Arizona has 3 fantastic national parks, but I’d be willing to guess that most people can name only one. Saguaro National Park flanks downtown Tucson and provides access to dozens of hiking trails, each showcasing the nation’s largest cactus, the giant saguaro, as well as 25 other species of cactus— making this the most diverse natural cactus garden in the entire country and an amazing place to visit!
Divided into the Tucson Mountain District (Saguaro West) and the Rincon Mountain District (Saguaro East), Saguaro National Park is absolutely amazing, super accessible, and extremely underrated— there’s no better place to discover the “monarchs of the cactus world”, a title that perfectly represents both the ecological importance and the undeniable grandeur of this majestic desert plant.
This 1-day itinerary for Saguaro National Park features 7 awesome hikes and 7 viewpoints across both the east and south districts, showcasing the park’s incredible ecological diversity and sprawling cactus gardens. Read on to discover absolutely everything you need to know for the ultimate day at Saguaro National Park, including when to visit, how to get there and where to stay nearby, COVID closures and park health measures, an essential packing list, and a super detailed 1-day itinerary with all the best hikes and viewpoints.
Check out other posts in my 1-day National Park & Public Land series:
Located in the southern Arizona desert, Saguaro National Park is primarily a non-summer destination (due to SERIOUS heat), although eager travellers can still find spectacular scenery and unique experiences 12 months of the year:
Summer (June to September) is the least recommended time to visit the park, with soaring temperatures often above 43C (110F) and little shade on any of the trails. The NPS doesn’t recommend doing any strenuous hikes during this time, and especially not in the heat of the day, so expect this to greatly limit your itinerary. Start early, carry a lot of water, and aim to be out of the park by ~3pm, which is usually when temps are highest.
Autumn (September to November) & Spring (March to May) are still scorching, and you can expect temperatures to reach 35C/95F in the afternoon, but hiking is far more comfortable than in summer. April is the absolute BEST time to visit Saguaro, as cactus all over the park erupt in multi-coloured bloom— it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen!
Winter (December to February) can be an excellent time to visit Saguaro, with far cooler days (21C/70F) that lend themselves to long, steep hikes into the surrounding mountains.
Entrance fees for Saguaro National Park
As with the entire NPS network, there are fees associated with visiting Saguaro National Park. If you are only exploring the park for a single week and not planning to visit any other national parks in the next year, you can purchase a 7-day access pass for $25USD at the Visitor Centres (Red Hills in the west or Rincon Mountain in the east), which covers all people within your car.
If you plan on visiting more than 3 US national sites in the next 12 months, it’s actually cheaper to get an annual parks pass for $80USD, accepted at all 63 national parks and thousands of other national monuments and forests around the country!
Purchase your America the Beautiful Pass at either visitor centre (Red Hills in the west or Rincon Mountain in the east), at Recreation.gov, or even in-store or online from outdoor retailers likeREI.
COVID-safe in Saguaro National Park
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of public health advice from the CDC, the National Parks Service has implemented a number of health and safety measures across the entire network of US parks, mostly to minimise proximity between travellers and prevent the contamination of shared surfaces.
As of mid 2021, Saguaro National Park is open with a few restrictions:
All travellers to the park are discouraged from interacting closely with people outside their party. Obviously this is difficult to enforce, but try to maintain a safe distance (2m) from other travellers at viewpoints, campsites, and on the trail.
You are not required to wear a mask while hiking, but are encouraged to do so when it’s not possible to physically distance from people outside your party. Due to the heat, very few people were wearing masks on trails when I visited in April 2021.
Both of Saguaro National Park’s visitor centres (Tucson Mountain District in the west & Rincon Mountain in the east) are currently OPEN with limited capacity.
All hikes and viewpoints within the park are open as normal. Popular trails can still be busy, so use common sense and respect your fellow travellers.
Public restrooms are open throughout the park and hand sanitiser is provided.
