Protecting the universal symbol of the American West, Saguaro National Park showcases some of the most impressive forests of the cactus giants. The saguaro, reaching a height of 50 feet and living up to 200 years, grows only in the Sonoran Desert, which includes Tucson in Southeastern Arizona.
The park comprises two areas separated by the city of Tucson: the Red Hills Tucson Mountain District (also known as Saguaro West) and the Rincon Mountain District (Saguaro East). The two districts differ by more than location alone. Tucson Mountain, with its volcanic rocks, is at a lower elevation than Rincon Mountain, which is not only higher but wetter than its western counterpart, meaning the two districts showcase slightly different plant and wildlife of the Sonoran Desert.
The History Of Saguaro National Park
Established in 1933 as a national monument, the original park comprised the Rincon Mountain District east of Tucson. Between 1936 and 1939, the Civilian Conservation Corps built Cactus Forest Drive, designed as a scenic loop that allowed visitors to experience the unique ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert. The road still follows the original setting with most of the same overlooks and turnouts.
But the park as it is today dates from 1994. That’s when Congress created Saguaro National Park by adding the Red Hills Tucson Mountain District to the original national monument.
You might wonder what the difference is between a national monument and a national park. The president establishes national monuments, which have natural, historical, and cultural value, but their size doesn’t matter. Congress, on the other hand, creates national parks, and they need to be large enough for use by the public and should have educational, inspirational, and even recreational value.
By adding a larger area to the original national monument, Congress created Saguaro National Park and designated funds for its visitor centers, hiking trails, and camping and picnic sites.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Saguaro National Park?
Given its location in the Sonoran Desert, winter and the shoulder seasons are the best times to visit Saguaro National Park. This is when the weather is perfect in this desert, when visitors can enjoy hikes and the desert is full of life.
Known as the greenest on the continent, the Sonoran Desert showcases its vegetation best in the winter and spring. But if you catch it just after a rain, you’ll see the desert full of colors, with every shade of green and even yellows, bright pinks, and purples in early spring when wildflowers bloom. The saguaros are also the prettiest, as they’ll be larger and greener than before they soaked up the water.
But to see the saguaros bloom, you need to visit in May. Though it’s much too hot to hike in the desert -- at least for more than a few minutes -- a drive through one of the scenic loops will offer a show of blooming saguaros. Their large flowers are visible all day long, but to see them open, you need to be there early in the day. Being a night bloomer, the saguaro flower closes by afternoon.
What Can You Do On A Visit To Saguaro National Park?
From short interpretive trails to back country hikes, Saguaro National Park offers many opportunities to get out in the desert. The two visitor centers both have interpretive exhibits where you can learn about the Sonoran Desert, the giant saguaro, and the history of the area. Ranger-led interpretive programs are also available, with many scheduled from January to April.
Learn About The Sonoran Desert At The Visitor Centers
The park has two visitor centers, one in each district, and they both host indoor exhibits and interpretive programs.
The Saguaro East Visitor Center is the older one, smaller and more rustic than its counterpart west of Tucson. Its highlight is the outdoor exhibit or interpretive trail showcasing major plants of the Sonoran Desert, plus plaques with their names and descriptions. A short, 15-minute program called Voices of the Desert plays through the day, offering a Native American perspective of the Sonoran Desert.
The Saguaro West Visitor Center has spectacular views of mountains and saguaros from its back porch and cultural and natural history exhibits about the Sonoran Desert. Voices of the Desert plays here, too, and a bookstore on the premises offers National Park Service merchandise.
Participate In A Ranger-Led Program
Ranger-led programs are offered at Saguaro National Park in both districts year-round, though a wider variety is available during the busy season between January and April. These programs range from sunset and sunrise hikes with a ranger to short walks during which the rangers talk about the giant saguaro and its surroundings, or animals of the Sonoran Desert.
Take A Scenic Drive Through The Park
Each district of the park has a scenic drive showcasing some of the best sights of the surrounding desert, open from 7 a.m. to sunset.
In the Saguaro East district, Cactus Forest Drive offers great views of the Rincon Mountains and a wide variety of desert plant life.
Saguaro West features the 6-mile-long Bajada Loop Drive. Though an unpaved, gravel road, the loop is still tame enough for low-clearance cars.
Stop For A Picnic
Both districts of the park offer a few picnic areas along the scenic drives for visitors to stop and enjoy the surrounding desert. They all have grills and picnic tables, trash cans, and waterless toilets.
Saguaro East offers two picnic areas. The Mica View Picnic Area offers great views of the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north and the Rincon Mountains to the east. The larger of the two, the Javelina Picnic Area also marks the trailhead for the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail.
Saguaro West has more picnic areas, though two of them, both built in the 1930s, stand out along historic Saguaro Forest Drive. The Sus Picnic Area is off the gravel Hohokam Road surrounded by desert vegetation. The Signal Hill Picnic Area showcases quite a bit of rock art beside the amazing views of the mountain. It also marks the trailhead for the Signal Hills Trail.
Look For Ancient Petroglyphs
The Signal Hill Petroglyph Area in Saguaro West features over 200 prehistoric petroglyphs dating from about 550 to 1,550 years ago. The Hohokam, who lived in Southern Arizona between 450 and 1450 A.D., created most of them.
To see them, you don’t need to take a long hike. Some of them are in the picnic area, but the hike to see most is only a 0.1-mile walk to the top of the hill. Though short, the trail drops into a wash then climbs about 40 feet to the top of Signal Hill. A few stairs make the climb easier. The rock art is visible right from the trail, featuring representations of humans and animals, astronomical objects, circles, and spirals.
Take A Hike (Or Just A Walk)
The highlight of a visit to Saguaro National Park is always a hike. You can choose from short and easy loop trails close to the visitor centers or picnic areas to long backcountry hikes in the desert wilderness. The following are some of the easiest trails in the park.
The Desert Ecology Trail in Saguaro East is a short, 0.25-mile paved interpretive trail off Cactus Forest Loop Drive, offering the perfect introduction to the Sonoran Desert. Interpretive signs teach visitors about the plants of the desert and shaded benches offer opportunities to sit, relax, and enjoy the surroundings.
In the same district, the Freeman Homestead Trail offers an easy 1-mile walk to an old homestead foundation. But the beauty of the trail is walking through a grove of old (and therefore large) saguaros and a desert wash. Interpretive signs offer insights into desert life along the route.
The Desert Discovery Trail is a flat, 0.5-mile long paved trail off the Bajada Loop Drive. Similar in setup to the Desert Ecology Trail, it is longer and winds through some of the largest saguaros in the park.
The Valley View Overlook Trail is a 0.4-mile trail (0.8-mile roundtrip) that also starts off the Bajada Loop Drive. Crossing Bajada Wash, which is rocky, rough, and uneven in some places, makes this trail a bit challenging. But the reward at the overlook is a gorgeous view of the Avra Valley, Picacho Peak, and Newman Peak. Interpretive signs along the trail help identify the different varieties of cacti.
Watch A Dramatic Sunset
Sunsets are dramatic in the desert, and with the giant saguaro cactus in the foreground, they are even more spectacular in Saguaro National Park. The best place to view the sunset in Saguaro East is at Javelina Rocks pullout, while in Saguaro West, the best spot is the parking lot at Gates Pass.
Looking for more outdoor adventures in Arizona? Further north, don’t miss these five things to do at Saguaro Lake.