Saguaro National Park is a beautiful outdoor recreation area where you can hike, bike, walk, run, or picnic with family and friends all year long.
Saguaro National Park is divided into two sections called districts:
The Tucson Mountain District (WEST) Visitor Center - which is also called the Red Hills Visitor Center - is located at 2700 N. Kinney Rd and is approximately 15 miles west of the center of the city of Tucson.
The Rincon Mountain District (EAST) Visitor Center is located at 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail and is approximately 20 miles east of the city center.
Another way to think about this is that the two districts are almost 37 miles away from each other, which is about one hour from visitor center to visitor center. If you are visiting Tucson for a short trip, you will likely only want to visit one of the districts. You will be able to enjoy great hiking, biking, and picnicking areas regardless of which one you choose to explore.
President Herbert Hoover established the monument on March 1, 1933. The West district was acquired in 1961 due to a major freeze that occurred in the eastern side of Tucson during the early half on the century. Congress later elevated Saguaro to National Park status on October 14, 1994.
The park was first created to protect and preserve the giant saguaro - the largest cactus in the United States (plus, many other kinds of cactus - including barrel, cholla, and prickly pear).
You can walk or bike into the park 24 hours a day.
In the Rincon Mountain District (east), the vehicle gate is open daily from 5:00am to sunset. In the Tucson Mountain District (west), the park is open to vehicles from sunrise to sunset daily.
Visitor Center hours are as follows:
Inside the visitor center, you can find information about the park and things to do, as well as purchase items such as books, post cards, and posters.
Restrooms with running water and mirrors are open 24 hours at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center to serve bicyclists and hikers; a pit toilet is available at both the Javelina and Mica View picnic areas.
Restrooms are also available at the Red Hills Visitor Center at Saguaro National Park West, but note that the visitor center restrooms are locked at night. Pit toilets along the loop drive are still open later though.
Both are pretty spectacular. If you are just passing through and/or have never been to Arizona, we recommend Saguaro National Park WEST due to the fact that it has a larger "population" of saguaro cacti. Plus, you'll be able to squeeze in a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. That said, the EAST district has plenty of opportunities for photography and hiking as well.
Vehicle permits are $25; the permit admits one vehicle and all its passengers. If you arrive on foot or by bicycle, you can purchase an individual permit for $15. Kids 15 and under are always admitted free of charge.
Permits to Saguaro National Park are good for seven days and includes both the Tucson Mountain District (West) and the Rincon Mountain District (East).
If you plan to visit SNP frequently, you can purchase an Annual Pass for $45. The annual pass is valid for twelve months from the date of purchase for unlimited visits to Saguaro National Park. It admits the purchaser and any accompanying persons in a single, private, non-commercial vehicle or the pass holder and three persons (16 and older) where per person entrance fees are charged.
Admission is free for those who have the America the Beautiful Annual Pass, Senior Pass, Access Pass, Military Pass, or 4th Grade Pass.
The National Park Service offers the following fee-free days in 2023:
Prepare for a perfect day in the sun with good walking shoes (preferably closed-toe), sunglasses, a hat, and lightweight/breathable clothing.
Without question, water will be your most important concern while visiting Saguaro National Park. Surface water is generally scarce during most of the year. At times, it is non-existent. Carry at least one gallon of water per person per day (more if the temperatures are high).
Sun-protective clothing, sunglasses, sunscreen, snacks, and a camera are also recommended.
October thru April are ideal because the temperatures tend to be more moderate than in the summer months. That said, you can still enjoy Saguaro National Park in the summer if you go in the wee hours of the morning. Park officials recommend that all hikers be back at the trailhead by 10:00am when outside temperatures exceed 100 degrees.
Spring annuals bloom from late February through mid-April. The Saguaro bloom from late April through June.
Sunrise and sunset offer the advantage of being less crowded. That said, ANY time of day is a good time to be outdoors.
The park is home to jackrabbits, packrats, mountain lions, coyotes, rattlesnakes, javelinas, and gila monsters. Depending on the time and day of your visit, you may see some (or none) of the above animals.
Driving at Saguaro National Park East
Saguaro National Park East is known for its Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, which is open from 5:00am to 6:00pm or 8:00pm, depending on the time of year. This paved 8.3 mile road provides access to two picnic areas and several hiking trailheads. Note that trailers/RVs longer than 35 feet or any vehicle wider than 8 feet are not permitted.
Driving at Saguaro National Park West
In the Tucson Mountain District (West), The Bajada Loop Scenic Drive (Golden Gate Road and Hohokam Road) is open to vehicles daily during daylight hours.
