wondering what to do at saguaro national park. a drive or hike are the most popular ways to see the park
Arizona,  Destinations,  National Parks,  RV Travel,  Southwest US

Cactus Awe: What to do at Saguaro National Park

Travel date February 2021

When planning our trip to Saguaro National Park, I learned there were two separate districts. I spent a lot of time researching the differences and deciding what to do at Saguaro National Park. 

kara at entrance sign at saguaro national park

Sadly, there wasn’t a lot of information online that gave me a clear winner between the two districts of the National Park. I decided to check out both the East and West districts so I didn’t miss any National Park splendor. 

kara at entrance sign to saguaro national park east

What is a saguaro? 

Saguaro (pronounced sa-wah-ro) is a large tree-like cactus species associated with the desert Southwest. These iconic cacti can live as long as 200 years but grow very slowly.  

young saguaro at saguaro national park
saguaro with little arms starting to grow

How fast do saguaros grow? 

Saguaros sprout from wildlife scattered seeds under “nurse trees” which provide shelter and protection to the tiny fragile plant.

The “nurse trees”, generally mesquite or palo verde, often die as the growing saguaro demands more water and space. However, in their first five years, saguaros only grow between one and two inches so the nurse tree lives many years after the saguaro sprouts.  

palo verde providing shelter to young saguaro cactus in saguaro national park

Around 75 years old, some saguaros often grow candelabra-shaped arms to store extra water however not every time. I haven’t found any explanation for this phenomenon.

hole in saguaro cactus created by woodpecker

It is common to see plants with over twenty arms. 

short armed saguaro

Fun facts about the saguaro cactus 

Saguaros are only found naturally in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico and the Southwest United States.  

cactus forest at saguaro national park

They are covered in protective spines but woodpeckers still manage to peck nests into the fleshy sections between the spines. Once woodpeckers abandon these nests, they are claimed by many other native species including birds and reptiles.  

old saguaro with many arms

Saguaros form tough bark on their bases when they are under stress or aging. It looks oddly like a hardwood tree’s bark.

aged bark on saguaro

Saguaros die for a variety of reasons including wind, lightning, age, and humans.

broken saguaro

It was sad to see fallen saguaro even though fallen trees do not emit the same emotions.

fallen saguaro

Saguaro cannot survive multiple days below freezing and die the season following the extended hard freeze. Scientists learned this in Saguaro East where hundreds of young cacti died following a cold winter.

before pic cactus garden
before picture courtesy of NPS
after pic cactus forest
After pic of same cactus forest view

When saguaro die they leave behind strong wood-like ribs. Natives use these as roof supports in their building and as tools to harvest fruit.

ribs left when a saguaro dies

The cactus spines expand to hold additional water during the rainy summer season when the saguaros collect most of their water for the year. 

saguaro cactus ridges or ribs

Saguaro National Park Districts

Saguaro National Park consists of two separate districts, the Tucson Mountain on the west side of Tucson and Rincon Mountain on the east side of Tucson. The two districts are approximately 30 miles apart. 

Courtesy of NPS

Origins of Saguaro National Park 

Both districts were created for the same purpose, to protect a grand strand of cactus, aka a cactus forest. The east district was designated a National Monument in 1933 by President Hoover.  

In 1961, President Kennedy added 25 square miles of spectacular cactus forest in the Tucson Mountain area west of Tucson to the existing National Monument.  

In 1994, Congress elevated the Saguaro National Monument to National Park status. 

What to bring to Saguaro National Park 

Both park districts are spread out with water only available at the visitors’ center. To maximize your trip, I would recommend bringing plenty of food and water. If you plan to hike, bring sun protection and extra water. It was mild but sunny 70 degrees when we visited and I drank several liters of water during our hikes. 

If wondering what to do at saguaro national park. hiking is great option.

Which side of Saguaro National Park is better? 

Saguaro National Park West – Tucson Mountain section is one-third the size of the east section but with much denser saguaro concentrations. The Saguaro National Park East- Rincon Mountain district contains older cactus forests and areas of higher elevation forests. The East district has more interpretative areas and a paved loop drive versus the dirt loop in the west district.  

Should you visit Saguaro East or Saguaro West? 

If I only had time for one section, I would choose Saguaro National Park East for the hiking opportunities. The East district has 128 miles of hiking trails versus 43 miles in the West district. 

 
Can you drive through Saguaro National Park? 

Both districts have some dirt roads but we did them without issues in our low-clearance sedan.   You can easily drive through Saguaro National Park.

How many days do you need in Saguaro National Park? 

You can drive through both districts of Saguaro National Park on the same day if you don’t want to do any hiking and are prepared for a long day. 

There are enough hiking trails you could spend multiple days at each district but we decided to spend one day at Saguaro National Park West and one day at Saguaro National Park East.  

if wondering what to do at saguaro national, hiking is great choice.

Things to do at Saguaro National Park 

Most visitors tour the park from their vehicles stopping at the scenic overlooks and shorter nature walks. 

With the abundance of trails, hiking Saguaro National Park is very popular. We loved hiking among the cactus in both districts. Many of the trails are open to horses and bikes.  

