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2 Saguaro National Park Districts in 1 Incredible Itinerary

2 Saguaro National Park Districts in 1 Incredible Itinerary


avatar   Stacy
Trip Date 10/18/2019
Posted On 07/20/2020 09:45:00

Destinations | Camping | Arizona | Tucson | Saguaro National Park | Sonoran Desert | Rincon Mountain District | Tucson Mountain District | Desert | Backcountry | Hiking | Road Trip | Saguaro Cactus



When asked where is the best scenery in the United States, few people will answer with "go to the desert"! In reality, a visit to the Sonoran Desert in Saguaro National Park will rival many other natural attractions within the country. Wide expanses of desert land filled with the indigenous saguaro cactus are a sight to see. The surrounding beauty of the majestic mountains add to the allure of the area.

Located in Tucson, Arizona, the park is a popular destination with backcountry campers. If camping is not for you, bikers, hikers and horseback riders all gravitate to the desert southwest. But that's not all! The Rincon Mountain District and Tucson Mountain District, two sides to the same park, are frequently visited by the young and old with a desire to explore.

While two days in the park may not convince you that the desert is the absolute most beautiful scenery, it will surely be a perfect addition to any road trip through the southwest USA!

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Get to Know the Saguaro Cactus

The Sonoran Desert in Tucson, Arizona is home to some of the largest cacti found anywhere in North America. Because of its unique characteristics, the saguaro (pronounced "sa-WAH-ro") has become an icon often used to represent the whole southwestern United States.


Saguaro Cactus

Saguaro Cactus

It is believed that it can take up to eight years for the slow growing cactus to reach a height of just one inch! Saguaro do not produce flowers until they are about 35 years of age. "Arms" will not branch off of the main "stalk" until the cactus is at least 50 years old.

Since saguaros are thought to live between 150 and 175 years on average, they are not usually referred to as adults until they are about 125 years old. At that age, saguaros weigh in at a hefty six tons (or more) and measure as much as 50 feet in height.

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Introduction to Saguaro National Park

Today's Saguaro National Park is separated into two distinct districts, each with unique entrances. The eastern district is known as the Rincon Mountain District. Much of the land in this district was originally made a national monument in 1933 by Herbert Hoover. At that time, the monument was composed of federal, state and private land. By 1959, all of the land had been traded for or purchased and was owned by the U. S. Government.

Two years later (in 1961), the Tucson Mountain District, or western district, became a part of the national monument. It wasn't until 1994 that the monument was "promoted" to national park status.


Saguaro National Park's West District Entrance

Saguaro National Park's West District Entrance

The entrance fee for Saguaro National Park is waived for those with an Interagency Pass such as the America the Beautiful National Park Pass. Without a pass, the entrance fee is $25.00 per standard private vehicle for seven days. Those entering by motorcycle are required to pay $20.00 for the week and individuals on foot or by bicycle are charged $15.00 per person over age 15.

Between the two districts, you'll find over 165 miles of hiking trails ranging from short paved walks to more strenuous and lengthy hikes. Camping is offered only in the east (Rincon Mountain District), and all sites are backcountry with no facilities of any kind. Although there are no concessions available on either of the park's two sides, both visitor centers do have water fountains.

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Planning a Visit to Saguaro National Park

The park's high season (busy season) is during the winter months of November through March. It is then when temperatures range from the upper 50's to the mid-70's and are the coolest. Wildflowers as well as some cactus blooms can be seen beginning in late February.


Cactus Bloom at Saguaro National Park

Cactus Bloom at Saguaro National Park

Although temperatures will be warmer, the crowds will be lighter when the saguaros bloom from late April until late June. The time period running from mid-June through the end of September is known as monsoon season. That's when severe thunderstorms, known as "monsoons", bring rain (and often flash floods) to the desert - often on a daily basis.

Getting a taste of both districts within the national park can be done in a single day. If you have the time, however, consider spending part of one day in the east and part of another day in the west. Splitting your time between two days allows you to get some good exercise and hiking done - and not all on the same day!

Our incredible itinerary which will introduce you to both districts within Saguaro National Park begins here. Start in either the east or west, and see as much as possible in the time that you have!

