Saguaro National Park is a 91-thousand acre park that features America’s oldest and largest cactus: the Saguaro cactus. These giant cacti can grow over 40 ft tall and live several centuries or up to 300 years old. The park is easy to access by car as it is located near an Arizona metropolis and is well worth a stop on a Southwest road trip. Continue reading to find out all of the best things to do in Saguaro National Park.
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Where is Saguaro National Park and how to get there?
Saguaro National Park is located in southern Arizona, just outside of Tucson. The park is divided into two separate sections: West Saguaro and East Saguaro. You can easily reach the park by car as it is located just 10-15 minutes from I-10. There is also an airport right in Tucson and another in Phoenix, about an hour and a half north.
When to visit?
Winter, fall and spring are all great times to visit Saguaro National Park. These times will allow you to enjoy the park’s beauty in the sunshine but without the scorching heat. I personally recommend springtime as it is the best time to watch cacti bloom in the desert. Spring is often less crowded and provides more opportunities to spot wildlife as well.
If you do decide to visit in the summer months, make sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen as the entire park is completely exposed with virtually no shade. Apart from a few sheltered picnic tables and benches here and there, you are likely to have the hot Arizona sun shining down on you all day.
How long to stay?
Half a day is enough to hit the highlights of West Saguaro, but I recommend spending at least a full day to get a taste of both West and East Saguaro. With more time, you can explore the many backpacking trails of Rincon Mountain in East Saguaro National Park.
How much does it cost?
Saguaro National Park has a an entrance fee of $25 per vehicle, $15 per person, and $20 per motorcycle. However, if you plan on visiting more than two national parks in the next 12 months, I highly encourage you to get an America the Beautiful Pass or National Park Pass. This pass costs only $80 per year and is valid until the end of the 12th month. For example, if you purchase a pass on April 1st of 2023, it will be valid until April 30th 2024.
This pass also allows you to visit all sites managed by the National Park Service such as national historic sites, monuments, preserves… Certain state parks such as Sedona’s Red Rock State Park even allow you to use your national park pass in place of their state park pass. It is seriously one of the best travel deals out there. We purchase a national park pass every single year and have visited almost a dozen state and national parks with it this past year.
Other passes exist for seniors, military members, those with a disability, and more. For more information on Interagency passes and where to purchase them, click here.
Where to stay?
There is no lodging in Saguaro National Park, only 21 backcountry campsites in the Rincon Mountain of East Saguaro. Backcountry camping requires reservation on recreation.gov. The fee is $8 per campsite per night. If you’re looking for a hotel, staying in Tucson, AZ is going to be your best bet. There you’ll find tons of accommodations for different budgets. Reservations are encouraged, especially during the holidays.
Where to eat?
There is no restaurant or convenient store in the park, so I recommend packing a picnic lunch. The Signal Hill Picnic Area is ideal to stop for lunch with a view. There you’ll find picnic tables and shelter to protect yourself from sun exposure.
What to do?
Though Saguaro National Park is not very large, there are several trails and sights not to miss. I have compiled an itinerary of all the best things to see and do in the park on your day visit.
- Red Hills Visitor Center
- Desert Discovery Nature Trail
- Bajada Loop Drive
- Valley View Overlook
- Signal Hill Picnic Area
- Cactus Forest Drive
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Red Hills Visitor Center
I always recommend stopping at the visitor center when entering any national park. This is a great way to get information on current road closures and conditions as well as insider tips on current wildlife spotting and more. We also enjoy perusing the various educational displays and of course the gift shop. The Red Hills Visitor Center also features breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and saguaro cacti.
Desert Discovery Nature Trail
This short 0.4 mile loop is one of the best things to do in Saguaro National Park. Located right off the Bajada Loop Drive, it is ideal for those limited mobility as the whole path is paved and wheelchair accessible. Much like the Desert Ecology Trail in East Saguaro, it features many signs with information regarding the local plants and wildlife that inhabit the park.
Bajada Loop Drive
It’s important to note that the Bajada Loop Drive, unlike Cactus Forest Drive, is a maintained dirt road. We drove my small sedan through the park without any issue, but the speed is limited at 25 mph, so you have to drive very slowly anyway. Weather can easily affect the condition of this road, so it’s always a good idea to check with the visitor center first.
Valley View Overlook
Valley View Overlook is a short 0.8 mile trail that features 360 degree views of the surrounding saguaro-covered valley. From the parking lot, you will walk approximately 300 ft before crossing the Bajada Wash Trail. Right after crossing the Bajada Wash, the trail splits into two: Valley View to your left and Wild Dog to your right. Continue left all the way to the top of the hill. On your way back, I recommend walking part of the Wild Dog Trail. This is where we saw some of the largest cacti in the park.
Signal Hill Picnic Area
From the Valley View Overlook parking lot, you have two options to reach the Signal Hill Picnic Area. You can either walk the remainder of the Wild Dog Trail (about 1 mi/ 1.6 km) to the intersection between the Bajada Loop and the Signal Hill pullout or drive on the Bajada Loop until you reach the pullout.
Signal Hill Picnic Area is the best place to stop for lunch in the park. There you’ll find several shaded picnic tables built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as well as the Cactus Wren trail and its hidden treasure!
The Signal Hill Trail is a 0.3 mile trail located near Signal Hill Picnic Area. Signal Hill Trail is part of the Cactus Wren Trail and leads to a historical landmark. About 1,600 years ago, the Hohokam people inhabited the lands that now make up Saguaro National Park. Today, the large rocky site of Signal Hill serves as a testimony of their long-gone civilization
The Signal Hill Petroglyphs are of great historical, cultural, and spiritual significance. When visiting the petroglyphs, stay on the trail, do not touch the petroglyphs or write/ carve on any rock. This is considered vandalism and punishable by law.
Cactus Forest Drive
If you have a full day to dedicate to Saguaro National Park, I recommend getting back on I-10 after lunch and heading to Saguaro East. Keep in mind that the drive between both sections of the park can take over an hour depending on traffic. In Saguaro East, drive the paved Cactus Forest Drive and stop at the overlooks. I recommend hiking either the Freeman Homestead (1 mi/ 1.6 km) or the Desert Ecology Trail (0.25 mi/ 0.4 km).
With more time
With more time in Saguaro National Park, consider hiking some of the backpacking trails located on the northern end of the Cactus Forest Drive.