Things to do at Saguaro National Park East 

Our first day was spent at Saguaro National Park East – Tucson Mountain district. Many cyclists were enjoying the rolling hills of the 8-mile paved park loop. The loop is one way and has many scenic pull-outs for photo opportunities. 

park road at saguaro national park east

We started at the visitor center which had great recommendations depending upon how much time you want to spend in the park.  

The one-hour recommendation included walking the short-paved garden path around the visitor center and driving the 8-mile park loop road so those are definitely can’t miss sights.

There are several great photography stops along the loop road including the popular Javalina Rocks. 

javalina rocks

Can’t miss sights at Saguaro East 

  • Desert Garden at Visitor Center 
  • Cactus Forest Drive – paved 8-mile park loop drive 
  • Desert Ecology Trail  
  • Javalina Rocks 

Hikes: Mica View Trail and the Cactus Forest Trail 

We started the day with a two-mile hike from Mica View picnic area to the Cactus Forest trail. It is an easy path and a great way to get a taste of the abundant cactus in the park with a great mountain backdrop.  

mica view trail

Desert Ecology Trail 

The Desert Ecology Trail is a short, paved trail with interpretative signs about native plants and animals. It is worth a short stop especially if you aren’t planning any other hikes. 

desert ecology trail

Hikes: Loma Verde-Squeeze Pen Loop 

We ended the sunny 70-degree day on the Loma Verde -Squeeze Pen loop trail. This was a more strenuous 3.75-mile route with some sandy washes and a few short rocky banks.  

loma verde trail at saguaro east

I would normally rate this trail as easy however we met a senior hiker about halfway through the loop who was disoriented and lost. It was not an easy trail for him. 

He followed us the second half back to the trailhead. I noticed he was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a sun hat but he didn’t have any water. Kevin and I slowed our pace to keep a distant eye on him because he was visibly exhausted.  

He did make it safely back to his car but told me he wasn’t prepared for the trail to be so arduous. He was attempting to navigate using the confusing trail signs and a park-provided paper map. The GPS-enabled park map on my phone is a much better option.  

How to prepare for a hike 

  • Plan your route and download offline maps if possible. I use the Avenza app to download free maps from Federal agencies such as the National Park Service. 
  • Pack water and snacks regardless of your hike length. 
  • Dress in sturdy shoes and comfortable clothes. 
  • Protect yourself from the elements (sun, cold, or precipitation). 
kevin with sunhat on hike in saguaro national park

Things to do at Saguaro National Park West 

Saguaro National Park West – Rincon Mountain district is similar to the East district but it seemed more people were hiking rather than just driving. This is probably because the West district is more spread out with an unpaved park loop road which deters some visitors.  

Can’t miss sights at Saguaro West 

We again started the day at the visitors’ center to learn about the park. There is a small, paved educational garden around the visitor center with signs and information about the native species.

desert garden trail at saguaro west

The visitor center didn’t have any recommended itineraries posted however the top sights are: 

  • Bajada Loop Drive 
  • Valley View Overlook 
  • Signal Hill Picnic (petroglyphs nearby) 

Bajada Loop Drive 

The 5-mile Bajada Loop Drive at Saguaro West is unpaved and a little uneven for low clearance vehicles like ours. It is manageable in any vehicle but slow speeds are best. 

Hiking: Valley View Overlook and Wild Dog Trail 

The Valley View trailhead along Bajada Loop Drive has limited parking and was almost full when we arrived midday.  

We chose to add the 1.8-mile Wild Dog out and back trail to the very popular Valley View trail. 

Valley View leads 0.3 miles uphill to an epic view of the cactus forest valley. There are several sections of uneven man-made steps to assist in the ascent. The benches at the top were busy with others enjoying the view. 

I am glad we added on the Wild Dog trail because Valley View didn’t have as many plants near the trail. Wild Dog trail was a nice stroll amongst the cactus. We were able to get close to many different species without leaving the trail. 

dog valley trail in saguaro west

Hiking: King Canyon 

I wouldn’t consider King Canyon a must-see in Saguaro West but we still enjoyed it.

kings canyon trail

We took the one-mile old mining trail, King Canyon Trail, along the canyon wall up to a scenic picnic area.

king canyon trail at saguaro west
scenic picnic area in kings canyonn

The path was wide but rocky with slight, steady elevation gain.  

rocky path on king canyons trail

We chose to take the 0.9-mile King Canyon Wash trail back. I do not usually enjoy hiking washes but it was my favorite wash hike to date.

kings canyon wash trail

There were rocky ledges to navigate and an abundance of vegetation to keep my attention during the walk.

Not just the usual wash trail with endless trudging through loose sand.

kings canyon wash

 
Crazy Cactus

I loved all of the crazy cactus shapes and took too many photos. Here are a few of my favorites.

fishhook barrel cactus
Fish hook barrel cactus
fishhook barrel
Yellow blooms on fishhook barrel cactus
chainfruit cholla
Chainfruit cholla cactus
leaning saguaro
Saguaros come in all shapes
cholla
Cholla turn purple when stressed
teddy bear cholla
Teddy Bear Cholla
crested saguaro
Abnormal shape earns this guy the name crested saguaro
kara with prickly pear and saguaro

Is Saguaro National Park worth visiting? 

We loved our two days at Saguaro National Park and it is definitely worth visiting. If you want to focus on one district, I recommend the East because of its superior infrastructure. If you want to see more cactus, you could fit both park districts into one fun-filled day. 

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