Saguaro West - Tucson Mountain District

The Tucson Mountain District sits at a lower elevation and has a higher density of younger saguaro cacti as well as many other unique desert plants. The nearly 24,500 acres of park land includes a five mile gravel loop road for vehicle traffic plus over 40 miles of hiking trails.

Keep your eyes peeled and cameras ready as you never know what you'll see. In addition to awesome views, you may spot a coyote crossing the road and even a dust devil in the distance.


Can You Spot the Dust Devils?

Can You Spot the Dust Devils?

Plan for a minimum of about five hours at Saguaro West. Do prepare yourself for the reality that, similar to most other remote areas, cell phone coverage in the desert will likely be spotty. (Our coverage with Verizon was intermittent and T-Mobile's coverage was limited, at best.)

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Start at the Red Hills Visitor Center

Begin exploring the western district with a visit to the Red Hills Visitor Center located on Kinney Road. In addition to having souvenirs in the book store, "Voices of the Desert" is shown on a regular schedule each day. With awesome photos taken throughout the year, the 15 minute orientation video provides an overview of what to expect during each season. The park ranger staff is also very helpful in answering questions and making recommendations about what to see and do as well as hikes to consider to fill your available time.


Red Hills Visitor Center at Saguaro West

Red Hills Visitor Center at Saguaro West

Before driving to your next stop, make sure to step outside to see the great view from the overlook at the Visitor Center. Seek out the "How far can you see?" panel and try to find everything pictured. (We were able to see all but the two furthest peaks during our visit!)


How Far Can You See?

How Far Can You See?

Take a Stroll on the Desert Discovery Nature Trail

Located just one mile further down Kinney Road from the Visitor Center, the Desert Discovery Nature Trail (on the left) is an excellent hike to start off your day. You'll get a chance to feel the dry, hot desert temperatures as well as the intensity of the sun on a short paved loop trail. The easy trail even has benches with shade coverings located throughout its 1/2 mile long distance.

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Signage along the trail will answer many of your questions about the history of the park and its resident plants and animals. As you look up, down and all around, you'll find plenty of photo opportunities. See how many of the different varieties of cacti (hopefully some in bloom) you can identify. Find the tallest saguaro along the trail. Try to spot a lizard or other animal scurrying across your path. Sadly, you may even notice a dead or dying saguaro along your hike.


Hiking the Desert Discovery Nature Trail

Hiking the Desert Discovery Nature Trail

Desert Landscape in Saguaro National Park

Desert Landscape in Saguaro National Park

That's One Tall Saguaro! (and a Deceased Saguaro)

That's One Tall Saguaro! (and a Deceased Saguaro)

Blooming Cacti

Blooming Cacti

Keep Your Eyes on that Lizard that is Watching You!

Keep Your Eyes on that Lizard that is Watching You!

Don't Touch!

Don't Touch!

Explore More of Saguaro National Park on the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive

Just over 1/2 mile further down Kinney Road, you'll approach the intersection with Hohokam Road (on your right). This is the starting point for the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive. The six mile long gravel/dirt loop begins as a two-way road leading to Sus Picnic Area and the Hugh Norris Trail. At that point a section of the road is one-way (in the direction that you are headed by following this itinerary) before returning to two-way traffic once again.

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Hike a Part of the Hugh Norris Trail

At almost five miles in each direction, the Hugh Norris Trail is the longest in Saguaro West. The trailhead can be found on the right, just under one mile from the start of the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive. If you are interested in some real hiking, this trail is known as one of the favorite "long trails with an elevation gain" within the entire park! Because of the difficulty of the trail, all hikers are requested to sign in and out at the trailhead.


Signing in at the Hugh Norris Trailhead

Signing in at the Hugh Norris Trailhead

If you are trying to see more of the park in a shorter amount of time, do what we did. Decide how much time you have to devote to this hike and then cut that time in half. While carefully watching your time, begin your hike up. Stop when you reach your calculated time for one-half of your hike. After taking a short break, return to the trailhead along the same path. (We chose one hour for our entire hike and stopped right at the 30 minute mark to begin our descent.)

The gravel trail begins immediately heading toward the sky along a series of switchbacks. After climbing a number of intermediate level steps, you'll reach a ridge where you'll have an outstanding view of the cactus forest below.


Sailing above the Cactus Forest

Sailing above the Cactus Forest

Looking Up . . . If Only We had More Time!

