Saguaro National Park is one the strangest national parks in the country. It’s divided into two different sections, East and West and it’s main goal is to project these human-like cacti that populate the northern end of the Sonoran Desert.
You’ll see many of these Cacti around Tucson and the surround area, however, the concentration in the park is pretty incredible.
So if you have find yourself in Tucson, we’ll help you plan your trip to explore the best parts of the two parks.
Saguaro National Park East vs. West
The national park is divided into two sections, east and west. West is by far the more developed section of the park, with more trails and more cacti as well. The east is larger and has longer trails and backcountry you can explore. The east is also the only place you can camp, however, this requires backcountry camping (there is no car camping available anywhere in the park).
If you have limited time, we recommend you spend the time in the Western Part of the Park, it’s also the part you should concentrate visiting first. If you have more time, and want to see the rest of the park, be sure to check out the east as well. You won’t be disappointed.
About the Saguaro Cacti
Saguaro (pronounced Sah-wah-ro), are the largest cacti in the world. They can live over 150 years and can go over 12 meters high (40-50 feet). They can also weigh upwards of 4,000 lbs. They are the symbol of the southwest, the old cacti you would see on advertisements and old western movies.
The cacti are slow-growing, the first arm you often see (and many have multiple) can take 75-100 years before they grow!
The Saguaro also grows beautiful ruby-colored fruit that have been a staple for both the animals and people of the area for centuries. Also for their ability to survive droughts and store water, they are still an important source of food for life in the area.
Travel Between Saguaro National Park West and East
Saguaro National Park East and West are divided by the city of Tucson in the middle. You’ll need a car to travel between the two sections of Saguaro.
Based on Traffic and Distance, it can likely take you an hour to travel between the two parks.
For us, our recommendation is to visit West in the morning. Take off mid-day either by visiting something in Tucson, the Desert Museum, or grabbing lunch in the city. Then visiting East later in the day if you have time. This way, you’ll avoid some of the traffic as well as the hottest times of the day.
Things to do in Saguaro West
We’ll explore several of the best things to do in Saguaro National Park. While, there are certainly plenty more you could do, below are some of the ones we recommend checking out first.
Desert Discovery Nature Trail
After entering the park and passing the visitor center, the Desert Discovery Trail is the first trail you’ll come across on the left side of the road.
The paved trail is a super easy level trail that gives you a great glimpse of the various desert plants in the area. It also has several interpretive panels you can read about the area, cacti, etc. with lots of useful bits of information.
The parking area for the trail is super small, so we recommend coming early if you can. Otherwise, the trail is pretty short, so there’s a decent turnover of vehicles.
Bajada Loop Drive
The unpaved road is one of the main areas in Saguaro West and access for many of the hikes and places to explore in the park. The Loop is actually a combination of two other roads, Golden Gate Road and Hohokam Road. The road is generally open from around 5am through dusk.
The road, while unpaved is actually well maintained, and as long as there hasn’t been a recent rain, it should be drivable by sedans or most any car.
Be sure to do the Loop counter-clockwise, as there is a one-way section of the road and you’d otherwise have to turn around.
Signal Hill Petroglyph Area
On the north side of the Bajada Loop (off Golden Gate Road and Signal Hill Road), you’ll find Signal Hill, which is a short climb up to the hill for views of both petroglyphs and views of the area.
The hike is really short, about 0.3 miles out and back with a small elevation gain closer to the end of the hike.
As you get closer to the hill, be on the look out for rattlesnakes, as its rattlesnake territory there. There’s signs warning you about it, but be sure not to move any stones or go off trail. I didn’t’ see any rattlesnakes on this trail (did on others), but was hyper aware.
Wasson Peak via Various Trailheads
Depending on which one you take, will definitely changing the amount of mileage to get to the peak. Expect to hike between 8 – 10 miles round trip depending on the trail you choose.
You can get a lot of great scenery along the hike, from beautiful views of Saguaro to great views overlooking the area. There’s no bad way, but I think either Hugh Norris or King’s Canyon may be the better options for you.
Unfortunately, I ended up getting turned around when I saw a rattlesnake on the trail. I didn’t want to wait it out nor did I want to disturb it. But overall I only recommend the hike if you are trying to bag peaks. I’ll have to return someday soon and finish it.
Valley View Overlook Trail
Trailhead: Hohokam Road Tucson, AZ 85745
This was one of my favorite hikes in Saguaro with a great short lovely hike to a beautiful overlook payoff. In terms of time value of hiking, this one was top.
The trail is about 0.8 miles with a small elevation gain over the trail. You’ll pass through desert scenes, across a small wash, and along a trail close to some really impressive Saguaro.
The trail ends at an overlook of the valley, which will give some pretty stunning views of fields of Saguaro. You backtrack on your steps on the way back to the parking area.
The parking area for the trail is rather small is the only downside if you are there on a popular day. I was lucky that no one else was hiking when I was there.
