Saguaro National Park: Two great Arizona parks in one

(Last Updated On: May 26, 2020)

With two distinct Sonoran Desert landscapes, Saguaro National Park outside Tucson, Arizona, is the perfect place for a road trip to see giant saguaros and more.

convertible driving through desert scenery

Saguaro is really two parks

Saguaro National Park consists to two “districts,” one to the east of Tucson and one to the west.

Although separated by only 30 miles, these districts are different both geologically and biologically. What they have in common are vast stands of saguaros.

dirt road surrounded by saguaro cacti

By visiting both districts, visitors can experience different aspects of the saguaros’ Sonoran Desert home.

East of Tucson, the Rincon Mountain District became a National Monument in 1933 to protect a dense stand of mature saguaros. This is the highest and wettest part of Saguaro park. That means it not only has spectacular scenery, but also huge amount of biodiversity. Horseback riders and backcountry hikers can travel from saguaro forests to forests of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine as they move up into the mountains from the desert floor.

The western Tucson Mountain District is the smaller of the two park districts. It protects a part of the Sonoran Desert that is much lower in elevation and, thus, hotter, drier, and less diverse. But it has a very large, dense forest of younger saguaros.

Both districts have a scenic driving loop, visitor center, picnic areas, and variety of interpretive and hiking trails. The eastern Rincon district also has wilderness backpacking trails.

Park history

Long, long before Saguaro National Park was established, the area was the site of Hohokam villages. The Spanish came along much later, founding Mission San Xavier to the south in 1692. But the area that is now Saguaro National Park remained relatively undeveloped until homesteaders, ranchers, and miners began arriving late in the 19th century. Mining continued inside the park until the 1940s and a few ranches remained until the 1970s.

Bits of this all this history can be seen today, in the form of petroglyphs and other archaeological sites, abandoned mines, and historic buildings.


What’s so special about saguaros?

The Sonoran Desert is home to a lot of types of cacti. However, only two of them, the saguaro and the organ pipe cactus, have federal parks dedicated to them.

So, what’s so special about these giant cacti?

Group of saguaro and other cacti

Come along on a virtual tour of Saguaro National Park

While Tucson creeps right up to the edges of Saguaro National Park, this is by no means an urban park. Both districts contain large tracts of wilderness. The Rincon district also abuts another wilderness area, creating a large expanse of protected land in and around the park.

But there is plenty to see without hiking into the wilderness!

Rincon Mountain District (East Saguaro)

Saguaro’s Rincon Mountain District it the place to go for spring wildflowers and eye-popping scenery year-round. This eastern district protects both the historic cactus forest and the slopes of the Rincon Mountains, with elevations over 8,000 feet. It’s a gorgeous place even if you aren’t a huge cactus fan!

rock formation with cacti

The Rincon visitor center is located just inside the park. It’s a good spot to learn a bit about the Sonoran Desert, check out trail conditions, find out what might be in bloom and what wildlife is around, and pick up a map.

For cyclists and visitors with limited time, the 8-mile paved Cactus Forest Loop Drive offers wonderful scenery and plenty of places to stop and take a closer look. There are several trails to explore, but there is also a lot to see right from the road!

man with binoculars along a road through the desert

The road begins just beyond the visitor center. Much of it is only open to one-way vehicle and bike traffic. To drive the full loop, go to the left (north). From there you will travel into part of the cactus forest that spurred creation of the park. (Today the once-dense cactus forest features a few enormous old saguaros and many very young ones.) The saguaros are in a beautiful setting, with dramatic rock outcrops, wildflowers, and the Rincon Mountains as a backdrop.

Several hiking trails can be reached from the loop road. Both the Desert Ecology Trail (1/4 mile, paved) and the Freeman Homestead Trail (1 mile) offer easy options for exploring the desert and getting close to a few saguaros. Both offer interpretive signage to help you understand what you are seeing.

Longer trails thread through the cactus forest and link to back-country trails up into the mountains.

Tucson Mountain District (West Saguaro)

Located to the west of Tucson, the Tucson Mountain District is the smaller of the park’s two districts. But don’t let its size fool you. It has a lot to offer with historic picnic areas, petroglyphs, and a variety of hiking trails that provide a close-up look at an impressive forest of the park’s namesake cacti.

group of mature saguaro cactus

The cacti forest starts before you even get into the park and continues all along the drive to the visitor center.

hillsides covered with saguaro

Unfortunately, there really aren’t many places to pull over and admire the scenery until you reach the visitor center. But once there, the visitor center is offers pretty great scenery right from the shaded patio.

patio with shaded stripes

saguaro cacti with mountains behind

As in the Rincon District, the Tucson Mountain Visitor Center is a good place to stop for information and maps.

Heading further into the park from the visitor center, the Desert Discovery Trail offers a lot to see along a very short interpretive trail.

Continue along to reach the 5-mile Scenic Bajada Loop Drive. This unpaved loop road connects most of the highlights in this part of the park.

dirt road through scenery with cactus

Like the Cactus Forest road in the Rincon District, the Bajada Loop Drive also has a section that is one-way. This time you’ll need to start on the southern half of the loop to do the entire circuit. This road is unpaved, but suitable for most regular automobiles. It’s not suitable for large vehicles.

Stops along the road include the petroglyphs at Signal Hill and a variety of trails. Even if you don’t hike far, it’s worth getting out of the car to walk the first part of a trail. They’ll be plenty to see wherever you stop.

Plan your visit to Saguaro

Saguaro National Park is an easy day trip from either Phoenix or Tucson. Visitors staying in Tucson can visit each park district on a different day, but still should plan their visit for early morning or late afternoon.

Hazards in the park

The following isn’t intended to scare visitors unfamiliar with desert hiking from visiting the park. In all my years of short hikes in the Sonoran Desert, I’ve never had heat stroke, never gotten caught in a storm while on foot, never gotten a cholla stuck anywhere but on my hiking boots, haven’t been stung by killer bees, have only seen two rattlesnakes, and am still hoping to see a mountain lion someday.

Part of my good luck is simply the time of year I like to visit the Sonoran Desert: Spring, when severe storms are rare and snakes are just coming out for the season. My closest call was actually the killer bees, as I didn’t realize there were Africanized bees in the park and, with all the flowers in bloom, the sound of bees wasn’t as alarming as it should have been.

I love the desert. But visiting the desert isn’t like visiting other landscapes. It’s a harsh, potentially deadly, place. And first-time visitors are particularly likely to either over- or under-estimate the dangers.

If you want to hike, know what you are doing. If you aren’t comfortable hiking in the desert, you are in luck, as you can have a wonderful park visit on your bike or even by car. Just stop and walk at least a little bit to really see the marvelous landscape through which you are passing. It is an amazing and beautiful place.

Camping and other lodging in and around the park

Unlike many national parks, Saguaro isn’t set up for most overnight visitors. However, there are plenty of campgrounds, hotels, inns, and other lodging available just outside the park and in the city of Tucson.

Backcountry camping in Saguaro

The Rincon Mountain area has a number of backcountry hiking trails. Hikers on these trails are allowed to camp at any of six wilderness campgrounds. These sites can only be reached by hiking. A permit is required to camp at these sites.

Additional resources

Saguaro National Park has a number of informational brochures related to specific aspects of the park, including park geology, wildlife and birds, saguaro cacti, and Africanized honey bees.

The Saguaro Sentinel (PDF) from a few years ago has a nice combination of history and visitor information, including hiking trail details and maps.

Maps and hiking guides are also available on the park website. Just be sure to check in at a visitor center before hiking to check for trail closures or other issues.

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