Saguaro National Park: A Guide to “The Sentinels of the Desert”

Saguaro National Park

Home to a rare, diverse and specialized desert ecosystem, Saguaro National Park, to the east and west of the modern city of Tucson (Arizona) amazes visitors with its natural wonderland. The park boasts the largest collection of Saguaro Cacti in the world, known as the universal symbol of the American West. It was also the very first national park created specifically to protect a plant species (the Saguaro Cactus).

Saguaro National Park provides a magnificent view of the Sonoran Desert and a stunningly rich desert ecosystem on its 165 miles (266 km) of trails and sightseeing. While the park is hot and relatively unmanageable during summer, it is a great place for hikers in winter and spring. Check out our detailed guide to this “desert wonderland” right here.

Saguaro National Park History

The earliest known residents of the land that later became Saguaro National Park were the Holokam, who lived there in villages between 200 – 1450 A.D and whose fascinating artifacts are still found in the park area today.

Spanish explorers first entered Arizona in 1539, but non-native settlement of the region near the park did not occur until 1692 with the founding of San Xavier Mission along the Santa Cruz River that flowed through Tucson. The lands remained relatively free of development until the mid-19th century, after Arizona had become part of the United States.

During the 1920s, members of the Natural History Society of the University of Arizona expressed interest in establishing a protected area for the Saguaro, a distinctive cactus species, but the lack of funding and management delayed the creation of the park.

During the Roosevelt administration, between 1936 and 1939, the monument’s Cactus Forest Loop Drive and related infrastructure were in construction. The monument’s visitor center finally opened in the 1950s.

After several major expansion events of the 2 districts (Tucson Mountain District and Rincon Mountain District) in 1961 and 1976, on October 14th, 1994, the US Congress elevated the combined of two districts to National Park status, marking the birth of the Saguaro National Park known today.

The park was added another 1,232 acres (4.99 km2) by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, a stimulus relief for the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

Saguaro National Park

Key Facts about Saguaro National Park

Size: 143 square miles (about 370 km2)

Number of visitors: 1,020,226 (2019)

Established on: 1st March 1933 (national monument), 14th November 1994 (national park)

Number of official hiking trails: 8

Highest point: 2,180 feet near Sanders Road

Lowest point: 8,666 feet on Mica Mountain

Other interesting facts:

  • Saguaro National Park was the very first national park created specifically to protect a plant species, the Saguaro – a large cactus that is native to the Sonoran Desert and that does not grow naturally elsewhere.
  • It consists of two separate areas with slightly different landscapes – the Tucson Mountain District, about 10 miles (16km) west of the city of Tucson, which is recommended for its iconic desert sunset and the Rincon Mountain District, about 10 miles east of the city, famous for its higher elevations with appearance of ponderosa pine, oak, and Douglas fir trees… You may need to plan to spend at least two full days in the park to explore both sections of the park.
  • The park contains 523 known archeological sites – spanning more than 8,000 years of human occupation during prehistoric and historic times. It is a delight to see items of human history remaining in the park.
  • Saguaro National Park is located in the most biologically diverse desert in North America, the Sonoran Desert, which has more than 2000 plant species and over 550 animal species.
  • The Saguaros, known as the “sentinels of the desert”, may live as long as 200 years and are considered mature at about age 125. A mature saguaro can grow up to 60 feet (18 m) tall and weigh up to 4,800 pounds (2,200 kg) when fully hydrated. The total number of saguaros in the park is estimated at 1.8 million, and 24 other species of cactus are abundant.
  • More than 165 miles (266 km) of hiking trails wind through the park, where perils may include extreme heat, dehydration, flash floods, cactus spines, snakes, cougars, bears, and Africanized bees.
  • Animals aren’t allowed on the trails. It’s also against Arizona’s law to leave your pets on their own in the car.

Climate and Weather

Saguaro National Park’s weather is typical of the desert southwest, with less than 12 inches of rainfall in a typical year. Rainy seasons occur twice a year, in short but violent thunderstorms, from July through September, and in gentle rains, from January to March.

