The Saguaro National Park is a protected area within the Sonoran Desert in Southern Arizona. It’s known for possessing a unique desert landscape and its namesake, the iconic saguaro cacti. The park is split into Eastern and Western sections, with the city of Tucson housed between.
This is a must-stop national park suitable for all fitness levels and ages while staying at a Greater Phoenix or Tucson vacation rental. Many of the park’s best views can be seen by car or after a short hike. So, whether you’re traveling with kids or are ready to adventure with all of your gear, you can easily check out one of Saguaro’s many attractions.
So, grab your water bottle and camera, and get ready to take in Arizona’s beautiful desert landscape!
A Glimpse at Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park covers just over 91,000 acres of protected land. The park was established to preserve the saguaro cacti and the unique Sonoran desert ecosystem.
The Saguaro National Park West, also known as the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park, encompasses a total of 25,000 acres. It’s generally of lower elevation and has a denser saguaro forest. Due to its richness of plant life, Saguaro West tends to be more crowded than Saguaro East.
The Saguaro National Park East, known as the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park, encompasses over 67,000 acres. It has fewer cacti and a higher elevation, allowing hikers to capture a more scenic view of the desert’s rolling hilltops. Saguaro East also has more backcountry trails for more experienced hikers.
Fun Facts About Saguaro National Park
- Pronunciation: The name of the park is actually pronounced Sah-War-Oh.
- The Eponymous Wildlife: The saguaro cactus, native only to the Sonoran Desert, can grow up to 60 feet tall and live for over 200 years.
- Slow Growers: The saguaro cactus grows a mere one inch per year and may or may not grow arms.
- Bird Frenzy: The park is home to over 350 bird species, including the Gila woodpecker, roadrunners, and the Gambel’s quail.
- Wildlife: As for wildlife, the park is home to coyotes, javelinas, bobcats, and even three endangered species: the lesser long-nosed bat, yellow-billed cuckoo, and southwestern willow flycatcher.
- Native Lands: The park is the native land of indigenous groups, including but not limited to the Tohono O’odham, O’odham Jeweḍ, and Hohokam people.
What To Do in Saguaro National Park
When it comes to planning your trip through the Saguaro National Park in Arizona, there are no wrong answers. Whether you’re in the mood for a short scenic drive, a challenging hike, or just a quiet spot to stop and enjoy a picnic, there are plenty of options for how to spend an afternoon in the park.
Keep in mind that it will take at least one hour to travel between the Red Hills Visitor Center (in the west) to the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center (in the east), so allow plenty of time if you’re hoping to view both sides on the same day.
Exploring Saguaro West (Tucson Mountain District)
Travel the Bajada Loop Drive
- Distance: 6 miles out and back
- Terrain: Graded dirt road
The Bajada Loop Drive is a well-maintained, graded dirt road trail. The trail begins 1.5 miles past the visitor center and offers unique views of the park’s landscape and, of course, saguaro cacti as far as the eye can see.
In addition to the cacti, you’ll notice a variety of desert wildlife and plants. You’ll also drive past the ruins of the ancient Hohokam villages, which you can pull off to catch a better glimpse of. In addition, there are several hiking trails, including the Valley View Overlook Trail.
This is a great activity for people of all ages and fitness levels. Some parts of the road may be bumpy, but overall it’s a pretty easy ride for all vehicles.
Hike the Valley View Overlook Trail
- Distance: 1.2-mile round trip
- Difficulty: Moderate
Located just off the Bajada Loop Drive is the Valley View Overlook Trail. It’s one of the more popular hiking trails due to its gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Upon finishing this moderate hike, you’ll be greeted with a picturesque view of the Sonoran Desert.
Along the hike, you’ll notice a variety of desert plants and wildlife, including the giant saguaro cacti, desert wildflowers, and unique birds, making it a popular bird watching destination.
The trail includes switchbacks, so be sure to bring a good pair of shoes and plenty of water.
View the Petroglyphs
- Distance: 0.5-mile round trip
- Difficulty: Easy
Arizona is home to many ancient petroglyphs, which provide unique insight into the region’s rich cultural history. To view these petroglyphs, you’ll want to hike Signal Hill Trail off of the Bajada Loop Drive (see the listing above). These petroglyphs, in particular, belong to the Hohokam people who inhabited the region from 300 BCE to 1450 CE. The images depict human figures, animals, and unique geometric shapes.
It’s a short half-mile round trip hike suitable for all fitness levels. Please remember that petroglyphs are fragile and can easily be destroyed, so do not touch or disturb the carvings.
Stroll Through the Desert Discovery Nature Trail
- Distance:0.5 mile round trip
- Difficulty: Easy
The Desert Discovery Nature Trail is a self-guided nature trail that takes you through a half-mile loop, winding you through the desert’s landscape. Along the way, you’ll notice a host of interpretive signs and exhibits that provide insight into the unique environment of the Sonoran Desert.
You’ll also notice a variety of unique desert plants, including the cholla cacti and the ocotillo plant. You might also see lizards weaving between the plants and perhaps even a jackrabbit or two if you’re lucky!
Be sure to look out for the Desert Garden exhibit, which features a variety of plants and educational signs explaining how the Hohokam people used these plants for food and medicine.
