Saguaro (pronounced ‘suh-WAH-roh’) National Park is an arid wonderland nestled in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. The park itself is split into two unique areas, with the city of Tucson situated right in between them.
There are many great reasons to visit the park – the abundance of wildlife, the unbelievable sunrises and sunsets, and the amazing plant diversity to name a few – but most people are here for the park’s namesake headliner, the saguaro cactus. We couldn’t get enough of these prickly giants, and it’s easy to see why visitors “oooh” and “aaah” over them.
If you’re looking for the best things to do in Saguaro National Park – including the best places to see these wonderful cacti – then this guide is for you. We spent some time in both districts of this park and are excited to share our favorite things about Saguaro National Park.
In this guide – The Best Things to do in Saguaro National Park
1) Watch the sunrise at Valley View Overlook
2) Find the Signal Hill Petroglyphs
3) Drive the Cactus Forest Loop
4) Drive along the Bajada Loop Drive
5) Take a hike through the Cactus Forest
6) Explore the Desert Discovery Nature Trail
Saguaro is split into two districts – Saguaro National Park East and Saguaro National Park West. We’ve specified east or west in each of the activities below.
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1. Watch the sunrise at Valley View Overlook
There is something special about sunrise in the desert. When it catches those first rays, everything turns brilliant shades red and orange that will stop you in your tracks. Of the two days we had in Saguaro, we made it a point to get up at least one of those mornings before the sun so we could catch the sunrise.
While there are several good places to watch it, we settled on driving to Saguaro West and driving Hohokam Road out to the Valley View Overlook Trail. From here, it’s just a short hike out to the overlook. As the morning sun kisses the valley below, the Saguaro forest comes alive, and it’s really something.
Allow yourself 30 minutes before sunrise to drive from the park entrance and to hike the trail to the overlook. Sonoran wildlife is active at this time of day, so be on the lookout for javalinas and other animals. We weren’t quick enough to get a photo, but if your’re lucky, you’ll get to see some.
For sunsets, check out Tanque Verde Ridge trail or the Javelina Rocks pull out in Saguaro East or Gates Pass in Saguaro West.
2. Signal Hill Petroglyphs
Another stop along the Bajada Scenic Loop in Saguaro West is Signal Hill. This area is home to 200 prehistoric Native American petroglyphs that date back to between about 550 to 1550 years ago.
A day trip out to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument kept us from stopping, but Signal Hill is a popular place to visit. Petroglyphs similar to those found here can be found all over the region, and Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, NM is one of our favorites.
To get here, you can continue on Hohokam Road from Valley View Overlook or begin at Kinney Road and start driving the Bajada Scenic Loop from the other direction.
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3. Cactus Forest Loop Drive
Saguaro East / Rincon Mountain District is the quieter of the two districts, so if you’re looking for an easy drive with less traffic, consider the Cactus Forest Loop Drive. This 8-mile loop offers several pull-outs and overlooks, and is a great way to see the park. From the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center, plan on taking an hour or so to make the drive comfortably and to allow time for a few photos.
For those interested in hiking, there are several trailheads that are accessible from this loop. Backcountry campers will depart from here as well, as there is no camping in Saguaro West.
4. Take a drive along the Bajada Loop Drive
If you’ve been to Valley View or Signal Hill, then you’ve already driven much of this loop, but it’s worth noting that this drive through Saguaro West is beautiful in its own right. The unpaved road begins past the Red Hills Visitor Center on Hohokam Road and winds its way around to the Bajada Loop, 2-way road and back down to Kinney Road.
From here you can see all that Saguaro has to offer, including plants, wildlife, and of course, Saguaro cactus. Although the road is unpaved, it is suitable for most vehicles – no high-clearance vehicle required.
If you only have a short amount of time to visit, wake up early and drive the Bajada Loop.
5. Take a hike through the Cactus Forest
With 165 miles of hiking trails shared between the two districts, it’s not hard to find some cool cacti. Consider hiking one of the many trails through the Cactus Forest in Saguaro East. Mica View Trail and the Desert Ecology Trail are short, wheelchair-accessible, and great for families. Several others are longer and more challenging.