If you are feeling unwell, DO NOT VISIT! Follow local public health guidelines and get tested before visiting the national park.
For the latest updates on trail closures and COVID safety practices within Saguaro National Park, visit the NPS website.
Other important things to know about Saguaro National Park
RECEPTION: Mobile reception throughout the main areas of Saguaro National Park (both scenic loop drives) is surprisingly great, but it’s still smart to downloaded offline maps and do your research prior to entering the park. If you do set out on a more remote adventure (like backpacking in Saguaro East), I’d also recommend bringing a PLB in case of emergency; I personally use a Garmin In-Reach Mini.
WATER: There are great spots to refill water (either small water bottles or larger jugs) at the Visitor Centres on both sides of the park, but no where to refill an RV or van water tank, so come prepared with lots of water!
LEAVE NO TRACE: As with every outdoor adventure, and particularly those within protected natural areas, it is critical that you take steps to reduce human impact on the environment. This includes packing out all of your rubbish or disposing of it in the bins provided at most every trailhead, campsite, and viewpoint (the visitor centres even have recycling bins!). I’d also encourage you to be mindful of where you go off-trail within the park— it’s absolutely part of the adventure, but not at the expense of delicate plantlife, so be sure to get your off-route kicks on the rocks or other durable surfaces.
Getting to Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is incredibly accessible, its two districts closely flanking Arizona’s second-largest city, Tucson.
Saguaro West (Tucson Mountain District) is just 15mi (30min) from downtown Tucson, while Saguaro East (Rincon Mountain District) is 21mi (30min) in the opposite direction. Both districts are also accessible from Phoenix in approximately 2hrs.
Getting around Saguaro National Park
Unlike many other national parks that operate a free or inexpensive shuttle, the only way to explore either district of Saguaro National Park is in your own vehicle— all main roads are well-maintained (but not necessarily paved), so there’s no need for 4WD or special tires.
Even without stops or detours,it’s about 30mi (1hr) to drive from the Red Hills Visitor Centre in Tucson Mountain District (Saguaro West) to Rincon Mountain District (Saguaro East), so allow ample time in your itinerary if you’re hoping to explore both sides in a single day, as recommended below.
Make sure to pick up a free map when you come through the entrance— even though both sides of the park have good reception, it definitely helps to have a paper map to plan your visit. If you miss grabbing a map (outside of staffed hours; typically 8am-5pm) or prefer to use your phone, there’s a downloadable version of the NPS map available here and I’ve also marked all my recommended stops on a handy Google Map (which you can save to your phone) in the itinerary section below.
Where to stay near Saguaro National Park
If you’re hoping to stay overnight either before or after your day in Saguaro National Park, there are heaps of accomodation options, ranging from hotels in Tucson to free boondocking in the surrounding mountains:
You can also camp for free within Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas and Forest Service Roads surrounding the park. There are absolutely zero facilities, so you’ll either need to have a good backcountry camping setup or a self-contained van/camper, but this is an awesome way to get away from the bustle of crowded campsites and enjoy nature. For this itinerary, I’d recommend Redington Road or the Cactus Forest BLM (both marked on the map below). Always make sure to pack it in/pack it out to keep these public lands free of rubbish and preserved for future campers!
Packing list for Saguaro National Park
Although this is not intended to be a fully comprehensive packing list, here are some absolute essentials to pack for your day exploring Saguaro National Park:
Water bottle | Plan to carry a couple of litres in the car and on longer hikes, as there is no water available in the park (past the visitor centre) and it can get HOT; this is an awesome bottle with a built-in filter
Snacks | To maximise time exploring, you need to pack food for snacks and lunch, as there is nothing available inside the park; if you plan to picnic, it can also be great to bring compact camping chairs like these awesome REI Flexlite Camp Chairs and a small table
Camera (+ tripod if you’re trying to capture sunrise and sunset shots)
Emergency communication | It’s always a good idea to carry a PLB or other emergency beacon/sat phone for off-trail adventures; I love my Garmin In-Reach Mini
Hat | I wore my Akubra Traveller through all of the national park and loved the sun coverage (not to mention all the compliments!); this is an Australian-made hat, but you can find it online at select retailers in the US and it is SO worth the money
Boots or sturdy walking shoes | You can explore most of Saguaro in sturdy walking or hiking shoes, but I personally prefer boots and did all of the activities on this itinerary in either my square-toe 1306 Blundstones (also from Australia, but available in limited styles online in the US) or my Salomon GTX 4D Hiking Boots
Layers! | In winter, it’s essential to have lots of layers, as temperatures can vary widely from early morning to mid afternoon; I always pack a down jacket, mountain jacket, fleece jumper just to be safe!
