Saguaro National Park Arizona – Best Things to Do

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If you drive around in the Sonoran Desert region in the southwest, you will find the largest cactus species in the United States. At the Saguaro National Park (East and West – there are two locations) in Tucson Arizona the mighty Saguaro Cactus tower above and can provide an amazing amount of shade at the right time of day.

Saguaro cactus sometimes look comical or inviting with arms raised skyward. Seen from a distance you want to get closer to get to know them better.

In this guide to Saguaro National Park you will find out all about the amazing saguaro cactus and things to do at Saguaro National Park.

Pronunciation: Sa-WAH-ro

For information on where to stay in Tucson and best food options read my guide to Tucson.

Saguaro National Park Arizona

Getting to Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is comprised of two parks, located east and west of Tucson:

Tucson Mountain District ( Saguaro West) 2700 N. Kinney Road, Tucson AZ

  • Take the scenic route via W Gates Pass Road through Tucson Mountain Park. You may want to stop for a hike or take in the views at the overlook.
  • Driving time: 45 minutes

Rincon Mountain District (Saguaro East 3693) S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson AZ

  • Take AZ-210 to Golf Links Road and follow the signs to the park.
  • Driving Time: 25 minutes
Saguaro Cactus big and small

Saguaro grow slowly, about 1.5 inches in the first 8 years

Entrance fees to Saguaro National Park

  • $25 per vehicle (good for 7 days)
  • $20 per motorcycle (good for 7 days)
  • $15 per individual on foot or bicycle (good for 7 days)
  • $45 annual pass to Saguaro National Park
  • $80 annual pass for all National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands (FREE to active military personnel and only $20 for seniors aged 62 and over – or lifetime pass for $80)
  • FREE access pass for US citizens/permanent residents with permanent disabilities
  • FREE 4th grade pass – US 4th graders (including homeschooled kids)

Saguaro National Park entrance sign

Saguaro East Features and Map

Saguaro National Park East features the Cactus Forest Drive, an 8 mile one-way scenic loop. This was a depression era project by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The road is multiuse so watch out for cyclists, pedestrians, and wildlife.

Other features at Saguaro East:

  • Saguaro Forest Trail North and South
  • Desert Ecology Trail
  • Rincon Mountain Overlook
  • Javelina Rocks

NPS Map of Saguaro East (Rincon Mountain District)

Saguaro West Features and Map

Petroglyphs – take the Signal Hill trail, a half mile hike to the petroglyph rocks. There is a shaded picnic area here too.

Cactus Garden Trail is a short paved walk at the visitor center.

Desert Discovery Trail is a half mile paved trail (wheelchair accessible) with benches and shaded areas.

Sendero Esperanza Trail is a 6.6 mile hike with 1,040 ft elevation gain, so great views. No shade.

Scenic Bajada Loop Drive is a 3-mile nonpaved scenic drive with several hiking trails.

NPS Map of Saguaro West (Tucson Mountain District)

Saguaro and prickly pear cactus

Should You Visit Saguaro East or Saguaro West?

Both! That is what I did but you may not have time to visit both parks, then I suggest you visit Saguaro West first.

Saguaro West is a bit further away but it’s a scenic drive. While cyclists are not allowed on the hiking trails, there is greater variety of hiking trails in Saguaro West.

There are a couple of paved walks that are wheelchair accessible. And you can see petroglyphs. The Bajada Loop Drive is 6-mile unpaved loop road but does not require 4WD or high clearance vehicle.

Saguaro East is a little closer to Tucson so it’s the best choice if you are short on time. And it’s a great choice for a half day trip with a scenic paved road, hiking trails with a variety of cactus, and the Javelina Rocks are a nice spot for a picnic lunch.

Saguaro Cactus with many arms

Saguaro grow as many as 50 arms

Saguaro Cactus Facts

The main threats to saguaro cactus in the park are freezing temperatures or fire. Catastrophic freezes documented in 1962 and 1971 recorded the demise of many saguaro cactus.

But the cycle of life continues and there are many thousands of saguaro cacti in the parks.

Here are a few more facts about saguaro cactus for you to ponder.

Saguaro cacti are the largest cacti in the United States.

Scientific name is Carnegiea gigantea.

Named in honor of Andrew Carnegie, who established the Desert Botanical Laboratory in Tucson in 1903.

Saguaro cactus do not grow in elevations above 4,000 ft (1,219 m)

Height – Can grow to over 70 ft tall but most only reach 40 – 50 ft.

Weight – Saguaro can weigh up to several tons.

Water – Can hold up to 4 tons of water.

Growth rate is slow. Saguaro only grow 1 to 1.5 inches during the first 8 years!

At age 70 a saguaro cactus is about 6.5 ft tall.

At 100 years saguaro cactus can reach 15 ft tall.

Maximum age is up to 200 years old.

First arms appear around age 50 – but some never grow arms.

Arms and no arms – why? Scientists still don’t know why some saguaros have no arms while others grow dozens.

Where do they grow? Only in the Sonoran Desert (Arizona, California, Mexico)

When do Saguaro bloom? From late April through June.

