People from all over the world flock to Saguaro National Park to take in the unique views of the stunning saguaro cacti. The saguaro (pronounced suh-wah-roh) is the largest cactus in the United States, yet the roots are only about four to six inches below ground.
When visiting Saguaro National Park, you can hike among these desert beauties and take in the views of rolling hills sprinkled with these unusual cacti. But this national park is slightly more unique than others. It’s split in half by Tucson, Arizona leaving visitors to bounce between Saguaro National Park West and Saguaro National Park East on their trip.
While that distance between the two might seem disjointed, the two parks can be visited over a few days and create memories with new experiences. From a weather standpoint, the best time of the year to visit is September through April. May, June, July, and August are hot. While it’s not impossible to spend some time in the park during this season, you’ll want to come well prepared with water, sunscreen, a hat, and maybe even your Camp Life cooling towel.
As a Tucson native who has lived life surrounded by these beautiful parks, here are ten adventures I recommend to everyone visiting the area.
1. Hike the Arizona Trail
The Arizona Trail is ultra-unique and one that people come from all over the world to hike. This non-motorized trail is 800 miles long and goes from the Arizona/Mexico border up to Utah. Part of the trail goes right through the Saguaro National Park East, making it a fun and meaningful hike.
Head up Old Spanish Trail to the end of Camino Loma Alta to start your hike. There, you can park and start your hike. Beware of wildlife, horseback riders, and mountain bikes on this trail.
2. Spot 800-Year-Old Petroglyphs Drawn by the Hohokam People
While in Saguaro National Park East, pack a lunch and take it to the Signal Hill Picnic Area on the Bajada Loop Drive. Then, park and make your way up the quarter mile to see 800-year-old petroglyphs drawn by the Hohokam people who lived in this area.
3. Hike to Wassen Peak
If you’re an adventure seeker and want a more strenuous hike, you’ll want to hit the King Canyon Trail in Tucson Mountain Park and take it until you spot the Gould Mine Trail. This will take you up about 1,800 feet on a single track to Wassen Peak. Here, you can get a full view of the Saguaro National Park.
Although the hike starts in Tucson Mountain Park, most of it takes you through Saguaro National Park West. Throughout the hike, you’ll be surrounded by Arizona’s native landscape with saguaros, creosote, and prickly pear.
Important Tip: This cannot be overstated. Anytime you’re hiking in Arizona, pack plenty of water and look for venomous wildlife, such as snakes, Gila monsters, and scorpions.
4. Watch the Sunset at Gates Pass
Arizona is well-known for its sunsets, and if you’re hoping to spot a beauty on your trip, plan to visit Gates Pass. Pack some cheese and crackers, and roll out your outdoor blanket to catch a glimpse of the sky turning to some of the most magnificent oranges, pinks, and reds you’ll ever see as the sun goes down behind the mountains illuminating the saguaro cacti in the process.
To get there, follow Speedway Blvd out of Tucson until it turns into Gates Pass Road. Approximately 3 miles up the road, you’ll see a parking lot where you can park your car and get out to take in the views. There are platforms, but I recommend taking one of the many trails in the area to find a nice spot to sit and unwind.
5. Take in the Views of Mica Mountain
As you make your way to Saguaro National Park East, you’ll want to drive until the end of Broadway Blvd. It’s here that you can get on the Mica View Trail, which can be spectacularly green during the rainy monsoon season. This trail doesn’t just put you alongside the beautiful saguaro cacti. It also lets you cool down in the shade of Palo Verde trees and Mesquite Trees.
This trail is relatively easy. Part of it is paved, while the other part is well-maintained single track. Still, the views on this trail are stunning and will help you take in the uniqueness of this national park.
6. Camp Overnight in Saguaro National East
Tucson has an outdoor lighting ordinance, which means all lights are dimmer than in most cities. This makes it easier for campers and explorers to see the stars, and if stargazing is one of your favorite activities, you’ll want to camp in or near the park.
Camping is not allowed in Saguaro National Park West but it is permitted in Saguaro National Park East. If you’re looking for rustic camping accommodations, check out the Juniper Basin campgrounds in the park, or the campgrounds at El Bosquecito and La Selvilla in Colossal Cave Mountain Park.
7. Find a Crested Saguaro
Most people know saguaros for their tall center and off-shooting arms. Sometimes, saguaros take a different shape, producing fan-like arms known as crests. There are only about 2,000 of these saguaros ever documented. It’s estimated that only 1 in every 200,000 saguaro cacti become crested, and botanists still aren’t sure why it happens. There is at least one of these unique beauties in Saguaro National Park East on the historic La Posta Quemada Ranch trail.
8. Tour Colossal Cave
Colossal Cave is in Saguaro National Park East and offers a unique experience touring this historic cave. On the half-mile, 45-minute tour, you’ll go about six stories deep while hearing about how train robbers hid out in the cave, seeing unique formations, and learning about the wildlife that still lives there. You can also schedule a ladder tour to take a longer trip through the narrow passages of the cave and across rock bridges.
9. Stroll Through the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum
The Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum isn’t technically part of the National Park but lies on the outskirts of Saguaro National Park West and requires you to drive through the park to get there, so it’s worth being on this list.
This outdoor museum is much like a zoo and will put you up close and personal with some of the park’s most well-known wildlife. With over 1.5 miles of trails, visitors can spot a mountain lion sunbathing, a javelina pack scuffling around or lying in the shade or a coyote on the prowl. There are also plenty of indoor exhibits featuring the prolific and well-known insects in the area.
Plan to spend half a day roaming the park. There are plenty of restaurants in the park, so you can enjoy lunch while taking in the views of Saguaro National Park West.
10. Spot a Cactus in Bloom
If you’re visiting Saguaro National Park in April or May, you’ll have a unique chance to see a saguaro bloom. The white or red flowers on top of the saguaro cacti open up during these months, offering a stunning view to visitors. Plus, there’s a good chance you’ll see a woodpecker pecking right underneath these flowers or a hummingbird sipping the nectar.
Regardless of when you visit the park, there is always something new to see. Pack your water and take in this incredible landscape.