I LOVE to hike in the desert. No, really. I do. And Saguaro National Park is the perfect desert hiking spot! It is peaceful. Warm. Vibrant with life. The weather in the mornings and evenings is almost always pleasant. A siesta to escape the midday heat suits me just fine. This love of desert hiking helped foster a quick friendship between Saguaro National Park and myself. Saguaro National Park is the very best of desert landscape.
The main attraction to Saguaro National Park is the saguaro cacti that can grow to be over 40 feet tall!
This park is split into a west side and an east side with the city of Tucson separating the two. You actually have to exit the park, drive an hour through Tuscon, and then re-enter the park in order to see both sides. The west side is named Tucson Mountain District, the east side is named Rincon Mountain District.
Each district has its charms. They are not the same and if you are going to make the trip to Tuscon, take the time to see both sides. Kenon thought that the east district was going to be better than the west so we rushed through the west and then went to the east. This was not the case. The west had saguaros in much thicker abundance. The east had miles and miles and miles of hiking trails to peruse.
Kenon said about twenty times on our trip, “The west was so much better than the east.” He loved that the cactuses were side by side everywhere you looked. He let me know with certainty that if we were to go back we would spend more time in the west. I, on the other hand, preferred the east. I loved how the hiking trails were set up (more on that later) and I thought the views across the valley were more stunning. You really do have to spend ample time on both sides of the park.
In the west side, you can drive the Bajada Loop Drive, which is a 6 mile loop to see the best of the saguaros. This loop is entirely gravel and a little tricky to navigate. The National Park website states that a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle is necessary and I would definitely back this up. We only have a Hyundai Ioniq so Kenon skillfully navigated this drive anyway.
There is also an out and back drive from the visitor’s center to the park boundary which is paved. Along this drive is shorter, family-friendly hikes.
There is a beautiful, 0.5 mile nature trail about one mile from the visitor’s center. This is perfect for anyone, young and old, who wants to learn more about the desert ecosystem. The trail is signed throughout with information about the plants and animals. There are shaded seating areas to rest and get out of the sun.
In the east side, the main part of the park is situated on a one-way loop drive. If you want to see anything at all you have to do the entire loop, which is 8 miles long. It’s worth it, though! The views are absolutely stunning, with saguaros overtaking the rolling hills and dramatic cliffs.
This district has over 100 miles of hiking trails. The trails intersect each other, creating small loops that increase as you add trails, so you can choose your own adventure. Only a few of the hiking trails have information listed in the park brochure. Stop at the visitor center, pick up a hiking map, and have the friendly rangers help you design a hike that fits best for your family.
The trails are signed with trail names and miles. Keep a compass and the trail map with you so you can easily find your way back. We got a little turned around trying figure out how some of the trails connected. I was very thankful for a husband with a sense of direction, a compass, and a map!
The trails are gorgeous and filled with wildlife. We saw tons of birds, an abundance of lizards, and a jack rabbit. Rattlesnakes have also been spotted by other hikers. They are also hot, sunny, and dusty! Bring more water than you think you will need, wear protective clothing and sunscreen, and put on a hat.
Whether you love the desert or not, this park is a must-see! The flora and fauna are unlike anything else. The hiking trails are uncrowded. It is well worth the trip!
Places to Camp:
There are not any campground facilities inside Saguaro National Park. The most popular place to camp is at Gilbert Ray Campground. This is just outside the west district, in Tuscon Mountain State Park.
The One Thing To Do:
Take a hike in the east district. You can choose your own adventure. The trails are abundant and crisscross each other. There is a trail map, but very little trail descriptions, so stop at the visitor’s center and ask for help figuring out which route is best for your family.
- Plan on about an hour drive to get from the Saguaro East to Saguaro West.
- On the east side: There is flush toilets at the visitor’s center and pit toilets at Mica View and Javelin. Mica View also boasts a shaded picnic area.