Picnics at Saguaro National Park East
There are two picnic areas in Saguaro National Park East - Javelina and Mica View. No water is available at picnic areas or on the loop drive. Parking is free and conveniently located next to the picnic sites, most of which are shaded.
The Javelina Picnic area has grills and most of the tables are shaded. The Tanque Verde Ridge Trail leaves from this picnic area. There is a pit toilet at this picnic area, but no running water.
The Mica View Picnic area has a pit toilet, grills, tables, and one large covered picnic shelter. There are many trail opportunities (all of them good for kids) that leave from this area going out into the cactus forest. Families could plan a 20-minute walk or a full day hike in the cactus forest. Note that there is no running water at Mica View.
Picnics at Saguaro National Park West
Saguaro NP West has 6 officially picnic areas (Mam-a-gah, Sus, Sendero Esperanza, Ez-Kim-In-Zin, Signal Hill, and Cam-Boh), all of which can be reached via car except Mam-a-gah (hike in only).
Reservations are not taken for picnic areas in Saguaro National Park. They are first come, first served. Picnicking is free with park admission.
If you are planning an event or large gathering, contact the park to determine if a special use permit is required.
Bicycling at Saguaro National Park East
A popular way to enjoy the park is to bike around one of the scenic loop drives. The Cactus Forest Loop Drive in the Rincon Mountain District (east) is an 8.3-mile paved loop.
Trail riding is permitted only on the 2.5 mile multi-use portion of the Cactus Forest Trail in Saguaro National Park East, which is circled by the Cactus Forest Loop Drive. The trail may be ridden in either direction, but you may not ride against traffic on the one-way portion of the Cactus Forest Loop Drive if you exit the trail on the north end.
Trail riding is also permitted on the shared-use 2.5 mile Hope Camp Trail, located off of Camino Loma Alta at the south boundary of Saguaro East.
Bicycling at Saguaro National Park West
When picking a district based on cycling, we recommend that you choose the East side as the options are very limited in the West district. However, in the past few years, the Golden-Gate Multi-Use Trail was added at the West district that allows for trail riding (5mi round-trip).
Hiking at Saguaro National Park East
There are approximately 128 miles of trails that wind through the desert and mountain country of Saguaro East. A hike in Saguaro National Park can be a stroll on a day trail or a long wilderness trek.
To reach the hiking trails from the visitor center, you must drive into the park on the Loop Drive. The first trailhead is accessed in about 2 miles and begins at the Mica View Picnic Area. There are several trailheads with parking off the Loop Drive. Trailheads are also reached from the east end of Speedway Blvd where it dead ends at the Douglas Spring trailhead; the Broadway trailhead; and from Camino Loma Alta, off Old Spanish Trail, about 7 miles south of the park’s entrance.
Hiking at Saguaro National Park West
Saguaro NP West has 40+ miles of trails within this district.
At Saguaro National Park West, consider Signal Hill (0.3mi round-trip to petroglyphs), Valley View (0.8mi round-trip to a lookout point), Wild Dog Trail (1.8 miles), King Canyon/Gould Mine Loop (2.4 miles), or Sendero Esperanza Trail to the Ridge/To Wasson Peak (3.4 to 8 miles).
Camping at Saguaro National Park East
There are no campgrounds accessible by road in the park, but you can venture out into the desert and go "backcountry camping" at 6 designated campgrounds located within the Saguaro Wilderness area. The site closest to a road is the Douglas Spring Campground, which requires a 5.9 mile hike. The other five campgrounds are : Manning Camp, Spud Rock, Happy Valley, Juniper Basin, and Grass Shack. A permit is required for all overnight stays, with a fee of $8.00 per campsite per night. Refunds for cancelled camping permits are not available, but camping trips may be rescheduled within the next 2 months at no additional cost.
There are no overnight accommodations for recreational vehicles in the park. Consider Cactus Country RV Resort (approximately 10 miles south).
Camping at Saguaro National Park West
There is no camping within Saguaro NP West; however, you may want to consider the Gilbert Ray Campground, which is about 5 miles down the road.
The Jr Ranger Program is offered at both districts and is the same for both the east and west district. Visitors can start and finish the book at one district or start in one district and finish it in the other.
Weddings require a special use permit. To obtain a special use permit, print an application form from the park's website. Complete the application and mail it to the park at 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson AZ 85730. Costs can vary depending on the ceremony and other administrative needs.
For questions, please call (520) 733-5113 for events in the Rincon Mountain District (East) or (520) 733-5116 for events in the Tucson Mountain District (West).
That just about covers it. Have a great time!