Delve Into the Desert

The saguaro cactus is a symbol of Arizona, standing tall and strong in the Sonoran Desert region. To preserve a dense population of this iconic plant, the Saguaro National Monument was established in 1933 and elevated to national park status in 1994.

The park is split into two districts — the Rincon Mountain District to the east and the Tucson Mountain District to the west — with the city of Tucson, Arizona, sprawling in between.

There is a $25 weekly pass per vehicle to enter the park, which is valid for both districts. The cost for an individual walking or biking is $15 for a weekly pass.

There is a visitor center at each district, open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., which can offer maps, souvenirs and snacks for purchase.

Both areas of the park have wondrous views and hiking trails to offer, with varying features. The east district is far larger, at 67,426 acres, and more mountainous. It was the first section opened in 1933, while the west side was not established until 1961. The west side is smaller but has the highest density of saguaros, which makes it a popular choice.

If you want to catch the desert in bloom, now is a great time for a visit. The saguaros typically bloom from late April to June, with flowers popping up at night and closing midday.

There are loop drives through each district, which provide a nice taste of the saguaros, but to really explore the area, meander down a few trails through each district. The two sides of the park are not that close to each other, about an hour apart. If taking time for hiking, it is recommended to spend one day in each district.

Rincon Mountain East District

From the visitor center, start along the scenic Cactus Forest Drive, which is about an 8-mile paved loop. There will be a few overlooks right away to pull off for sprawling views of the desert, like the Sonoran Desert Overlook and the Cactus Forest Overlook.

One of the first hikes off of the loop is the Mica View Loop, a 2-mile out and back hike starting at the Mica View Picnic Area at the end of Mica View Road (a left turn off of Cactus Forest Drive). This is an easy hike that winds through a group of young saguaros and offers great views of Tanque Verde Peak and Mica Mountain.

Back on Cactus Forest Drive, the Desert Ecology Trail is the next stop, shortly after Mica View Road. This quick, flat, ¼-mile trail circles around several different plant species with plaques explaining the different cacti.

Next up is the Loma Verde Loop, a 3.8-mile trek that is still pretty flat and easy, but covers a bit more ground. After about 1.5 miles, turn right onto the Pink Hill Trail, which leads to a viewpoint of the Tanque Verde Ridge. Follow the Pink Hill Trail to the Squeeze Pen Trail, which will take you back towards to Loma Verde trailhead.

Continue the loop down Cactus Forest Drive a ways to the Javalina Rocks on the right side. The rock formation and a picnic area is just off the road, but for a more strenuous venture, start the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail at this point. The first mile to ascend the ridge is a climb, but rewards with panoramic views of the valley. It is 8.7 miles to reach Tanque Verde Peak, but hikers can turn back at any time to make it a shorter hike, rather than the full 17.4-mile roundtrip.

Tucson Mountain West District

To hit the visitor center first, enter the west district from the south, traveling north on Kinney Road. The visitor center will be on the right hand side of the road. One mile northwest of the visitor center on the left is the trailhead for the Desert Discovery Trail, a short, yet worthwhile loop with lots of interesting saguaros to view. This is a paved trail with a few benches along the way, and is a great spot for viewing the sunset.

About a ½ mile further up Kinney Road, turn right onto Hohokam Road to begin the 6-mile Bajada Loop Drive (this road is not paved). The Valley View Trail, about a mile into the loop, is one not to be missed. It is only .8 miles, but gains a little elevation to end at a beautiful viewpoint spanning the valley with tons of saguaros in sight.

The Wild Dog Trail spurs off of the Valley View Trail for a 2.5-mile out and back adventure. Wild Dog Trail does connect to the other side of the Bajada Loop at the turnoff to Signal Hill Picnic Area. If part of your group wants to hike it, the drivers can pick them up at this point further along the loop, rather than them turning back to the Valley View Trailhead.

There are several other trail systems that venture beyond the Bajada Loop Drive. For more suggestions, visit NPS.gov/sagu.

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

While visiting the west side of the park, plan time to spend at the Arizona Desert Sonora Museum, a curated outdoor walkthrough experience, that features a plethora of desert flora and fauna. The museum is 2.5 miles southeast of the visitor center, along Kinney Road.

Visit the reptile and amphibian hall, cat canyon and the hummingbird aviary for unique looks at a few of the local species. The raptor free flight shows run daily, with these birds soaring freely right above your head as a park ranger explains their unique characteristics. The extensive garden section displays 1,200 different desert plants, from the agave to the prickly pear cactus.

Park hours are 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. October-May and 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m. June-September. Adult admission is $24.95, kids 3-12 are $13.95 and under 3 are free. For more information, visit DesertMuseum.org.