*1-day Saguaro National Park itinerary
In an effort to showcase the absolute best trails and viewpoints that Saguaro National Park has to offer, this jam-packed itinerary visits both Tucson Mountain District (Saguaro West) and Rincon Mountain District (Saguaro East), the two distinct of the park separated by Tucson. That means you’re going to be BUSY— so either get up early or split this itinerary into two days to ensure you don’t miss out on any of the park’s awesome natural attractions!
First up, begin your day with a few short trails in Saguaro West and then hop onto the scenic Bajada LoopDrive, which provides access to more highlights within the Tucson Mountains.
After making the 1hr drive east to the Rincon Mountain District, you’ll then explore Saguaro East on the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, stopping regularly to admire sweeping views and embark on fantastic hikes like Mica View and Freeman Homestead Trail. The final activity for the day is a short hike up to Bridal Wreath Falls, located in the northern part of Saguaro East, which wraps up a perfect first day in Saguaro National Park!
1 | Cactus Garden Trail
Cactus Garden Trail is a short but spectacular loop through the maintained garden outside Red Hills Visitor Centre that exhibits prime examples of the park’s many cactus species, and therefore a great place to begin your day.
This is definitely a stroll rather than a hike, but I think it’s the perfect introduction to Saguaro— spend some time identifying different cactus and reading about what makes each special before heading out on more rugged trails, where you can search for buckhorn cholla or hedgehog cactus in the wild (once you actually know what they look like!).
2 | Watering Hole
This next stop is not marked on the NPS map, nor is it signed from the road, but there’s a small pull-out on the right just after the Visitor Centre and before the Desert Discovery Trail (which I’ve marked on the Google Map above) that’s definitely worth a few minutes of your time— and possibly even a few hours, if you’re really dedicated to seeing wildlife!
From the small carpark, a short trail winds through a spectacular garden of saguaro and countless other cactus varieties, leading back to a small watering hole maintained by the park.
Particularly at dusk or dawn, this is an excellent place to spot javelina, coyote, and other desert animals. Have a seat on the bench nearby, be super quiet, and hope for some activity around the shallow !
3 | Desert Discovery Nature Trail
0.8km / 0.5mi loop | negligible elevation gain |20min
Your final stop before turning onto the Bajada Loop Drive is the short and very flat Desert Discovery Nature Trail, offering yet another opportunity to see giant saguaro, abundant prickly pear, and colourful cholla cactus.
Compared to other spots in the park, this trail isn’t anything too spectacular, but I’d still recommend it for all the informational plaques and cactus identification signs, which are an excellent way to learn more about the Sonoran Desert.
4 | Bajada Loop Drive
Continuing north along Kinney Road, you’ll soon come to the start of the Bajada Loop, a 5mi unpaved scenic drive through Saguaro West that provides access to many of the park’s best viewpoints and trails. I’ve recommended 2 specific stops along the loop below (Valley View Overlook & Signal Hill Petroglyphs), but there’s definitely more to explore if time allows!
Sections of the Bajada Loop are one-way, meaning you’ll need to turn RIGHT onto Hohokam Road and travel anti-clockwise if you want to drive the entire road continuously.
