The Saguaro cactus are captivating. Their presence commands your attention and musings.
It’s almost as if they are watching you, standing guard protecting you and ensuring that you are behaving and taking care of Saguaro National Park and the natural beauty surrounding you.
Like a scene from the Wizard of Oz, I half expected them to start moving and talking to me.
It took all of my will power not to go up and hug one. They seem like they’d be so cuddly.
I won’t dare you to try it though. Once you get close enough to those spikes, you’ll rethink the cuddly description.
But I thought these giant Saguaro cactus would be few and far between on the sandy plains of a red desert. I had no idea they’d be so ubiquitous.
The mountains in Tucson are covered with them. From a distance it looks like a bleak winter scene or a forest fire has run through and stripped all the leaves off the trees.
It’s just trunks and arms of all different sizes, styles, and formations standing sentinel.
They are simply stunning!
There is no better place to see them then in the protected Saguaro National Park, Tucson.
Out here, you get to witness the beauty of the Sonoran Desert, an arid region covering approximately 100,000 square miles in southwestern Arizona and southeastern California, as well as most of Baja California and the western half of the state of Sonora, Mexico.
The vegetation of the Sonoran Desert is the most diverse of any desert in North America.
It’s not just those Tucson saguaros dominating the landscape but other cactus types such as the barrel cactus, yuca, cholla (those things jump at you) and one of our favorites from our time in Big Bend National Park, the prickly pear.
I tell you we fell in love with cactus during our time in the Tucson mountain district.
I love the Saguaro National Park Arizona for several reasons:
- It’s small and so easy to do in a couple of hours to a day.
- There are plenty of short hikes that are easy for kids
- It’s split into two different parks, east and west, which makes it more interesting. You’ll be surprised at how different they are.
I can almost guarantee you are Googling how to pronounce Saguaro. I did a couple of times until I could remember it. Don’t Google it, here it is…
Saguaro is pronounced ‘sa-WAH-roh’.
Saguaro National Park East and West
Where is Saguaro National Park? Let’s start with a bit of clarity for you,
The Saguaro National Park is actually split into two National Parks and is separated by the city of Tucson. These two Tucson parks are probably the only National Park that does that.
West Saguaro National Park seems to be the most popular, and is more of a dense cactus experience. It felt very orange and dusty and hilly.
Don’t discount East Saguaro National Park, however, as it’s equally as beautiful and deserves your attention.
The East side of the park feels more open and valley like with the mountains in the distance. This park felt more green and scrub like. The views as you drive through this park are spectacular.
Should You Visit Saguaro National Park East or Saguaro National Park West?
I’m hoping you have a enough time on your Tucson vacation to visit both East and West.
However, if you only have time for one, I’d recommend West Saguaro National Park.
We didn’t do any hiking in the East as we were short on time, and there didn’t seem to be as many family-friendly hikes. The scenic drive is shorter in the West, but there are more hikes which can extend your time.
It is about an hour’s drive between the two National Parks, so if you have more than one day to explore Tucson, then I recommend you DON’T do them in the same day.
This is a lot of wasted time and poor planning.
Thankfully, there are a lot of things to do in Tucson near both sides of the park to make a full day filled with Tucson activities.
We recommend combining a trip to Saguaro National Park West with the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum (if that interests you.)
Although I think its kind of weird to visit a desert museum inside a desert. Why not just go and explore the real desert and learn about it from real life experiences?!
Saguaro National Park West is also next door to the Tucson Mountains, which has a lot more hiking and biking trails. Don’t miss the Gates Pass – the views here are stunning. Sunset is meant to be amazing here.
Saguaro National Park East is near Sabino Canyon and the Catalina State Park. I’d spend the morning in East Saguaro and then the afternoon exploring Sabino Canyon, which is just spectacular, as is Catalina State Park.
You are spoiled for choices in Tucson for natural beauty!
Things to do in Saguaro National Park West (Tucson Mountain region)
You only need a few hours in the West side of the park. It just depends on how many West Saguaro National Park trails you want to hike.
We spent about 4 hours in the park to do the activities outlined below.
I recommend you go in the afternoon so you can be there for sunset. There are also plenty of pull outs along the road to the National Park in the Tucson Mountains park.
If you were only visiting for a day and wanted to do sunset at Gates Pass instead, then I would recommend it over the sunset on the Desert Discover trail. I think it would be more spectacular.