Saguaros flower at around age 35 with large white fragrant blooms.

Saguaro fruit matures in June, bright red with black seeds inside.

Tohono O’odham (the Desert People) Native Americans harvest saguaro fruit in early summer every year.

Crested Saguaro are rare – they have a fan-shaped growth usually at the top.

Pleats of the saguaro can expand to hold more water (accordion-like)

Shallow root system consisting of tap root 2-3 ft deep and other roots fanning out about 1 foot.

Saguaro pleats and spines

Saguaro pleats can expand to hold more water

Other Cactus at Saguaro National Park

There are over 25 species of cactus at Saguaro National Park, according to the National Park Service. See how many different type of cacti you can spot when you go hiking in the cactus gardens.

How many of these cacti have you seen?

  • Bisbee beehive cactus
  • Buckhorn cholla
  • California barrel cactus
  • Cane cholla
  • Chainfruit (jumping) cholla
  • Christmas cholla
  • Claret cup cactus
  • Cockscomb hedgehog cactus
  • Cow’s tongue prickly pear
  • Fendler hedgehog cactus
  • Fishhook barrel cactus
  • Fishhook pincushion cactus
  • Green-flowered fishhook
  • Hedgehog cactus
  • Organ pipe cactus
  • Engelman’s Prickly pear
  • Mammillaria cactus
  • MacDougal’s cactus
  • Night blooming cereus cactus
  • Pancake prickly pear
  • Pencil cholla
  • Rainbow cactus
  • Santa Rita prickly pear
  • Staghorn cholla
  • Teddybear cholla
  • Thornber pincushion
Fishhook Barrel Cactus and Cholla Cactus

There are over 25 speices of cacti at Saguaro National Park ( L: cholla R: fishhook barrel)

Wildlife at Saguaro

At first glance you may think there is not a lot of activity or wildlife at Saguaro National Park. But there are many animals and birds who make a home in the park.

The best times to view many of these species is just before sunrise or at sunset when you may find them out foraging for food.

  • White tailed deer
  • Mule deer
  • Jackrabbit
  • Bobcat
  • Coyote
  • Skunk
  • Rattlesnake
  • Gopher snake
  • Gila Monster
  • Desert spiny lizard
  • Zebra-tailed lizard
  • Harris’s antelope squirrel
Variety of cacti at Saguaro National Park Arizona

On the trails you will see a variety of cacti at Saguaro National Park

Some of the birds you may see at Saguaro National Park

  • Hummingbirds
  • Gila woodpecker
  • Gilded flicker
  • Red tailed hawk
  • Harris’s hawk
  • House finch
  • Cactus wren
  • Raven
  • Roadrunner
  • Verdin
  • White winged dove
Desert cottontail rabbit Tucson Arizona - Sonoran Desert

Desert cottontail rabbit in the Sonoran Desert

Many of the animals are nocturnal so you are not likely to see them when you visit Saguaro. Some have made appearances on the National Park’s remote wildlife viewing cameras.

Watch this hilarious video of a skunk dancing at Saguaro National Park. Click on the photo below to start the video.

 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Practicing social distancing before it was cool…⁣ ⁣ There are different species of skunks, a.k.a. fart squirrel, and they are all mostly solitary. This is understandable; when they feel threatened, nervous or attacked, skunks release a very strong odor that repels any creature with in a few feet. Well, it happens to the best of us. For the sake of other animals, even from the same family, skunks prefer to go through life as free, independent individuals. So dance like no one’s watching…because well, everyone is indoors!⁣ ⁣ NPS Video: Western Spotted Skunk (Spilogale gracilis) walking on front legs to scare off predators at Saguaro National Park, Arizona.⁣ ⁣ #FindYourPark #socialdistancing #nationalparkservice #skunk #saguaronationalpark.

A post shared by National Park Service (@nationalparkservice) on

Okay, he’s not really dancing but he looks like he’s doing a dance performance. The skunk is trying to look frightening and ferocious to ward off predators.

Hiking Trails

East Saguaro hiking trails are accessed via the Cactus Forest Loop Drive. It’s a one-way 8-mile loop with several pullouts where you can stop to observe nature or do a hike.

The hiking trails at Saguaro West are spread out and more abundant than at Saguaro East. Many of the trails are accessed via the Bajada Loop Drive.

East Saguaro Hikes

Freeman Homestead is a 1-mile trail to an old homestead, you’ll see saguaro and other cacti.

Cactus Forest Trail is a 10-mile round trip hike through the cactus forest. I didn’t do the whole hike, only a couple miles to the lime kilns but I saw a variety of cacti, many in bloom in March.

Desert Ecology Trail is a short paved walk with interpretive signs so it’s a good one for kids to learn more about the desert.

West Saguaro Hikes

Cactus Garden Trail is a short paved walk at the Red Hills Visitor Center. It is wheelchair accessible and there are several benches.

Desert Discovery Trail is a half mile paved trail located 1 mile from Red Hills Visitor Center. The trail is wheelchair accessible and also has benches and shaded areas.