Looking Up . . . If Only We had More Time!

Taking in The Surrounding Beauty as We Hike!

Taking in The Surrounding Beauty as We Hike!

Short Break on the Hugh Norris Trail

Short Break on the Hugh Norris Trail

Interesting Trail-Side "Rock Stacks"

Interesting Trail-Side "Rock Stacks"

View of the Cactus Forest

View of the Cactus Forest

Once you make your way back down to the trailhead, make sure to sign out!

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Hike the Valley View Overlook Trail

The trailhead for the Valley View Overlook Trail (on the left) is one mile further down the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive. (It's at this point that the road allows one-way traffic only - until the intersection with Golden Gate Road.)

Although the trail is not quite as well marked as other trails within the park, at less than a mile long round trip, it's worth your time. Your hike will take you past the Bajada Wash Trail and the Dobe Wash Trail before a gradual upward slope. (Make sure to go up toward the Wild Dog Trail at the point where the three trails intersect. You'll then veer off to the left.)


Where Do We Go From Here?

Where Do We Go From Here?

Once on the ridge, you'll enjoy views of Avra Valley and Picacho Peak.

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Enjoy a Snack in the Ez-Kim-In-Xin Picnic Area

It's time for a break and there's no better place to enjoy a snack that in the Ez-Kim-In-Xin Picnic Area. To reach it, continue on the one-way Scenic Bajada Loop Drive until the intersection with Golden Gate Road (about one mile). Turn right and drive just over one mile until you reach the picnic area.

One of the many projects during the 1930s of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was at Saguaro National Park. In addition to some much need infrastructure improvements, the men built facilities that would allow guests to better enjoy their visit to the park. One example of their work was these picnic facilities. (Look for panels around the park to learn more about the work of the CCC!)


Exemplary Work of the CCC Boys

Exemplary Work of the CCC Boys

In addition to both covered and uncovered picnic tables (many with a view), the picnic area has a toilet and grills. Do make sure to watch out for bees who will probably want to share your snack!


Which View is Better?

Which View is Better?

View from the Ez-Kim-In-Xin Picnic Area

View from the Ez-Kim-In-Xin Picnic Area

Hike the Signal Hill Petroglyphs Trail

At this point, retrace your route on Golden Gate Road until you reach the intersection with Scenic Bajada Loop Drive. Stay on Golden Gate Road (the only way you can legally travel as the road is one way in the opposite direction). You'll now have the opportunity to complete the loop.

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In just over a mile, you'll approach the turn-off to Signal Hill (on your right). In addition to another picnic/rest area, the 1/2 mile Signal Hill Petroglyphs Trail will bring you to the largest petroglyph site in Saguaro West. Follow the gravel path and rock steps to the top of the rocky hill.

It's reported that there are over 200 petroglyphs attributed to the Hohokam society that are thought to date back as many as 1500 years. In addition to those at the top of the hill, we found our favorite petroglyphs by looking up when standing at the "Rattlesnake Area" sign and near some of the picnic tables.


Petroglyphs atop Signal Hill

Petroglyphs atop Signal Hill

Viewing the Petroglyphs from our Downward Hike

Viewing the Petroglyphs from our Downward Hike

Close-ups of Some of our Favorites!

Close-ups of Some of our Favorites!

Walk the Cactus Garden and Javelina Wash Trails

After exploring Signal Hill, it's time to complete the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive. Once you reach Kinney Road, return to the Red Hills Visitor Center where you'll wrap up your visit with two very short walks in Saguaro West.

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Find the 100 yard long paved Cactus Garden Trail in front of the Visitor Center. The interpretive signage will be a great reminder of some of the desert plants that you saw throughout your day.


Cactus Garden Trail

Cactus Garden Trail

Start the 600 foot long gravel Javelina Wash Trail to the right of the Visitor Center. Your walk will take you through the wash and conclude by climbing steps to return to the parking lot. We got lucky and encountered a large number of butterflies during our afternoon walk!


Red Hills Visitor Center

Red Hills Visitor Center

Saguaro East - Rincon Mountain District

While there are some definite similarities between the two districts, there are also noticeable differences. In general, the saguaros are older and are more sparsely populated around the almost 67,000 acres that make up the Rincon Mountain District. There's an 8 mile paved scenic loop with numerous overlooks. Because of the higher elevation of the eastern district, there's some awesome sweeping views of the mountains at many of the overlooks.