Hike to Wasson Peak via King Canyon
- Distance: 7.2 miles roundtrip
- Difficulty: Strenuous
Wasson Peak is the highest point of Saguaro West. The Wassen Peak via King Canyon Trail is a popular route for experienced hikers who want to catch the panoramic view of Arizona’s stunning mountains and valleys. The peak is named after a prominent early settler in the Tucson area, John Wasson.
The trail to Wasson Peak is well-maintained and well-marked, but hikers should be prepared for a strenuous journey to the top. Mountain slopes, rocky outcroppings, and steep switchbacks will be the biggest challenges. If you’re up for it, you’ll be rewarded with an epic view.
Keep in mind the Arizona summer months can be grueling for long hikes, so be sure to wear appropriate clothing, bring plenty of water, apply sunscreen, and stay on the lookout for rattlesnakes.
Visit the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is a fun and interactive museum located near the Saguaro National Park. The museum’s focus is to showcase the native plants, animals, and geology of the Sonoran Desert.
The museum is part zoo, part botanical garden, and part natural history museum, so everyone is bound to find something that captures their attention. When you visit, you’ll be greeted with indoor and outdoor exhibits featuring desert plants and animals.
When you visit, be sure to check out the Desert Garden, which features over 1,200 species of native plants. In addition, the animal exhibits include everything from coyotes to javelinas and mountain lions.
Exploring Saguaro East (Rincon Mountain District)
Drive or Bike the Cactus Forest Loop
- Distance: 8-mile round trip
- Difficulty: Moderate
The Cactus Forest Loop is an 8-mile scenic loop that takes visitors via bike or car around the exciting landscape of the Saguaro National Park. If you’re up for it, this paved road is bike friendly and makes for a great workout. If you’d prefer to drive, you can still get out and stretch your legs at one of the many hiking trails along the way.
Speaking of hiking trails, one of the most popular in the park is the Freeman Homestead Trail, which offers a unique glimpse into the area’s history and the lives of its early settlers.
The Cactus Forest Drive is open year-round, enabling visitors to embark on this short-and-sweet scenic drive every season. During the spring months, the desert wildflowers bloom and create a vibrant and colorful scene you have to see to believe.
Hike Saguaro East via the Mica View Trail
- Distance: 1.4-mile round trip
- Difficulty: Easy
Though Saguaro East may be smaller than Saguaro West, it’s nonetheless rich with unique and exciting trails. The most accessible trail in the east is the Mica View Trail. Suitable for all ages and fitness levels, this 1.4-mile roundtrip trail gets you up close and personal with giant saguaro cacti. You’ll also find a well-maintained picnic area and restrooms.
If you want something more challenging, look no further than the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail. It’s a challenging 10-mile round trip hike that rewards you with stunning views of the Rincon Mountains.
Planning Your Visit to the Saguaro National Park
When it comes to planning your trip to the Saguaro National Park, safety and comfort are key. Here are a couple of tips to help make your experience successful.
Decide Your Itinerary in Advance
The drive between the eastern and western sections of the park is about an hour long. So, be sure to consider travel time if you’re hoping to explore both sides of the park on the same day.
In addition, each side of the park offers unique experiences. Saguaro West will be more popular because of its lower elevation and density of saguaro cacti. On the other hand, Saguaro East has more challenging hikes and a view more noteworthy for its landscape than its cacti.
Pick a Good Time of Year to Visit
Arizona summers routinely reach temperatures exceeding 100°F, so plan accordingly when deciding what time of year to visit. Ideally, the cooler months (November-April) are best since the daytime temperatures rarely exceed 75°F.
That said, if you are visiting Arizona in the summer months, you can still enjoy the park in all of its glory. Just remember to stay hydrated and, if needed, stick to shorter hikes.
Check for Road Conditions
Before you leave, consult the National Park Service website and check for any alerts regarding road conditions or park closures. Much of the park is open year-round, but rare flash floods can close some sections of the park. In addition, the NPS website will include relevant information regarding entrance fees and parking.
As you pull into the park, rangers will be there to answer any immediate questions or concerns and provide maps and trail suggestions.
Leave No Trace
To minimize the impact of human interaction with nature preserves, visitors must adopt a “leave no trace” mentality. This means securing all waste before leaving the park, following designated trails, and respecting wildlife.
Leave No Trace principles also implore you to leave what you find, so please don’t remove any rocks, plants, or artifacts, as these are all integral to the stability of the desert ecosystem.
What to Bring to the Saguaro National Park
In order to have a safe and fun time hiking at Saguaro National Park, there are some essentials you should bring with you, even if it’s only for a day hike.
- Good hiking shoes
- External phone battery
- First aid kit
- Insect repellent
Soak Up Nature in Saguaro National Park
When you visit Saguaro National Park, you’ll be greeted with an awe-inspiring view of the Sonoran Desert and unique glimpses of desert wildlife, cacti, and ancient ruins; it’s a must-stop destination.
So, if scenic drives, miles of trails, and cacti as far as the eye can see sound good, then be sure to book one of our vacation rentals so you can explore everything Arizona has to offer!