When three coyotes ran across the road in front of me I knew I was in the right place. I knew I was supposed to be there, that waking up early after a long day of travel was the right answer, that starting my Arizona national park adventure in Tucson, at Saguaro National Park was exactly, perfectly correct.
I’d ended up there by chance. The original plan had been to fly roundtrip from Phoenix, spending a night or two there before heading north to Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and some of the smaller national monuments in northern Arizona. When rental car prices topped $400, I called foul and starting exploring other options, like flying into Tucson and out of Phoenix, and, amazingly, car rentals from Tucson to Phoenix were less than half of what a roundtrip car from Phoenix would have cost.
So I bought the plane tickets, booked the hotel rooms, the car and redesigned my itinerary to include Tucson and, most importantly, Saguaro National Park, which sandwiches Tucson between the Tucson Mountain District in the west and the Rincon Mountain District in the east.
HISTORY OF SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
In 1933, President Herbert Hoover established Saguaro National Monument, then just a portion of what is today the Rincon Mountain District of the park. Talk of creating a place to preserve the iconic saguaro cactus plants had started in 1920, with members of the University of Arizona’s Natural History Society. When Hoover established the national monument, it didn’t get much notice, but it was a big deal for the people of Arizona who worked hard to protect the saguaros.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred management of Saguaro to the National Park Service later in 1933, and the Civilian Conservation Corps built the Cactus Forest Loop Drive along with additional infrastructure. The national monument open to the public in the 1950s.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy added 16,000 acres to the monument, including what is now the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro. In 1994, Congress combined the two districts and redesignated Saguaro as a National Park with a total of 91,716 acres.
RINCON MOUNTAIN DISTRICT: SAGUARO NP’S EAST SIDE
I visited the east side of Saguaro National Park first, mostly because it was closest to my hotel. I was there just after the park opened at 7 a.m., and immediately jumped on the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, a paved one-way, eight-mile loop that circles the western side of the Rincon Mountain District. The drive includes numerous pull-offs, trailheads for short and long hikes, picnic areas and countless opportunities to get up close and personal with saguaros.
For an easy introduction to the desert, the Desert Ecology Trail highlights some of the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, is paved and just 1/4 mile in length. Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail, and it’s also wheelchair accessible.
The park includes around 195 miles of trails, so whether you’re looking for a quick scamper or a wilderness hike, Saguaro has it. Part of the Arizona National Scenic Tail, which runs for 800 miles from the Mexican border to Utah, also cuts through the park.
After I drove the Cactus Forest Loop, I stopped in at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center to pick up a park patch and get some hiking advice. From there, I headed north, to the start of the Douglas Spring Trail and followed it to Bridal Wreath Falls, located about 2.7 miles down the trail. The path was rocky and gained about 1,000 feet in elevation by the time I got to the falls, but it was well worth the effort and provided some absolutely stunning views of Tucson.
TUCSON MOUNTAIN DISTRICT: SAGUARO NP’S WEST SIDE
After my hike I took a taco break, checked in to my hotel & headed to the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park. Depending on traffic, the two park districts are about 45 minutes apart. The east side of the park is slightly bigger and the includes a paved road, but the west side felt denser, more populated with visitors and, allegedly has a denser population of saguaros. That said, both sides include many miles of trails, large wilderness areas and an enormous saguaro population.
That first night I stuck to the main road leading into the park and wandered through the Desert Discovery Nature Trail as the sun set. Like the Desert Ecology Trail in the Rincon Mountain District, this is a short, paved loop that’s easily accessible and dog-friendly.
The next morning I headed first to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It’s not part of Saguaro National Park, but it’s right on the border of the park and provides an in-depth education on the Sonoran Desert and the plants and animals that live there. It’s part zoo, part museum and part desert botanical garden and houses 230 animal species and 1,200 plant varieties.
After the museum, I headed back into Saguaro National Park, stopping first at the Red Hills Visitor Center and then heading out to drive the unpaved six miles of the Bajada Scenic Loop. Like the loop drive in the eastern district, the Bajada Scenic Loop includes several scenic overlooks, trailheads and picnic areas.
During the drive, I stopped at almost every opportunity to take in the desert views, including at the Valley View Overlook Trail. The trail is short, steep and rocky and leads through two washes and then up a ridge to a view of the Avra Valley.
I also trekked the easy quarter mile out and back to Signal Hill, where you can easily see dozens of petroglyphs. I saw petroglyphs for the first time in New Mexico last year and seeing these remnants of past civilizations continues to impress and amaze me.
Both sides of the park are really, really incredible. I’m a Virginia girl and seeing the saguaros and the rest of the pricker-covered plants of the desert felt like entering a different world. The forests I walked through at Saguaro National Park are a totally different kind of forest than I’ve ever walked before and I’m so glad I ended up in Tucson and was able to explore this incredible place.
If you’re planning your own adventure to Saguaro National Park:
- drink a lot of water and then after you think you’ve done that, drink a bunch more.
- wear sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat to keep the sun off your beautiful face.
- get off the road and hike, either on one of the park’s many short trails or on a longer, bumpier, rock-filled and cactus-lined trail.
- stop for tacos and a Sonoran hot dog to keep you fueled for adventure time.
- explore both sides of the park; they’re different and similar and even after thinking about it for a week, I’m still not sure which one is my favorite.
- mind the weather, as summer temperatures can make the park unbearable in the afternoon hours.
Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain District is open to vehicles from sunrise to sunset daily and the Rincon Mountain District is open to vehicles from 7 a.m. to sunset daily. You can walk or bike into the park 24 hours a day. Visitors centers are open 364 days a year (closed on Christmas) from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is free with an American the Beautiful pass, or $15 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle and $5 per person entering the park on foot or on a bicycle. To ensure you arrive at your intended park district, use the addresses listed here, as simply entering “Saguaro National Park” into your map will take you to a default location that might not be your intended destination.