If you can spare the time, don't miss visiting Saguaro East. Unless you want to devote extra time hiking on more of the 128 miles of trails, you can get a good taste of the district in as few as three hours. Our phone and data coverage was much more reliable with both Verizon and T-Mobile on this side - but don't waste your time on your phone when you can be exploring!

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Start at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center

It's recommended that you start exploring the park's eastern district at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center. Although the visitor center is smaller in scale, the park rangers are just as helpful with making suggestions and answering questions. The same pre-recorded program, "Voices of the Desert", is available for viewing on a regular schedule.

Before leaving the Visitor Center complex, check out the souvenir offerings as well as the outdoor "Cactus Garden" exhibit about the desert plants. It's there that you'll find the Centennial Saguaro. In 1966, the 50 year old saguaro was transplanted in front of the Saguaro East Visitor Center to commemorate the National Park Service's (NPS) 50th anniversary. Both the NPS and the saguaro celebrated 100 years in 2016.


Centennial Saguaro

Centennial Saguaro

Drive the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop

Skyline Loop Road was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1936 and 1939. The narrow paved road was originally designed to allow visitors to travel the optimal path to enjoy the surrounding scenery. Although the name was changed to Cactus Forest Drive, the purpose and general design remain the same.

Plan for a leisurely drive along the 8 mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop. If the beauty of the Rincon and Santa Catalina Mountain Ranges or the frequent scenic overlooks don't force you to drive slowly, the numerous switchbacks surely will! (Be on the lookout for hikers and cyclers who often share the road with motor vehicles.)

Most of the road allows one-way traffic only. (The small section between the Visitor Center and Javelina Picnic Area is open for two-way traffic.) Following the clockwise loop, a drive through the desert with stops to see, read, learn and photograph will take the majority of visitors a minimum of 45 minutes to one hour. Adding in a picnic, some longer stops or a little hiking will easily double or triple the amount of time that you'll want.

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Soak in the View at the Sonoran Desert Overlook

Bypass the Future Generations Overlook and head straight for the second overlook. Believe it or not, rain in the area falls during both summer and winter. The Sonoran Desert Overlook provides an excellent view of the lush cactus and other desert plants.


Desert & Mountain View from Sonoran Desert Overlook

Desert & Mountain View from Sonoran Desert Overlook

Stop at the Cactus Forest Overlook, One of the Park's Best

Although the view from the Cactus Forest Overlook is similar, it's worth a stop to read the interesting panel titled, "Where Have All the Saguaros Gone?".


Survival of the Saguaros

Survival of the Saguaros

Take a Break at the Mica View Picnic Area

If you are in need of a break, a stop at the Mica View Picnic Area is your place. A short gravel road on your left will take you from the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop to a picnic area with a view. There's a covered group picnic area as well as uncovered individual tables.

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Walk along the Desert Ecology Trail

Continuing on the loop drive, a short distance further on your left you'll see the start of the Desert Ecology Trail. One of the park's most popular hikes, the trail is paved and flat as well as short and easy! In addition to interpretive signage about the plant and animal life, there's also park benches along the 1/3 mile loop trail.


Trailhead for Desert Ecology Trail

Trailhead for Desert Ecology Trail

A Sampling of Plant Life Along the Desert Ecology Trail

A Sampling of Plant Life Along the Desert Ecology Trail

Hike North or South along the Cactus Forest Trail

A short distance past the Desert Ecology Trail, you'll find two trailheads for the Cactus Forest Trail. Decide how much time you can spare and choose your direction - or hike both north and south for a short distance to get a taste of the trail. While the gravel trail does have some slight inclines and descents, the hike is quite easy. As the trail is shared by hikers, bikers and equestrians, do be on the lookout for horse droppings as you step!

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We got in 30 minutes of exercise by heading north for about 15 minutes before our return hike to our car. Within less than 10 minutes of beginning our hike, we saw some interesting remnants of the Cactus Shack, a CCC structure! We would have loved to have hiked all of the way to the Lime Kilns Historic Site, but knew that we didn't have enough time.