5 | Valley View Overlook Trail
1.3km / 0.8mi return | negligible elevation gain |30min
The majority of short trails I’ve recommended thus far are extremely flat, providing the opportunity to admire an incredible variety of cactus and desert plantlife right in front of you— Valley View Overlook Trail is different in that you’ll actually get a vantage point over the expansive cactus forest, and therefore a glimpse at just how massive this park is!
Even though you do have to walk up a slight hill for the final panorama, Valley View is a very flat and easy trail, which is always welcome in the extreme Tucson heat. It’s a great reward for pretty minimal effort!
6 | Signal Hill Petroglyphs
0.8km / 0.5mi return | negligible elevation gain |15min
Further around the Bajada Loop Drive, hop out of the car for a short walk to the top of Signal Hill, which looks out over the Tucson Mountains and several dozens intricate petroglyphs carved into the rocks.
These particular etchings are attributed to the Hohokam, a native people who lived southern Arizona from about 450 to 1450AD, but the exact meaning of the artwork has been lost to time. Nonetheless, it’s a spectacular viewpoint and a great spot to appreciate the human history of Saguaro National Park!
After exploring the petroglyphs at Signal Hill, complete the Bajada Loop Drive back to Kinney Road (just a few minutes) and then drive east to Rincon Mountain District for continued adventure within Saguaro National Park.
Even without stops or detours, it’s about 30mi (1hr) to drive from Tucson Mountain District (Saguaro West) to Rincon Mountain District (Saguaro East), so aim to make the journey across around midday!
7 | Cactus Forest Loop Drive
Immediately upon arriving to the Rincon Mountain Visitor Centre in Saguaro East, you’ll reach the intersection for the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, an 8mi paved road with access to heaps of viewpoints and trailheads.
Like the Bajada Loop in Saguaro West, there are several one-way sections along the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, but this time you’ll need to turn LEFT and travel clockwise around the loop to drive the entire road continuously.
All of the remaining recommendations on this post (EXCEPT Bridal Wreath Falls) are located along the Cactus Forest Loop, and I actually like this ring road better than Bajada since there are so many pull-outs and viewpoints to explore!
8 | Sonoran Desert Overlook
The first of several small pull-offs on the left side of the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, the Sonoran Desert Overlook provides an excellent introduction to Saguaro East and the dramatic Rincon Mountains, which boast even more abundant cacti than the west side.
9 | Cactus Forest Overlook
Shortly after the pull-off for the Sonoran Desert Overlook, a second viewpoint looks out over what was once the most densely populated cactus garden in the entire state.
Over the decades, and after several bad frosts, a majority of the saguaro in this area died off, and for many years the forest appeared to be withering to nothing— leaving researchers to dramatically predict that the last wild saguaro would die by the 1990s.
In a bid to restore the dwindling saguaro population, the national park acquired rights to the Cactus Forest and was able to successfully rehabilitate the land. Without constant grazing and livestock traffic through the brush, young saguaros were able to mature under the shady protection of nurse plants like creosote and palo verde. Historic photos displayed at the overlook confirm that the cactus forest is still far from its former glory, but through diligent caretaking and tireless conservation efforts, it’s definitely heading in the right direction!
10 | Mica View
6km / 3.7mi return | negligible elevation gain |1.5hrs
Continuing along the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, you’ll soon reach the Mica View Picnic Area, which provides access onto the Mica View loop trail through what I consider to be the most spectacularly diverse cactus garden in the entire park!
Thousands of saguaro, half a dozen different varieties of cholla, spindly ocotillo, and profuse prickly pears line the flat trail— though you could walk this entire trail in little over an hour, you’ll likely spend double that time admiring all the incredible desert life.
Particularly in spring, this trail is exploded into a rainbow of flowers as thousands of cactus bloom and abuzz with wildlife as cactus-dwelling birds nested in saguaro and chainfruit cholla tend to new babies. There’s just SO much to see!