In that case, head into Saguaro National Park West in the morning.
Also, be aware, we visited during the cooler winter months so it was fine for us to visit and hike during the “middle” of the day.
If you are visiting during the brutal hot summer months, you’ll want to plan carefully as it wouldn’t be smart to hike during the middle of the day.
Go early or late.
1. Embrace Cactus Diversity at the Cactus Garden Trail
At the visitor center is a lovely paved 0.5 mile trail that winds through a cactus garden.
It’s a great introduction to the National Park and the many different types of cactus and their importance to the desert environment.
Start your Saguaro experience here.
Since her introduction to cactus by way of the prickly pear in Big Bend National Park, Savannah has become quite the cactus lover, so she enjoyed learning that there are many more different types of cacti.
2. Marvel at the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive
The Bajada Loop Drive is a fantastic 3-mile scenic loop drive.
All the Saguaro National Park hiking trails mentioned below are located off the drive, as well as several more. You can even bike this scenic loop. Warm up those legs because they’ll be working hard.
This is mostly a gravel road and can get quite hilly and bumpy in some parts. Two wheel drive cars are allowed on the road, but just take it easy.
We were bumping around in our big Beast – our Ford 250. Pack a picnic and take your time.
3. Look for Petroglyphs at Signal Hill
Don’t let the Rattlesnake Habitat sign scare you as you walk up the path to Signal Hill.
You can see why they love it with its rocky façade. This is a busy path, the rattlesnakes have probably long crawled into a hole somewhere.
That being said, be sure that you do not let the kids go scrambling up the rocks. Ensure all of you stay on the path and watch were you put your feet and hands.
This is an easy 0.5 mile return hike up a small rocky hill to see some ancient petroglyphs – and beautiful views as well.
There is a serene and shady picnic area here as well.
4. Hike the Sendero Esperanza Trail
You can read about Kalyra’s cactus attack here. It’s one reason we will never forget this spectacular one way 3.4 mile Saguaro National Park hiking trail.
Unfortunately, due to the cactus, we did not get to the end valley views, but Savannah and I made it somewhat up the switchbacks to catch a glimpse of them
No photos sorry, because at that moment we were flying back down the trail to help attend to Kalyra’s emergency, which did not end up being coyotes or rattlesnakes as feared.
You’ll see all types of cactus on this trail. It was an easy mostly flat walk until you get to the switchbacks, and well switchbacks, they’re not challenging.
5. Enjoy Sunset on the Desert Discovery Trail
This is the easy 0.5 mile paved loop road you’ll want to do at sunset.
You can wander around and read the plaques to learn more about the desert. Then find yourself a shelter to sit and watch the sunset.
The sun sets behind the mountain so it’s an early set and the sky still quiet bright when it goes down.
You can still grab a good silhouette photo of the cactus – so very Arizona – and one of our bucket list things to do in Arizona.
Hang around to catch the colors coming out in the sky once the sun goes down.
Things to do in Saguaro National Park East (Rincon Mountain region)
The Rincon Mountains section of Saguaro National Park is the larger and more remote of the two halves of the National Park.
It includes an extensive mountainous area with hills as high as 8,664 feet.
6. Take the Stunning Cactus Loop Drive
The Cactus Loop Drive is a stunning 8-mile scenic loop paved drive with undulating land to start you off with a good view of the craggy peaks, vistas and of course, ubiquitous cactus.
This drive is popular with cyclists, we saw so many whizzing past us down the hills.
There are a few hiking trails leading off it, although I couldn’t find too much information on them.
There are also many lookouts and pullovers to enjoy the dramatic scenery. I wish I had more time to do at least one hike.
The following trails sound good for families:
- Mica view trail (2 mile return). There is a picnic area here also.
- The easy 1-mile round trip Freeman Homestead Trail is one of the best short hikes to get up close to some of the biggest, most mature saguaros in the park.
- To learn about desert life, the paved one-quarter mile Desert Ecology Trail apparently has interesting interpretive signs describing the plants and animals that inhabit the Sonoran Desert, and some activities for kids.
7. Soak in the views at Rincon Mountain Overlook
I loved this overlook off the side of the hill, giving you a unique perspective of the Rincon mountain district and its riparian environment.