Remnants from the CCC Cactus Shack

Remnants from the CCC Cactus Shack

Younger Cactus in Saguaro East

Younger Cactus in Saguaro East

Choose from Views at the Riparian or Rincon Mountains Overlooks

Make a brief stop at either the Riparian Overlook or Rincon Mountains Overlook for a scenic view looking down over the valley and mountainside.


View from Riparian Overlook

View from Riparian Overlook

Can't Get Enough of These Saguaros

Can't Get Enough of These Saguaros

Keep an Eye Out for Wildlife from the Javelina Rocks Overlook

The view at Javelina Rocks Overlook is quite different than most of the others along the loop. Named after the javelinas inhabiting the area, scorpions, squirrels and rattlesnakes also take shelter in the rocks.


View from Javelina Rocks Overlook

View from Javelina Rocks Overlook

Enjoy a Picnic with a View at the Javelina Picnic Area

You're in the home stretch of your drive! Next up is a stop at the Javelina Picnic Area for a snack or lunch. A short paved spur off of the loop on your left will bring you to plenty of parking for the picnic tables with grills and nearby toilets. It's a short walk to get to each of the covered tables. Once you've found your favorite, enjoy the seclusion and the view from the foothills of the Rincon Mountains.


Enjoy a Break at the Javelina Picnic Area

Enjoy a Break at the Javelina Picnic Area

Between this picnic area and the Visitor Center, the loop road is open for two way traffic. Depending on your timing, you could also head toward this picnic area and the following hike at the start of your day. If you still plan to drive the entire loop, you'll then be passing this area again on your exit.

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Complete the Activities as you Follow the Freeman Homestead Nature Trail

Sharing the same spur road, the Freeman Homestead Nature Trail is fun for most members of the family. The relatively easy gravel loop one-mile trail starts out flat followed by some very shallow wide steps. The trail passes a grove of cactus on its way to the main attraction, the pioneer homestead for which the trail is named.

Panels along the trail include a Children's Corner with activities fun for the young (and not so young). There's also signage about the plant life along the trail. Beyond that, ankle height arrows direct hikers down to a wash before looping back up.


Freeman Homestead Nature Trail

Freeman Homestead Nature Trail

Living Desert Overlook

The panel on the last of the pullouts on Cactus Forest Scenic Loop tells more about how animals survive in the desert. If you are yearning for one more view before bidding adieu to Saguaro East, the Living Desert Overlook is a great opportunity!


One Angle from the Living Desert Overlook

One Angle from the Living Desert Overlook

Know Before You Go!

Those who are not accustomed to desert hiking need to be aware that safe hiking in the Sonoran Desert requires advance preparation. Here's just a few items to remember before setting off on any hike within the national park:

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  • Dress appropriately for your hike. Properly tied, good hiking shoes are a must. Cover exposed parts of your body with sunscreen. Finally, wear a hat and sunglasses.
  • Be very aware of the temperature and humidity (or lack thereof) on the day that you are planning to hike. During the summer months, temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees. Although temperatures may be lower at other times of the year, the dry air still can pose a danger to hikers.
  • Always carry plenty of water (minimum of one quart per hour of hiking). For longer hikes, it's a good idea to bring some snacks as well (energy bars, etc.). Since no concessions are offered in the park, don't head out to the park without stocking up first.
  • Look before you step . . . and don't put your hands or feet beneath rocks or in any hidden places. You never know where a poisonous rattlesnake, scorpion, Gila monster, Africanized honey bee or other creature has decided to hang out. The desert is also home to plenty of prickly plants that you want to avoid stepping or leaning on, or even brushing against.
  • Cell phone coverage is not reliable in many areas of the park. This makes it difficult or impossible to call a friend or family member (or 9-1-1) for assistance. (It's a good idea to inform someone who is not joining you of your planned whereabouts, including your expected return time.)


Sun Peaking through Saguaro Arms

Sun Peaking through Saguaro Arms

Southwest United States Road Trip

If you'll be taking to the roads in an RV when you visit Saguaro National Park, check out our article titled "3 Week Southwest USA RV Road Trip". In addition to the national park, our route from central Texas took us to state parks and several RV parks. You just might find some additional stops for your road trip!

Saguaro National Park

Which of the two districts of Saguaro National Park is your favorite and why?



2 Saguaro National Park Districts in 1 Incredible Itinerary







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