Saguaro National Park: The Complete Guide

Young saguaros line the hillside
Thomas Roche / Getty Images
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Saguaro National Park

Arizona, USA
Phone +1 520-733-5153

Located in southern Arizona, Saguaro National Park is divided by the city of Tucson. Its two districts—the 67,476-acre Rincon Mountain District to the east of the city and the 25,391-acre Tucson Mountain District to the west—protect the nation’s largest cacti, the saguaro (sa-WAH-row). Most visitors come to marvel at the cacti, which only grow in the Sonoran Desert and can reach up to 50 feet in height (that’s five feet taller than the average school bus is long).

Hiking is the main activity in the park, though people do come here for the scenic drives alone. Regardless of your plans, be sure to check the weather before your visit. In the summer, temperatures can soar to more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit, causing severe dehydration and even death for those who are unprepared. Come winter, the park occasionally gets up to 2 feet of snow in a 48-hour period. During the rainy monsoon season, it’s not uncommon for canyons and arroyos to flood.

Things to Do

Roughly 30 miles apart, both districts have a visitor center and short, scenic drive. However, hiking is the best way to experience the saguaro. The park has a combined 171 miles of designated trails, some of which are multi-use. Mountain bikers can navigate a 2.5-mile stretch of the Cactus Forest Trail or the 2.9-mile Hope Camp Trail in the Rincon Mountain District. If you prefer cycling, pedal the scenic loop in either district.

Saguaro National Park
 benedek / Getty Images

Best Hikes & Trails

Saguaro National Park offers a mix of easy nature trails, scenic loops, and challenging treks. Because of its proximity to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, the western Tucson Mountain District is popular with tourists; meanwhile, adventurous locals gravitate to the Rincon Mountain District across the city. Either is a good option for hiking.

In addition to hiking on designated trails, backcountry hiking is permitted in the Saguaro Wilderness Area of the Rincon Mountain District.

Rincon Mountain District Hikes

  • Desert Ecology Trail: The only trail open to pets in the Rincon Mountain District, this quarter-mile hike runs along the Javelina Wash and has signs introducing hikers to the inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert. This trail is wheelchair accessible.
  • Freeman Homestead Trail: This 1-mile trail with interpretive signage and children’s activities loops to a homestead site and a grove of large saguaros. Watch for great horned owls in the cliffs above the arroyo.
  • Loma Verde Loop: Expect to spend about two hours on this 3.8-mile trail, where you'll get incredible views of cacti forests. During the spring or after a heavy rain, be prepared to cross a seasonally flowing arroyo.
  • Hope Camp Trail: Follow an old ranch road to two abandoned cowboy camps marked by windmill ruins. At its turn-around point, the 6.6-mile, out-and-back trek overlooks Box Canyon, where you’ll see waterfalls during wetter months.
  • Garwood and Wildhorse Trails: These two trails can be combined with others to form a 6.4-mile loop. Leading to a 1950s-era dam, the Garwood Dam Trail takes you through the cactus forest that inspired the park’s creation in 1933. Wildhorse continues to the Little Wildhorse Tank, one of the only perennial sources of water in the park. 
girl photographing cacti
 David C. Tomlinson / Getty Images

Tucson Mountain District Hikes

  • Desert Discovery Nature Trail: Just a short drive from the Red Hills Visitor Center, this interpretive trail is less than a half mile and is accessible.
  • Passey Loop Trail: Located at the northern edge of the park, this 1.6-mile trail is an easy, flat walk through the desert. Park in the lot off of Iron Ridge Drive.
  • Wild Dog Trail: This nearly 2-mile trail begins off Hohokam Road, at the Valley View Overlook Trailhead, and continues to the Signal Hill picnic area. Non-hikers can opt to drive around the loop.
  • Sendero Esperanza Trail: Take the Gould Mine Trail to the Sendero Esperanza Trail and switchback up to the Hugh Norris Trail for panoramic desert views. The out-and-back route totals roughly 4 miles. If you’re feeling up to the challenge, continue on the Hugh Norris Trail to Wasson Peak, the highest point in the park (an 8-plus mile excursion).

Scenic Drives

The park has only two scenic drives, one in each district. A good strategy for visiting the park—especially if you have small children, need an accessible trail, or are short on time—is to drive a loop and stop at the interpretive trail along the way. These accessible trails can be hiked in less than half an hour by most visitors and offer an introduction to the flora and fauna found in the park.