If you visit at the right time you will see water running down the mountain sides and small springs. We could easily imagine just by looking at the dusty path they have left behind.
8. Have a Picnic (or rock scramble) at Javelina Rocks
Jump out of the car to appreciate the javelina rocks, named after the animal that likes to call this rocky outcrop its home.
We didn’t see any, but we liked walking around the rocks and enjoying the view.
Composed of an ancient granite called Catalina Gneiss, the Javelina Rocks Overlook on Cactus Forest offers stunning views of the Tucson basin and the enormous saguaro cactus. It is a popular picnic spot.
There maybe a trail going around the rocks, but we just found a worn trail in the scrub and walked up and over the rocks.
If there are any artists in the house, bring your easel and your paints and stand in the scrub to paint the javelina rocks and desert surroundings.
We saw a man doing it and his painting was very striking. Not a bad studio to work in.
Video of Saguaro National Park
Tips For Visiting Saguaro National Park
- Tips to gauge a saguaro’s age: a saguaro won’t grow any flowers until it’s 35, and it won’t get its first arm until it’s 50-75 years old. They can live up to 250 years old!
- October through April are the best times to visit these Arizona National Parks, summer often bring triple-digit temps.
- Stay on the trails and watch where you place hands and feet. Cacti are sharp and spiky, and scorpions and rattlesnakes inhabit the area.
- Visit sometime between late-May and June to see the saguaro cactus bloom white, waxy flowers that are Arizona’s state flower.
- Admission to the park is $15.00/vehicle, $10.00/motorcycle, or $5.00/person and $5.00/bicycle.Your pass is good for both locations for 7 days from the date of purchase.
- We have the Annual National Parks Pass ($80 for family of four) that covered our admission.
- The Visitor Center is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
Junior Rangers Program
From my research before our trip to visit Tucson, I learned that the Junior Ranger Program is awesome in the Saguaro National Park and its worth spending time at the visitor center.
We love the Junior Ranger’s program.
Basically, the kids are given an educational booklet with fun activities to help them engage with the National Park and learn from it.
They also learn how to be good stewards of the earth. When they complete the activities they get a junior ranger badge. We’re doing our best to collect them.
Sadly, we cannot comment on the Junior Ranger program at Saguaro as we visited during the Government shutdown and the Saguaro visitor center was closed and no National park rangers around.
Saguaro National Park Camping
Camping is allowed at 6 designated campgrounds within the Saguaro Wilderness Area, a permit is required for all overnight stays.
These camp sites are not accessible by vehicles and must be hiked to.
The fee for this permit is $8.00 per campsite, per night. The closest is a 5.9-mile hike to Douglas Spring.
See nearby RV camping options below.
Where to Stay in Tucson
Gilbert Ray Campground
We loved this campsite in the middle of the Tucson Mountain wilderness.
Our site was huge and very secluded and the campground serene and beautiful. And what a bargain for only $20 a night.
It was a bit rough not having showers and limited water supply. But at least it teaches you about water conservation and how much you can waste!
If you’re looking for camping near Saguaro National Park, you are only a five minute drive to the West entrance gate!
Catalina State Park
We stayed one night at Catalina State Park in Tucson.
We highly recommend this campground. Be sure to book in advance as it’s popular. The scenery and SUNSETS are stunning at the base of the Catalina Mountains.
There are a few trails straight from the campsite that are easy for walking or biking. The sites are clean, level and spacious and the bathrooms very clean with warm showers and it’s only $35 a night.
There is even a book exchange and they have lots of ranger led activities.
They also have free wifi and the cell service (Verizon) is fast.
Tucson Hotels & Apartments
For those who are looking for Tucson hotels or apartments, or hotels near Saguaro National Park, check out the options through our partner, Booking.com.
We find they have the widest range of properties. You get free cancellation on most rooms, and a best price guarantee.
Plus, they have verified reviews from guests who have actually stayed at the property!
You can also check out Airbnb options.
More Things to Do in Arizona
- 18 amazing things to do in Tucson with kids
- Best Tips for Planning a Trip to the Grand Canyon With Kids
- Magical things to do in Sedona with kids
- The Unique and Extraordinary Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Other great US National Parks
- Don’t miss these 11 things to do in Arches National Park
- 5 Incredible National Parks in California
- 14 Things to do in Zion National Park
- 12 Coolest Things to do in North Cascades National Park