.  This is one of the best places in the park to watch the sunrise and sunset.

Gates Pass, look how dense the cacti are!

There are a few other hikes and areas to explore in the Tucson Mountain District (western section):

  • King Canyon/Gould Mine Loop (2.4 miles) – this trail takes hikers through canyon walls and along an old mining road.  
  • Sendero Esperanza Trail to the Ridge/Wasson Peak – For great panoramic views hikers climb switchbacks after the first mile.  To climb to the highest peak of this western section of the park, continue on to Wasson Peak.
  • Signal Hill Petroglyphs – located north of the Signal Hill Picnic Area, this area features over 200 Native American Petroglyphs.  These petroglyphs are between 500-1500 years old

Visiting the Rincon Mountain District (eastern section)

We were staying very close to the Rincon Mountain District so it made the most logistical sense for us to visit this section for sunrise.

Good morning, desert!

We drove the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, a paved road in great condition. 

The nicely paved Cactus Forest Loop Drive

There are several pull outs along the way to get out and take photos. 

We also stopped at the Desert Ecology Trail

On this short, easy loop we learned about “nurse trees” which protect the Saguaro as they begin to grow and got to stand close to one of the largest Saguaros we would see during our visit. 

Cousin Drake, Ava, and Braden by a gigantic Saguaro!

Other than massive Saguaro, we saw lots of other cacti, trees, and plants up close with signage explaining what we were seeing.

You see a lot on the short Desert Ecology Trail

The Javelina Rocks is another pull out, and is especially great for sunset.  With the mountains behind you, a sea of Saguaro in the foreground, and orange and pink skies in front of you as the sun sets in the west, this is a special place.

There are a few other hikes worth noting in the Rincon Mountain District (eastern section of the park):

  • Freeman Homestead Trail (1 mile) – this trail takes hikers to the site of an old homestead foundation as well as a large grove of Saguaros.  Signs along this trail are great for kids as they feature exploration activities.
  • Loma Verde Loop Trail (3.8 miles) – this trail takes hikers past mesquite trees and to an overlook of the cactus forest and Tanque Verde Ridge.
  • Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (8.7 miles total) – a great trail in the spring when wildflowers are in bloom, this trail is described as strenuous.  At mile 2.5 you can see a crested Saguaro and mile 3 you can see “The Dome”.  If trekking to Juniper Basin Campground, you will find this at mile 6.9.  The trail continues to Tanque Verde Peak, at 8.7 miles.

Things to Know Before You Go

The state of Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time, with the exception of Navajo Nation.  

In the summer, the desert gets extremely hot and in the winter months mornings can be quite cold.  Be sure to check the weather before you leave home so you can pack proper gear and plan your visit to avoid extreme temperatures.

If you plan to visit Saguaro National Park in one day, note that the two districts of the park are about one hour apart.  

Our Recommendation for visiting Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park can be visited in one day, however two days is ideal.  If visiting in one day, here is how we recommend doing it:

Visit The Tucson Mountain District (Saguaro West) in the morning, taking in sunrise at Gates Pass.  From there, stop at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  Continue on to Bajada Loop Drive.  Stop at the Valley View Overlook trail, which can be extended by continuing onto the Wild Dog Trail.

Grab lunch in Tucson, after leaving the western section.  You have to drive through Tucson to get to the Rincon Mountain District (eastern section) anyway.  We highly recommend El Charro for delicious Mexican food.   Once in the Rincon Mountain District (Saguaro East), drive the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, stopping at pull outs along the way.  End at Javelina Rocks about an hour before sunset.  As the sky starts to change you’ll be treated to a beautiful show.

OUR PACKING LIST

Here is our packing list for Saguaro National Park: 

Read more!

In our article, Six Great Day Trips from Tucson, we share great day trip idesa in southern Arizona.  

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