Saguaro National Park is a desert hiker’s paradise and a great National Park to visit in the winter when you are in desperate need of some sunshine and outdoor adventure. There are many things to do in Saguaro National Park, namely the 165 miles of hiking trails to view the Sonoran Desert’s most iconic plant: the giant saguaro.
No matter how long your Saguaro National Park itinerary, you’ll want to hit the trails to see these majestic symbols of the Old West, especially at sunrise and sunset.
Designated a National Park in 1994, Saguaro National Park is actually two distinct parks that straddle the outskirts of Tucson over almost 93,000 acres: the Rincon Mountain District on the east side and the Tucson Mountain District on the west.
Both districts were designated Saguaro National Monument going back many decades before to preserve their unique and fragile desert ecosystems.
In addition to hiking, some trails allow horses, livestock, and biking. There are also short interpretive natural trails, backcountry campgrounds, petroglyphs, and abandoned mining sites.
With so many options for what to do in Saguaro National Park, you’ll want to plan your days there carefully before you get there.
How Many Days in Saguaro National Park?
Since there are two separate parks to explore, you will want to spend at least two days in Saguaro National Park, if not more.
If you are a serious desert hiker or want to get a chance to view wildlife like the lizards, coyotes, hawks, javelinas, rattlesnakes, and roadrunners common to the area, you may want to spend much more time there.
There is no option to buy a daily pass at the park, only a weekly and annual pass, so many visitors may want to get the most out of that weekly pass and return all seven days. How many days to spend in Saguaro National Park should depend on your level of experience with hiking in the desert and if you want to push yourself to try some tough hikes.
Backcountry camping is available at six different sites in the Rincon Mountain District, however, don’t think it will be easy. These sites are not vehicle accessible, which means you will have to hike to them with all your gear (or bring your horse), and they do not have restrooms or running water.
They are all near sources of water but could be dry depending on the time of year or drought level, so you will have to pack in your own water, at least a gallon a day. If you are going to camp, you must get a permit.
Therefore, it is likely that you will want to skip camping at Saguaro National Park itself, although there are several other nearby campgrounds with full amenities such as Sabino Canyon near the east side and Gilbert Ray Campground near the west side.
Getting To and Around Saguaro National Park
The nearest airport is Tucson International Airport, where you can rent a car and make the short drive, just half an hour, to either park.
You can also fly to the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, a much larger airport with more flight options, rent a car, and drive almost two hours from Phoenix to Tucson – close to Saguaro National Park.
While planning your trip, be sure to check the maps of both parks so you won’t miss what to see in Saguaro National Park.
To get to the Rincon Mountain District, the main entrance is off Old Spanish Trail, on the far east side of Tucson. The entrance there will take you to the visitor center and on to the paved Cactus Forest Drive, an eight-mile one-way loop where there are several nature trails and scenic views.
This is the only road through the Rincon Mountain District; to get to other trailheads, you will need to drive around to the north side of the park to Broadway and Speedway Boulevards and to the south on X 9 Ranch Road. These trailhead parking lots can be very small, so you’ll want to get there early to get a spot.
To get to the Tucson Mountain District, take Gates Pass Road, a beautiful winding drive through the Tucson Mountains. At Old Tucson, a movie studio where many classic westerns were filmed, turn right at Kinny Road to get to the park entrance.
You can also get to the park from Tucson from another scenic route to the north, Picture Rocks Road.
Once inside the park, you can drive along the Bajada Loop, which is unpaved. There are also several trailheads off Picture Rocks Road, Belmont Road, Kinny Road, and El Camino del Cerro.
Both loop drives do not allow trailers longer than 35 feet long or vehicles more than 8 feet wide; RV parking is also not allowed along them.
Unlike some other National Parks, this one does not have as many amenities as you may be used to. There are no restaurants or vending machines. So be prepared if you are planning to spend a full day in the park: be sure you bring plenty of food, snacks, water, and electrolyte drinks to last you the day.
Even if you come during the winter season, be prepared for the heat: wear sunscreen, protective clothing, and a hat. Bring one litre of water per person when you go hiking and turn around when your water is half gone.
Things to do in Saguaro National Park
There are countless things to do in Saguaro National Park that you can easily be occupied for a number of days. If you’re planning on spending 2 days in this incredible Arizona park, make sure to follow this Saguaro National Park itinerary!
Day 1 – Rincon Mountain District
Rincon Mountain Visitors Center
Stop at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center just inside the main gate of the Rincon Mountain District on the first day of your Saguaro National Park itinerary to get oriented to the park.
Normally in the winter, there are many ranger-led programs throughout the day on topics like desert pollinators, bats, gila monsters, desert birds, astronomy, and everything you wanted to know about saguaros.
Starting from the visitor center, rangers also lead themed hikes into the park such as the secrets of the Sonoran desert, moonlight hikes, and capturing the desert, where hikers bring their own art supplies. Currently these programs are on pause but check the calendar before your visit to see if programs have resumed.
Cactus Forest Loop
This main drive through a scenic area of the park only covers a small part of it, but it is well worth it and should be a top priority on your Saguaro National Park itinerary. In fact, if you are going to spend only one day in Saguaro National Park, your best bet may to spend it on this loop.
