Just outside the city of Tucson, Arizona a small National Park preserves some of the coolest cacti you will ever see. Saguaro National Park was established in 1994 and is divided into two sections – east and west. The saguaro cactus that you see there is native to the Sonoran Desert, do not grow anywhere else in the world and can get up to 75 feet tall!
I spent an entire day exploring the park and visited during late May. The cacti were still blooming, but according to the park experts, 2021 has been an unusual bloom year for the saguaro. Even though the saguaro thrive in the desert climate, they still need rain and it’s been extremely dry in the area in recent years, causing side blooms and off season blooms as well.
If you’re planning to visit this park, you’re in for a treat! And it can easily be accomplished in one day unless you plan to hike every single trail. If you go in summer, I’d recommend starting early. I arrived at the visitor’s center around 7:30 a.m. and it was already in the 80s. Take lots of water, sunscreen and be prepared for dry, desert heat.
As you plan, here are a few highlights to add to your itinerary from each section of the park.
Saguaro National Park – East
- Drive the entire Cactus Forest Drive Loop. This is an 8 mile paved road that will take you past all the major attractions on this side of the park. It’s also mostly one way, so know that once you’re on it, you will have to drive the entire loop.
- Hike Mica View Trail. An easy, flat paved trail that starts near a picnic area. You can also start the trail outside the park, as it’s literally right next to a housing subdivision. Two miles round trip through the cactus forest. It was relatively empty and I had most of my hike to myself.
- Walk the Desert Ecology Trail. This one is perfect for families and you’ll learn all about the ecology of the park. You’ll learn about the animals that live here, how the cactus grow and what other plants inhabit this part of the desert.
- Cactus Forest Trail. Five mile hike that’s pretty flat through a giant cactus forest.
- Rincon Mountain Overlook. One of my favorite spots in both sections of the park! You’ll get a view from the side of a hill that looks out over a sea of cactus with the Rincon Mountains in the background. This is a must!
Saguaro National Park – West
- Red Hills Visitor Center. There are some really pretty views right at the western visitor center. Pick up a park map if you don’t already have one and check out the view behind the building.
- Drive the Bajada Loop. This 6 mile gravel loop takes you through some of the best parts of the western part of the park. You will not need a four-wheel drive; the road is easily passable by car, but it does get a little rough at the end. Several trails, picnic areas and overlooks connect to this main loop.
- Valley View Overlook Trail. An easy 2 mile trail that ends in a viewpoint over a valley of cacti. Make sure you stop to take a picture next to one for height comparison!
- Signal Hill Picnic Area. Another easy hike up Signal Hill will give you an amazing view. You’ll also find 800 year-old petroglyphs created by the Hohokam people. Archeologists believed they lived here between 300 and 1500 AD. Watch out for rattlesnakes on this 0.3 mile trail hike.
A few things to note before you go:
- Take plenty of water! There are refill stations at the visitor’s centers, but none throughout the park. It was in the 100s by mid-afternoon during the end of May and getting too hot to hike by that point. Having enough water is crucial.
- Download the National Park Service app. You’ll have easy access to addresses, park advisories and alerts and maps if your GPS doesn’t work.
- Pack sunscreen and bug spray. I didn’t take the latter and was getting bit while on hikes.
- The drive between the eastern and western parks is about 45 minutes to an hour. So plan accordingly for that.
- I was able to do most of the activities and hikes listed above in 6 hours. I started early, then when it got too hot, went back to Tucson for lunch and to cool off before evening. My hotel was right in between both parks (I stayed at Hotel McCoy), so it didn’t take long to get back for sunset.
If you’ve never been to Saguaro National Park, I hope this post has inspired you to take a trip to southwest Arizona to see these magnificent cactus plants. It’s an experience unlike any other and you’ll enjoy getting lost in the beauty of the desert landscapes.
For more information about the park, check out their official web site and if you’re looking for other things to do in the Tucson area, I have other posts on where to stay and what to eat. Be sure to check out my YouTube from my day at Saguaro too. Happy travels!