Kings Canyon Wash to Gould Mine Trail
Trailhead: N. Kinney Road, Tucson, AZ 85745
This was my favorite hike in the entire park. You get basically everything you could want in this 2.5 mile hike, and really could basically do this and see representation of everything in the park. You’ll get petroglyphs, Saguaro, rock scrambling, wildlife, old mines, views, and more. It’s really the perfect hike in the park.
For this trail, follow the King’s Canyon Wash Trail to the Sendero Esperanza Trail to the Gould Mine Trail. You’ll pass the Mam-A-Gah picnic area along the Sendero Esperanza Trail to help you stay on trail. You’ll also need to do a bit of scrambling in the wash, there was even one spot I had to push myself up with my arms to climb one of the walls.
While hiking through the wash, be sure to keep an eye out at about the 0.75 mile mark for Petroglyphs on the rocks. There’s no sign for them but there are over a hundred in the area. Also be sure to go past the Gould Mine Trail to see the actual mine slightly up the hill. You’ll have to backtrack a bit but it’s less than 0.1 miles.
The trailhead and parking for this hike are located outside of the main entrance of the park between the main entrance and the desert museum. You’ll see the parking on the left if you are traveling from the western Saguaro NP entrance. It has the largest parking area in the park, but it is also the most popular area.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Address: 2021 N Kinney Rd, Tucson, AZ 85743
Ok, so this museum is not actually within the Saguaro National Park. However, the natural history museum has lots of exhibits, animals, gardens and more to explore and explain the complex ecosystem of the area.
You might be desert-out by the time you get here, but it really is a fun place to both see animals and plants you may have missed in the parks, as well as get explanation and understanding of the area.
It’s also a great way to spend mid-day if you are here when the temperatures are high (although much of the museum is outdoors as well).
Tickets are not cheap though, running from $20-30 a person, so you’ll need to decide if it fits in your budget as well. It’s also one of the most popular places in the area, I saw way more people at the museum than either park.
Website: Desert Museum Tickets
Things to Do in Saguaro NP East Unit
There’s a lot to do in Saguaro National Park East Unit, however, unless you are going to explore the backcountry, your options are far more limited than the West Unit. Below are a few great things to do for those visiting the east unit of the park.
Cactus Forest Loop
This is the main area of the park that most visitors explore. You’ll need to enter the main area of the park past the visitor center and through the entrance station. From here, the paved loop winds through areas of the park with beautiful views and several overlooks.
You should definitely take the option to stop at the various overlooks including those such as Javelina Rocks and Riparian Overlook. You can also access quite a few hikes from the loop as well.
Desert Ecology Trail
Trailhead: Cactus Forest Dr. Tucson, AZ 85748
One of the easiest accessed and short trail in the park. If you have down any of the small hikes elsewhere, you should definitely do this one. This takes you on an interpretive trail hike that is short and easily accessed.
It’s worth exploring the history and desert area, see some Saguaros and learn about wildlife in the park.
Backcountry Hiking and Camping
There’s a lot of backcountry to explore in Saguaro East if you have the time and ability to do so. For this you’ll need to apply for a backcountry permit so you can you explore and camp in the back country.
There is no water in the park, so you’ll need to be sure you are prepared for desert hiking and camping. Also be careful of wildlife in the park as well, from scorpions, snakes, mountain lions and more. You’ll need to be more self sufficient as parts of the park are far less visited.
Make sure that people know your planned itinerary before going in the park. You may or may not have cell service in areas of the backcountry.
Unfortunately as I was solo and didn’t have time to do backcountry hiking. I can’t speak too much on where to go or explore.
There’s actually quite a lot of day hikes in Saguaro East, and it’s definitely something worth doing. However, there are not as many Saguaro Cacti in the park (which I assume is why you came), so they can be a bit mixed in the type of hikes.
The Mica View Hike and hikes in that area are great quick short hikes for those to do for day hikes. I actually saw a javelina on the mica view hike myself which was a highlight for me.
Beyond that, there’s lots of hikes on the north end of the park, and parking for those may be easier outside of the main area of the park as well. There are waterfalls as well, however, as they tend to be very seasonable, be sure there’s been recent rain, or you’ll see dry waterfall areas.
Where to Stay near Saguaro National Park
Unless you are planning to do Backcountry camping, there is no camping available within the boundaries of Saguaro National Park. There is however campsites located around the park. Myself, based on my schedule and the difficult of getting campsites off-season I stayed in hotels. Below are hotels recommended by myself and friends in the area. We tried to suggest places for different budgets.
- BUDGET: Red Roof Downtown: Nice budget option that is pretty centrally located. Closer to the Western Side of Saguaro NP.
- MODERATE: Holiday Inn Express: Good Moderately Priced hotel in Tucson (closer to the west unit). Free breakfast, and very clean rooms.
- HIGH END: JW Marriott: Beautiful resort and spa with top end service. The place I stay when work pays. Closer to the west unit.
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