Between the summer and winter rainy seasons, it is not unusual for months to pass without a drop of rain. The plants and animals able to survive in this environment, with adaptations specially designed for desert survival, make up some of the most interesting and unusual species in the United States.

Saguaro National Park Sunset

Spring

In spring, wildflowers are coming up, temperatures are warming, but not too hot or too cold, and crowds seemingly have gone elsewhere. From the last two weeks of April to the first week of June — the park is a photographer’s paradise, with cacti sprouting vivid blooms in hues of white, fuchsia and canary yellow.

Summer

Summers in Saguaro National Park are extremely hot, with thunderstorms occurring late in the season. Brief violent summer rains are usually accompanied by lightning, dust storms and flash floods. Midday temperatures quite commonly climb above 100° F (37.8°C). The hottest period is from May through September, when highs average in the 100s°F (37.8°C). Still, at night, temperatures drop by as much as 30°F (-1.1°C). Most people visiting during this time will just simply drive through the park because the temperatures do not allow for much body movement.

Fall

From July to September the weather is usually warm with a short but violent thunderstorm rainy season. Daily high temperatures decrease from 96°F (35.6°C) to 69°F (20.6°C). Daily low temperatures decrease from 73°F (22.8°C) to 44°F (6.7°C).

Winter

Winters have mild daytime temperatures averaging 65°F (19°C) and cool nights averaging 40°F (5°C).The mountains, of course, have lower temperatures. Winters are also known for periodic gentle rains, but most of the time it’s sunny. Some moisture at the highest elevations in the Rincons falls as snow in winter; snowmelt adds to the limited water available at lower elevations later in the year.

When to Visit

The best time to visit Saguaro National Park is from October until April, when high temperatures are between 60 and 70°F (15.6-21.1°C). This is one of the best national parks to visit during winter months, while the rest of the country is shivering and possibly covered with snow.

The Saguaro flowers are usually at their peak in the first week of June. So if you have a romantic spirit, you may want to take in the blooms on a scenic drive and plan activities for early morning or the end of the day during this boiling-hot summer time.

The park is generally open to hikers all day, every day except Christmas.The Tucson Mountain District is open to vehicle traffic from sunrise to sunset and the Rincon Mountain District from 7 a.m. to sunset.

Recommended Gear

Water is so essential if you’re on one of the hikes in Saguaro National Park. The low humidity can dry the sweat from your body before you realize how much water you’re losing. At least one gallon of water is recommended for each person, per day. Also remember to ask for refilling spot information at both visitor centers. Always wear a hat and use sunscreen while hiking in the desert. The park has no concessions so pack a picnic lunch.

Take a look at our comprehensive Day Hiking Checklist for a list of gear items to consider bringing with you on a day hike. You can also view our Desert Hiking article for additional gear tips and advice about hiking in arid areas.

As Saguaro is one of the best national parks to visit during winter, you may want to get more tips about winter hiking in our detailed post.

What to Do in Saguaro National Park

Popular activities in the park include hiking on its 165 miles (266 km) of trails and sightseeing along paved roads near its two visitor centers. Both districts allow bicycling and horseback riding on selected roads and trails. The Rincon Mountain District offers limited wilderness camping, but there is no overnight camping in the Tucson Mountain District.

Hiking and Backpacking

With Saguaro National Park’s elaborate system of trails, it’s possible to choose one for the amazing scenery or to select another for the strenuous workout that it provides.

If you are up for a challenge, it’s useful to have previous backpacking experience, and solid outdoor navigation skills.

Several things to keep in mind when hiking in the park are: On-trail hiking groups are limited to a maximum of 18 persons. Off-trail hiking is prohibited below 4,500 feet elevation. While the trails are often well-marked, a map from the visitor center will help you keep your way and not accidentally wander down a wash. It can also be beneficial to jot down a few good trails in advance! More information on backpacking in the park and on public lands nearby is available from the National Park Service.