There are many spots to pull over to read the interpretive signs with facts about the Sonoran Desert and to see views of giant saguaros, the Rincon Mountains to the west, the Catalina mountains to the north, and even the Santa Rita mountains far to the south.
Mica View Trail
At the north end of the Cactus Forest Loop, you can take a left onto a short dirt road to get to Mica View picnic area and trailhead (also one of only two sites in the park besides the visitor center that has restrooms).
The Mica View Trail is less than a mile to Broadway Boulevard, and you can take a longer one-mile route on Cactus Forest Trail back to the parking lot. This trail has less shade and will be hot, but it has great views of Mica Mountain.
Desert Ecology Trail
This short nature trail is perfect for kids or those not up for a strenuous hike. The paved, wheelchair-accessible path leads you through a mostly shaded area with mesquite and palo verde trees, benches, and interpretive signs.
At only a third of a mile (about 500 meters), for some visitors it may be one of the speedier things to do Saguaro National Park.
Cactus Forest Trail
The full length of this trail is five miles, but you can make it a short excursion by stopping at the trailhead on the northeast side of Cactus Loop Drive and heading south to see some of its highlights.
About a mile down the trail, veer off onto a short loop path and see two crumbling lime kiln structures from the 19th century. You can also see Lime Falls, which will have running water during monsoon season or after it has rained.
Freeman Homestead Trail
If you’re looking to add some history to your list of things to do in Saguaro National Park, don’t miss the short hike to the site of the Freeman Homestead where Safford Freeman and his family built an adobe home on their 640-acre claim.
The home is not still standing, but you can learn about the site along the way by reading the interpretive signs that are specially designed for children, and you can hike further down to a dramatic cliff and back up the wash if you prefer.
North Side Trails
End the first day of your Saguaro National Park itinerary by exiting the main gate and driving around to the north side of the park. On this side, there is a network of many short trails that cross dry washes, which you can walk along too (be careful of flash floods in the summer).
There are lots of interesting sites to see in this area of the park, like Garwood dam, several old water tanks, Bridal Wreath Falls, and a gorgeous crested saguaro on Garwood Trail.
This is a great area for a choose-your-own-adventure hike, but be careful on these trails as it easy to get turned around with so many different paths crossing each other. Be sure to bring a map or GPS with you.
Day 2 – Tucson Mountain District
Red Hills Visitor Center
There is a whole other park to explore, so start your second day at the Red Hills Visitor Center to find out about more things to do in Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain District. This center has an excellent movie on the Sonoran desert with a special surprise at the end and a cactus garden you can tour.
Bajada Loop Drive
This six-mile loop drive will take you through an excellent, up-close tour of saguaro cactus, in fact, you’ll get much closer to them than on the east side’s Cactus Forest Loop Drive. But this road is not paved and can be quite bumpy at times. There are several pull-outs for scenic views, a picnic area, and trailheads.
The petroglyphs on Signal Hill are a must-see on your Saguaro National Park itinerary for the west side. Take a right on the northwest side of Bajada Loop to the trailhead parking lot.
Walk up the short trail and you can see these petroglyphs created by the Hohokam people approximately 800 years ago but be careful not to touch them.
Sendero Esperanza Trail
This 1.7-mile fairly easy trail joins up with Hugh Norris Trail for another 1.6 miles winding to Wassen Peak for incredible views in all directions. The switchbacks can be a little challenging but are very worth it for the scenery. If you have the time, this is one hike you will not want to miss on the west side.
Have More Time in Saguaro National Park?
A fun destination close the Rincon Mountain District is the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, where for a fee you can hop on a tram that takes you to the top of the canyon and hike down Sabino Creek, which usually flows most of the year.
Don’t miss the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, one of the most popular attractions in Tucson and just down the road from the Red Hills Visitor Center.
This museum is more of a zoo and botanical gardens, where you can view local wildlife, walk on nature trails, eat local food at three restaurants, and participate in many popular programs and lectures.
Where to Stay Near Saguaro National Park
Arizona’s second-largest city of Tucson is an excellent place to base yourself when exploring Saguaro National Park if you don’t want to brave camping in the desert.
There are lots of great accommodation options available that will suit all kinds of travel styles and budgets. If you’re wondering where to stay in Tucson, have a look at these suggestions:
Hotel Congress – This hotel situated in a historic Tucson building is a great place to stay if you’re looking to be in on the action in Arizona’s second city. There are countless lovely rooms available, an on-site restaurant, bar and even a nightclub to ensure that you have a good time no matter the hour of the day. Click here to see their availability
The Downtown Clifton Hotel – This hotel located in downtown Tucson is a great option for those looking for a quieter stay in the city. They have and a number of clean and comfortable rooms on offer and a restaurant and bar on site, as well. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental – If you’d rather have your own space over a hotel, then consider finding a private vacation rental. There are a myriad of options available in Tucson, such as this well-located casita that you’re sure to find something that suits your fancy. Click here to browse Tucson private rentals
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Tucson hotels!
Saguaro National Park is one of the best places to learn about the Sonoran Desert and view giant saguaros. This itinerary should be able to help you plan a great trip. Have fun in the desert, stay safe, and happy trails!
Are you planning a Saguaro National Park itinerary? Have any questions about what to do here? Let us know in the comments!