  • Cactus Forest Loop Drive: In the Rincon Mountain District, this 8-mile drive crosses the Javelina Wash at several points and heads into the mountains before descending back to lower elevations. Don’t miss the Desert Ecology Trail, where you’ll learn about saguaros and the desert. Consider stopping for lunch at the Micah View or Javelina picnic areas.
  • Bajada Loop Drive: This 6-mile gravel road through the Tucson Mountain District’s foothills features scenic pullouts, picnic areas, and the short Desert Discovery Nature Trail with interpretive signs. Although you don’t need a high-clearance vehicle or four-wheel drive, trailers longer than 35 feet and vehicles wider than 8 feet are not allowed on the loop.

Where to Camp

Camping at Saguaro National Park is limited to those willing to hike a minimum of nearly 4.5 miles to one of six designated campgrounds within the Saguaro Wilderness Area. You’ll need a backcountry permit to stay overnight; the fee for this permit is $8 per campsite, per night.

  • Manning Camp: Built by former Tucson Mayor Levi Manning, this camp is the largest in the park with just six sites. Be prepared to hike more than 7 miles to get here.
  • Happy Valley: Roughly 4.5 miles from the trailhead, this camp sits at an elevation of 6,200 feet and offers astounding views of the desert.
Sunset at Saguaro National Park
 Patrick Leitz / Getty Images

Where to Stay Nearby

You could stay almost anywhere in Tucson and be less than a half hour from either entrance. But these three options won’t disappoint.

  • Tanque Verde Ranch: Just 7 miles from the eastern district’s entrance, this historic guest ranch offers horseback riding, spa services, and fine dining. Choose from all-inclusive, bed-and-breakfast, and meals-only packages.
  • Hilton Tucson East: Also 7 miles from the Rincon Mountain District, this seven-story hotel has mountain views and a pool.
  • JW Marriott Star Pass Resort: JW Marriott Star Pass is one of Tucson’s best resorts, featuring a hotel spa, multi-level pool and lazy river, and desert golf courses designed by Arnold Palmer. To reach the western Tucson Mountain District from here, it's a 20-minute drive through the scenic Tucson Mountain Park.

How to Get There

Begin your trip by flying into Tucson International Airport, which is located 8 miles south of downtown. How you reach the park will depend on where you're staying and which district you'll be visiting.

To get to the Rincon Mountain District entrance, take Broadway Boulevard to Freeman Road. Turn right on Freeman Road, then drive south for 3 miles. Turn left on Old Spanish Trail; from there, it's a quarter-mile drive to the park entrance.

To reach the Tucson Mountain District from Tucson's city center, head west on Speedway Boulevard over Gates Pass to Kinney Road. Turn right, then continue 4 miles into the park. The visitor center will be 1 mile further north. 

If you're coming from the north, take I-10 to Avra Valley Road (exit 242) and drive west 6 miles to Sandario Road. Turn left on Sandario Road and drive 14 miles. Turn left again onto Kinney Road, then drive 2 miles; the visitor center will be on your left.

Saguaros in Saguaro National Park
Thomas Roche / Getty Images


The visitor centers in both districts are fully accessible, with designated parking spaces, accessible restrooms and drinking fountains, paved cactus garden paths, and captioned orientation programs. Picnic areas throughout the entire park are also accessible.

In the Rincon Mountain District, the Desert Ecology Trail and a section of the Mica View Trail are accessible. Similarly, in the Tucson Mountain District, the half-mile, paved Desert Discovery Trail is accessible.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The visitor centers in both districts are closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, but the park remains open.
  • Pets are only allowed on paved roads, the interpretive trails, and at picnic areas.
  • During the summer, hike early in the day. Plan on drinking one liter of water per hour per person. When your water is half gone, turn around.
  • On hikes, wear closed-toed hiking shoes; loose-fitting, natural-fiber clothing; a wide-brimmed hat; sunglasses; and sunscreen. Don’t wear sandals!
  • Never put your hands or feet in holes or under rocks; if you do, you may get bitten or stung by poisonous creatures like rattlesnakes and scorpions. 
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Saguaro National Park: The Complete Guide