Best Hikes in Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park East Trails
  1. Bridal Wreath Falls Trail: A 5.8 mile (9.2 km) heavily trafficked out-and-back trail perfect for a solo hiker or new hiker. It features various types of desert vegetation and views, a waterfall and is rated a moderate hike.
  2. Mica View Loop Trail: An easy 3.7 mile (6 km) hiking trail on the edge of the Saguaro National Park, perfect for hikers of all skill levels. It is relatively open, with minimal shade, so sun protection is a must. Throughout your hike, you’ll see plenty of wildflowers and local wildlife.
  3. Garwood Trail: A beautiful trail considered to be easy to hike and great for admiring the scenery. The trail offers spectacular views of the nearby mountains and is lined with lovely creeks. This trail provides hikers with classic desert scenery along with fantastic opportunities for bird watching.
  4. Douglas Spring Trail: It is among the most popular hiking trails in Arizona and is noted by a sign as well as a substantial amount of parking. This is an out-and-back 16.6 miles long trail, which means that you may not be able to hike the entire trail in a single day.The trail itself is known for “the presence of the Sonoran Desert Scrub” as well as the waterfall that’s found at the conclusion of the Bridal Wreath Falls trail. It is moderately difficult but can be harder towards the end because of the 3,700-foot elevation gain.
  5. Tanque Verde Ridge Trail: A 32.2 kilometer heavily trafficked out and back trail located near Vail, Arizona that features beautiful wild flowers. It is only recommended for very experienced adventurers. The trail is primarily used for hiking, camping, bird watching, and backpacking and is accessible year-round.
  6. Turkey Creek: A highly popular trail in the Saguaro National Park that extends for nearly 6 miles (9.7 km) and is considered to be moderately difficult. This trail offers the best opportunity to spot local wildlife as well as plenty of opportunities for taking pictures even when the creek is dry. There’s an ample amount of shade along the trail, which should keep you cool and comfortable. The final mile of this trail can be somewhat steep, which you should prepare for by wearing hiking shoes.
Saguaro National Park West Trails
  1. Valley View Overlook Trail: An easy out-and-back 1.3 km trail that is for spotting native desert plants. The trail takes only about 30 minutes, making it a perfect quick adventure into the park.
  2. King Canyon Trail to Wasson Peak: With its height of 4,687 feet, Wasson Peak is the highest mountain in the Tucson Mountains. This hike is a 7-mile (11.3 km)round-trip that provides spectacular mountain-top views. The parking area and trailhead are directly across the road from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is also worth visiting if you have some spare time. As you climb higher, the views start opening up, to the point where you’re literally above the entire landscape. It’s arguably the best day hike in Saguaro National Park.
  3. Gould Mine: A 3.7 kilometer heavily trafficked loop trail that offers scenic views and is rated as moderate. The trail is primarily used for hiking, walking, nature trips, and bird watching and is accessible year-round. It includes a junction to the trail to Wasson and Amole Peaks and the Mam-A-Gah picnic area.

Camping

If you are a fan of backcountry camping, and down to a special night in the desert, you may want to check out The Rincon Mountain District (Saguaro East) as it is open to wilderness camping with a permit. Permits must be obtained by noon the day of departure at the visitor center or by FAX.

Reserve one of the eastern district’s six designated backcountry campsites ($8 a night), which can be accessed only on foot and require a basic level of fitness to reach. Limited facilities include vault toilets. Water is unreliable, so you should pack your entire water supply for your trip, carry a filter, and check current water reports at the visitor center (520-733-5153).

Manning Camp, the home of former Tucson mayor Levin Manning that sits atop the Rincon Mountains, is a tough uphill day hike, but worth the effort. This part of the park is a special treasure. To do this hike in a day takes a solid eight hours, but you go from seeing saguaro forest and Gila monster lizards to aspen groves and owls in one day.

The amenity-rich Gilbert Ray Campground sits just outside the west entrance to the park, close to the Brown Mountain Loop trail. It features 130 RV sites ($20 per night) and five designated tent sites ($10 per night), plus picnic tables and modern restrooms with handicap accessibility.