Signal Hill Petroglyphs Trail is a half mile hike up a small hill to several petroglyphs.

Valley View Overlook is an easy .8 mile hike with minimal elevation gain and features interpretive panels and a pretty view.

Sendero Esperanza Trail is a 6.6 mile hike with 1,040 ft elevation gain, so great views but no shade so it’s best to do this hike in the morning hours.

Wasson Peak via Sweetwater trail is a difficult 9.3 miles hike with a 2,092 elevation gain. Your reward is a 360 degree from the summit.

Saguaro National Park Cactus Forest Trail

Cactus Forest Trail in Saguaro East is a scenic hike

Cycling

East Saguaro Cycling

Cactus Forest Trail is a 10-mile round trip hike through the cactus forest. This trail is multi-use so watch out for hikers and horses.

Hope Camp Trail is a 6.5 mile (round-trip) out and back trail. Multi-use trail so watch for hikers and horses.

Cactus Forest Loop Road is an 8 mile one-way scenic drive for vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. Bikers should watch out for the sharp right turn at the end of the steep hill at the beginning of the road – there’s a sign marking the spot.

West Saguaro Cycling

Cycling is only permitted on the roads at Saguaro West, no cycling on the hiking trails. Take a spin on the 6-mile dirt/gravel Scenic Bajada Loop Drive or the Golden Gate Road, and any of the paved roads in West Sagauro.

Cyclists on Cactus Forest Trail

Cactus Forest Trail is used for hiking, cycling, and horseback riding

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding at Saguaro East is permitted on the multi-use Cactus Forest Trail and some other trails – check the NPS website for details on which trails allow horseback riding at Saguaro East and Saguaro West.

Off trail riding is not allowed and there are several trails where horseback riding is not permitted.

Horse trailer parking is available at Saguaro East Wildhorse Trailhead and at .6 mile (1 km) south of Loma Alta Trailhead.

Saguaro West horse trailer parking use Cam Boh, El Camino del Cerro, and Sendero Esperanza trailhead parking lots.

No horse trailer parking is allowed at the visitor centers.

Bright pink hedgehog cacti flower

Hedgehog cacti blooming in bright pink

Best Time to Visit

October through April are the best months to visit Saguaro National Park. May through September the average temperatures hover around 100 F (38 C) so it’s too hot for most outdoor activities at the park.

But the best time to visit Saguaro depends on what you want to see and do at the park.

Late spring is when you can see the Saguaro cactus flowers blooming. But the weather is hotter at that time of year, often reaching up to 100 F (38 Celsius) so be prepared with sunscreen, sunglasses, sunhat, water, etc and limit your exposure to the sun. Avoid mid-day heat.

Cycling – Winter is a great time for cycling at Saguaro. Go to Saguaro East to cycle the trails/roads. And visit Saguaro West to bike on any of the roads, but not the trails.

Hiking – The best time for hiking at Saguaro is in late fall, winter, and early spring when temperatures are cooler.

Less crowded – Avoid any long weekends and weekends in general if you want to visit Saguaro when it’s less busy.

Saguaro Cacti Blooms – Late April through June

Other Cacti Blooms – Spring through summer

Large saguaro cactus with small car in background

Saguaro can grow over 70 feet tall

What to Bring with you to Saguaro

All hiking trails at the Saguaro National Parks are desert hikes. Always be prepared for your hike with water, snacks, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, etc.

Here’s a checklist of items you may want to bring.

This list contains compensated links and I may receive a commission for purchases made through links. See my disclosure about affiliate links here

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  • Sturdy walking shoes
  • Refillable water bottle – filling stations available at the parks
  • Snacks or picnic lunch
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunhat
  • Sunscreen
  • Camera
  • Binoculars for birding/wildlife watching
  • Long sleeve shirt for sun protection
  • Hiking pants with pockets
  • First aid kit
  • The 10 essentials for hiking
  • Sunshade (umbrella) for extra sun protection
  • Windshield sunshade – keeps your vehicle cooler while parked in the sun
  • National Parks Pass (or pay when you get there)
Fishhook barrel cactus with bright yellow fruit

Bright yellow fruit of the fishhook barrel cactus

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Capitol Reef National Park Utah

White Sands National Park New Mexico

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Arizona Saguaro National Park in One Day

Saguaro National Park Day Trip

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About the Author

Susan Moore spent 7 months traveling solo around Southeast Asia back in the 90's. Returning to Canada she found a job working on rotation in Siberia Russia. She later moved to Austin Texas where she started a bookkeeping business, allowing her to work remotely. Currently Susan is in year 5 of a solo road trip around the USA and Canada, living a nomadic life, and writing about her experiences with a focus on hiking and cultural encounters. Read all about Susan » You can reach Susan Moore at Facebook or Twitter or Instagram

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  1. Beautiful. These guys really do look like they wanna give you a hug.

    • Susan Moore says:

      They sure do, but ouch that would hurt! Those spines are sharp. Amazing to see up close and hike among the saguaros!

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