Note that the AllTrails map above marks the Mica View trailhead at Broadway Boulevard, but you’ll actually be starting and finishing the loop from the picnic area (marked by a little bathroom symbol). There’s absolutely no difference in quality of the hike, and I think this point makes for a more convenient starting point along Cactus Forest Loop Drive!
11 | Desert Ecology Trail
0.5km / 0.3mi return | negligible elevation gain |15min
If I’m being completely honest, the Desert Ecology Trail is a somewhat underwhelming follow-up to Mica View, which has infinitely more/larger/just better cactus and is my personal favourite trail in the entire park.
What the Desert Ecology Trail lacks in beautiful cactus, though, it more than makes up for in informative plaques, and therefore I’d still recommend this super quick stop (under 15min) for the opportunity to read about how desert wildlife contribute to the greater ecological balance of the Sonoran Desert. Think of this as more of an educational point of interest than a photo op and you won’t be disappointed!
12 | Javelina Rocks Overlook
Continuing along the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, you’ll soon come to a markedly different landscape at Javelina Rocks Overlook— here, ancient granite forced up amongst the saguaro displays interesting bands of minerals that tell of movement far beneath the earth’s crust.
In addition to offering valuable insight into the geological history of the area, these rocks provide shelter for the namesake javelina and many other small desert animals and reptiles, such as Western Rattlesnakes.
While we didn’t spot any javelina during our own visit (likely too hot during the afternoon sun), I’d suggest wandering around for a few minutes and keeping an eye out for this desert peccary. They are pretty rare, and therefore getting to see one in the wild would be an incredible treat!
13 | Freeman Homestead Trail
1.8km / 1.1mi return | negligible elevation gain |30min
At the southern end of the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, detour for a few minutes towards the Javelina Picnic Area to embark on another short desert walk, the Freeman Homestead Trail.
The trail showcases one of the first residences in the area, built by the Freeman family, but I’ll admit that I found the surrounding scenery far more interesting than the difficult-to-make-out ruins of the homestead.
In addition to a large grove of old saguaro cactus and a bustling wash (look out for lizards), the cliffs you’ll pass about .5mi into the walk are a common place to spot Great Horned Owls nested within the rocks— a pair of ageing birders that we met earlier in the day managed to find some, although we weren’t as lucky. Plan to hang out for a little while and bring binoculars if you’re extra keen!
If time allows, my final recommendation for the day requires driving around to the northern section of Saguaro East, where the Douglas Springs trailhead provides access to countless awesome hikes of varying length and difficulty. After completing several of these trails, Bridal Wreath Falls is certainly my favourite, connecting several shorter trails to form a return hike out to the (likely dry) waterfalls above.
Visitors during late autumn or winter may actually see the falls running, which is doubtlessly a spectacular sight in the desert, but even without Bridal Wreath, the trail provides plenty of visual interest to make it worthwhile year-round.
After a modest elevation gain along a well-worn and nicely maintained trail, you’ll be able to see the entirety of Saguaro East stretched out beneath you, flanked by impressive desert peaks and dotted with endless saguaro, red ocotillo, and blooming prickly pear. What a way to end the day!
Explore more nearby
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is located right near the Saguaro West Visitor Centre and provides an awesome 100F+ activity when you simply can’t imagine hiking, as there’s intermittent shade and several indoor exhibits. Frequent readers will know that I’m often wary of recommending non-natural activities, but this is a seriously lovely museum/zoo/botanical garden that’s well-worth an afternoon! Tickets are $24/adult, with proceeds funding important conservation efforts (like captive breeding for endangered desert species).
With more time, I’d also recommend the short and flat Garwood Trail (5.3km / 3.3mi), which concludes at the most spectacular cristate saguaro I’ve ever seen! The trail begins at Douglas Springs, the same trailhead for Bridal Wreath Falls recommended above, and won’t take much longer than 1hr of your time.
Stay tuned for a post summarising all my favourite hikes in Arizona, many of which are nearby or accessible as a day trip from Tucson!