Biking

This is one of the country’s most bike-friendly national parks. Bicycles are permitted only on roadways (no trails) in the Tucson Mountain District (west). In the Rincon Mountain District (east), bicycles are permitted on the Cactus Forest Loop Drive and two multi-use trails: 2.5 miles of the Cactus Forest Trail and Hope Camp Trail. Helmets are required for all riders and passengers.

Horse riding and mule riding

Horse riding and mule riding in the park can be exotic experiences and relatively easy to access. Stock riders should use Cam Boh, El Camino del Cerro, and Sendero Esperanza trailheads.

Scenic Drives

The Scenic Bajada Loop Drive is a popular way of exploring the district’s foothills. This unpaved, combination one- and two-way graded dirt road offers scenic pullouts, picnic areas, and hiking trailheads in a 6 mile (9.7 km) loop.

Stargazing and Night Sky Photography

Saguaro National Park is one of the top destinations for stargazing in the sprawling Arizona desert. Your pictures will look extra-artsy when you incorporate the park’s Saguaro cacti, found only in this region.

Once you’re geared up, pick a spot and enjoy a peaceful night of staring at the stars. Some of the most famous stargazing spots around the city of Tucson are Oracle State Park, Desert Botanical Laboratory and Kitt Peak National Observatory.

View Petroglyphs

Most of Saguaro National Park’s rock art dates back to the prehistoric Hohokam culture. Abstract designs, including spirals, squiggly lines and drawings of animals, humans and astrological objects, have been etched onto the surface of sandstone and other rocks throughout the park. The best place to view the petroglyphs is along the Signal Hill Trail. Starting at the Signal Hill Picnic area, the 0.3-mile trail gently climbs to a hill with more than 200 petroglyphs believed to have been created between 550 and 1,550 years ago.

Where to Stay

You won’t find any lodging options in Saguaro National Park, or camping options in the park’s western section. However, Tucson city is located in the middle of the two park areas and it is easy to reach both from there. Hotels ranging from luxury resorts to hip boutique properties are less than a 30-minute drive away in downtown Tucson. If you prefer to be closer to the trails, the park’s western side offers a handful of intimate inns close to the park entrance.

You won’t find dining options within the park, but Phoebe’s Coffee Bar and the Ocotillo Café, both within the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located less than 2 miles from the West District Visitor Center, are excellent options for a snack or lunch.

How to Get There and Getting Around

From downtown, you can drive to either park entrance in 20 minutes.

Saguaro East, or the Rincon Mountain District, may be reached from Tucson by traveling east on Broadway or Speedway to Freeman Road. Look for signs at the park entrance. Saguaro West, or the Tucson Mountain District, may be reached from Tucson by traveling Speedway Road west.

Commercial airlines, buses and trains are available to Tucson city. But there is no public transportation in the park so you will need to rent a car to get around the 2 park areas.

Flying into Phoenix can usually be cheaper and is only an hour drive from Tucson.

Fees

Entrance fee paid for admission to Saguaro National Park is good for seven days and includes both the Tucson Mountain District (West) and the Rincon Mountain District (East)

Weekly Pass – $25.00/vehicle

Admits one single, private, non-commercial vehicle and all its passengers. Organized groups are not eligible for the vehicle permit.

Weekly Pass – $20.00/motorcycle

Admits one single motorcycle. Organized groups are not eligible for the motorcycle permit.

Individual Weekly Pass – $15.00/person

Admits one individual when entering by foot or bicycle. Individuals 15 years or younger are admitted free of charge.

Conclusion

Saguaro National Park, with its vast landscape signified by the Saguaros – The Sentinels of the Desert, is certainly a wonder to human’s eyes. Visiting the park within a few days can feel overwhelming, so make sure you have a good plan and check all the information you need beforehand. Let us know how this guide has helped you and how we can improve it further in the comments below!

Feel free to check out our other national park guides to start planning your next adventure.


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