The Saguaro Cactus has become a symbol of the desert and the American Southwest, but the famous plant is actually only found in a small portion of the American Southwest. And other than putting down roots in northwestern Mexico, it isn’t found anywhere else in the entire world. This fact blew my mind when I visited Saguaro National Park last winter.
I’ve always thought these giant cacti were pretty cool and unique. But I never knew they were only native to a small portion of the world. Learning that made me feel even more privileged to be able to see the amazing plants up close. I also got to see them at Organ Pipe Cactus National Momument.
Saguaro National Park – two districts, one park
Saguaro National Park protects a portion of the Sonoran desert ecosystem, which is so much more than the famous saguaros. Saguaros, which is pronounced Sa-Wah-row, can grow over 40 feet tall and can live more than 150 years.
Saguaro National Park is divided into two districts which flank the city of Tucson, Arizona. The Rincon District is to the east of Tucson and the Tucson Mountain District lies to the west. You can learn more on the park’s website.
The Rincon Mountain District’s elevation climbs higher and showcases more ecosystems. This district of the park ranges in elevation from 2,670 feet to 8,666 feet. Because of the wider range in elevation, visitors can hike from a cactus forest to pine and oak woodlands and mixed conifer forests.
The Tucson Mountain District ranges in elevation from 2,180 to 4,687 feet. It consists of two biotic communities – the desert scrub and desert grassland.
Both districts of the park offer wonderful trails and sites to see and explore. However, if you want to explore the higher elevations in the Rincon Mountain District getting there can be a bit of a trek.
Manning Camp is a backcountry campground near the highest point in the park; however, it is a 7.5-mile hike from the nearest trailhead. So if you are wanting to explore around the top of the Saguaro National Park – Mica Mountain at 8,666 feet – you will either want to plan for an epic day hike of 15 miles or an overnight backpack.
There are two scenic drives at Saguaro National Park. One is in the Rincon Mountain District in the east side of the park, and one is in the Tucson Mountain District in the west side of the park.
Cactus Forest Scenic Loop
The Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive is a paved 8-mile-long loop. It’s mostly one-way, but a portion of it is open to two-way traffic. Several trails begin from this loop, and it’s a great way to explore the lower elevations of the Rincon Mountain District at Saguaro National Park.
At the north side of the loop, numerous short trails crisscross and loop, which is a great way to get out, hike, and explore the cactus forest. You can access these trails at the Mica View Picnic Area, Cactus Forest North Trailhead, or the Loma Verde Trailhead.
Two other short trails you can hike from the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Driver include the Desert Ecology Trail, a 0.3-mile loop, and the Freeman Homestead Trail, a 0.9-mile loop.
Bajada Scenic Loop
The Scenic Bajada Loop Drive is a great way to explore the Tucson Mountain District and the west side of the park. This 6-mile drive begins one and a half miles west of the Red Hill Visitor Center on Hohokam Road. It too is a combination of one-way and two-way traffic. Unlike the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop, it is not paved. However, it is not a bad road and most passenger cars can make it.
Several trails begin along this loop, and two short trails give a big punch. The Valley View Trail is 0.8-miles roundtrip and meanders its way up to the top of the hill. It provides sweeping and wide-open views stretching out way past Saguaro National Park to the west. The desert vegetation is thick, and you get a great taste for the Sonoran Desert life.
Signal Hill is a picnic area, but just a few steps to the top of the hill will give you amazing views all around. You can even view some petroglyphs. The hike is about 0.3-miles roundtrip and will not disappoint! Also, this area is a great place to catch one of those famous Tucson sunsets.
Saguaro National Park does not have any accommodations for camping other than backcountry camping. However, with it being so close to Tucson, there are many other options.
I chose to stay at Gilbert Ray Campground, a Tucson Mountain Park campground. The Tucson Mountain Park is adjacent to the west side of Saguaro National Park. This made it the perfect choice for me. It sits a little higher above the town, and it was nice to look down on the city lights at night.
Gilbert Ray Campground was very clean and inexpensive. And it was nice being close to town in case I needed supplies, like dry shampoo because they do not have showers.
One thing I didn’t like was that I had to drive through Tucson to get to the east side of the park. I like to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city when I visit a national park, but it was worth it.
Saguaro National Park has six backcountry campsites. They are all on the east side of the park in the Rincon Mountain District. Permits are required and can be obtained and reserved at recreation.gov. (https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/10028678) They are $8 a night.
Backcountry sites vary in distance from trailheads, but you will be hiking at least 5-6 miles.
Saguaro National Park has more than 175 miles of trails. Hiking in a cactus forest is interesting and unique to the Sonoran Desert. Trails vary in length and difficulty; however, many trials can be hiked at all skill and ability levels.
To explore the diverse ecosystems, I chose to hike to the summit of Wasson Peak, the highest point on the west side of the park. I didn’t have time to fit in an overnight night, so I chose to not hike into the backcountry.
I still wanted to experience changing ecosystems in one hike, so I chose to hike an 8-mile loop and bag the highest peak of the west side of Saguaro National Park. You can read more about that in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!
Saguaro National Park
The Sonoran Desert is a unique and amazing place. It’s not the desolate dusty image you think of when you think of the desert. It’s green and alive with life. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is in words or accurately describe what it’s like to hike among the giant cacti towering above you.
And if you are in the mood for a little urban atmosphere mixed in with your national park, Saguaro National Park is the place for you! I wanted to explore some of Tucson, go to museums and such. But I hadn’t showered in quite some time, so I just kept to the nature part. That kept me pretty busy and amazed.