As with any Saguaro National Park hiking adventure, make sure you have plenty of water, sunscreen, and maybe a few snacks. If you set out in the warmer months, start early and make sure you have sunglasses and a hat.
6. Hike the Desert Discovery Nature Trail
The Desert Discovery Nature Trail is located between the Red Hills Visitor Center and Hohokam Road and is a short, half-mile loop with several informational signs describing the plants and wildlife in the park. If you have time and want to learn more about Saguaro National Park, this would be a good place to do it.
Get to know the Saguaro
- The Saguaro cactus only grows in the Sonoran Desert, primarily in southern Arizona and western Sonora, Mexico
- These giants can grow to be 150-200 years old and weigh between 3,200 and 4,800 pounds.
- They are the largest cactus in the United States and can reach nearly 60 feet tall.
When to Visit Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park weather is HOT! It’s the Sonoran Desert. Plan accordingly.
Temperatures here can easily get above 100 degrees for a good portion of the year. The best time to visit Saguaro National Park is winter and avoiding the summer months altogether.
We visited over Thanksgiving break in late November and found it to be perfect. It was cooler in the mornings, but warm enough in the afternoons to shed the jacket and enjoy the sunshine. The winter months are also their busiest time of year, so to beat the crowds, plan to get up early. We think it’s the best time to visit the park anyway, but especially at a park like Saguaro where temperatures can get uncomfortable very quickly in the morning.
If you do visit in the summer, visit early in the morning and explore for a few hours before heading back indoors or to the hotel pool. Then, return in the evenings for some more sightseeing and enjoy the sunset. Since it’s a small park, you’ll still be able to see most everything you want over a couple of days instead of trying to do it all at once.
How to get to Saguaro
For our trip, we stayed in Tucson, and it takes about 30 minutes to get to either district from there.
From Sedona, AZ: 229 miles – 3.5 hours
From Phoenix, AZ: 130 miles – 1 hour 45 minutes
From El Paso, TX: 318 miles – 4 hours 45 minutes
Other nearby National Parks and NPS Sites
Joshua Tree National Park: 403 miles – 6 hours
White Sands National Park: 333 miles – 5 hours
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument: 58 miles – 1.5 hours
Walnut Canyon National Monument: 256 miles – 4 hours
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: 120 miles – 2 hours
Where to stay when visiting Saguaro National Park
There are no hotels in Saguaro National Park, so unless you’re camping in Saguaro East, you’ll need a nearby hotel. For information about camping in Saguaro National Park, click here.
Tucson is full of hotels from basic to luxurious. We opted to use some hotel certificates to splurge at the J.W. Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort and Spa. We were sold on the lazy river and water slide to be honest, but everything about this resort was pretty awesome, and a sunset dinner on the patio was a perfect way to end the day in Tucson.
We loved playing around at the resort in the evenings, and it’s just a short drive over to Saguaro West, which is nice.
Saguaro National Park is so cool!
We can’t recommend a trip to Saguaro National Park enough. It had been on our to-do list for awhile, and it didn’t disappoint. We found that a trip during Thanksgiving break was perfect weather-wise, and we would recommend avoiding summer if you can.
We suggest getting up early to avoid the crowds. We nearly had the park to ourselves for sunrise, which was amazing. If you have questions about visiting this incredible park, let us know in the comments or drop us a line.
Have you visited Saguaro National Park?
Supporting the Western National Parks Association
If you’ve visited a National Park in the Southwest United States, chances are you’ve seen a bookstore or gift shop run by the Western National Parks Association. A portion of sales from their stores goes back to the parks in various ways, and we love how they support local artisans by featuring and selling their goods.
By purchasing a membership, you not only help support the National Parks, but you also get a discount at the stores that you visit. In many cases, that discount reciprocates to stores and associations in other regions. If you’re like us and visit lots of parks throughout the year, it’s a wise investment.
The WNPA has its headquarters and flagship store in Tucson, so if you’re visiting Saguaro, you’re nearly there! Stop in to the store for some great gifts, t-shirts, and souvenirs, and support our parks at the same time.
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