Saguaro National Park has two sections which flank Tucson, Arizona on the east and west.  Both sections of the park were created primarily to protect the magnificent Saguaro Cacti. Both sections are very different places to enjoy.  Saguaro Park East, the Rincon Mountain District, was originally a National Monument established in 1933. In the 1960’s there was a decline in the number of cacti in the Rincon Mountain District. The park service worked to add another remarkable stand of saguaro cacti on the western side of Tucson, what is now known as Saguaro Park West, the Tucson Mountain District, and Saguaro National Park was created. The park is located in the northeast corner of the Sonoran Desert.

Plants of Saguaro National Park

Some of the plant life of the Saguaro National Park West


A typical mix of flora in Saguaro National Park West

The Tucson Mountain District (West) offers a 5 mile scenic loop drive. There are several trailheads and the Signal Hill Picnic Area, which has ancient petroglyphs. The Red Hills Visitor Center offers a film throughout the day and numerous exhibits on the region. The western section is located at a slightly lower elevation, and has more desert and arid conditions. There are western views of wide open plains. From Saguaro National Park West’s higher elevations, Tucson can be viewed to the east. This section of the park is located next to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and could be combined for those with limited time.


Cholla cactus

Hiking in the Saguaro West Unit: We hiked the Thunderbird, Cactus Canyon, Coyote Pass, and Gila Monster Trails for a lollipop hike of 7.5-8 miles. This hike starts from the El Camino del Cerro Trailhead. It winds through desert terrain with excellent stands of Saguaro, Cholla, Ocatillo, Prickly Pear, Barrel Cacti and other desert plants such as yucca and agave. The trail travels through a canyon and offers excellent views of Tucson. There is some travel through washes and several hundred feet of elevation change. We saw numerous birds, including Cactus Wrens, and several small lizards. There are trail markers at the junctions. There are no facilities at the trailhead, so come prepared and bring plenty of water.

Hker Thunderbird Trail

Hiking on the Thunderbird Trail in Saguaro West


Flowers of the desert


Lizard viewed along Thunderbird Trail

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren perched atop a Saguaro

We also hiked a shorter loop hike of about 2.5 miles from the King Canyon Trailhead that included the Gould Mine Trail, the Sendero Esperanza Trail and the King Canyon Trail. It included a couple hundred feet of elevation change. We saw similar cacti and wildlife as the prior trail. There were no facilities at this trailhead, but it is very close to the Red Hills Visitor Center where restrooms and a water filling station are available. This is a good short hike to combine with a trip to the western unit visitor center and loop drive.

Sendero Esperanza Trail

View from the Sendero Esperanza Trail


Saguaros are on display

desert flower

Flowers of the desert

The Rincon Mountain District (East) sits at a slightly higher elevation, has a greater variety of landscape and flora, including pinyon and juniper forests. There are sections of grasslands and more wildlife activity. The eastern section offers an 8 mile loop drive with numerous trailheads and picnic areas. The Rincon Visitor Center offers a film and exhibits. There are views of Tucson and the surrounding mountain ranges.  North of the visitor center is a network of trails that wind through the cactus forest. There are multi-day hiking opportunities with 6 different back country campgrounds, the only camping in the park, that vary from grasslands with juniper trees at 4,800 feet in elevation to the pine and fir forests of 8,000 feet. The Rincon Mountain District protects the western and southern slopes of the Rincon Mountains.

Saguaro East flora

The flora of Saguaro East is more diverse

Hiking in the Saguaro East Unit: We chose to explore the Cactus Forest area for our day hike. We parked at the Loma Verde Trailhead, which does not have any facilities, so stop at the Rincon Visitor Center for restrooms or water filling.  We made a loop following: Loma Verde to Squeeze Pan, Carrilla, Deer Valley, Monument Wash, Pink Hill (including optional overlook), Cholla and Loma Verde trails for a combined distance of about 5 miles.  The trails wound through cacti and other treed areas (mequite, junipers), washes including one with water, and had several hundred feet of elevation gain. There were grassy areas and a much broader diversity of plants than the western unit hikes. During this hike we saw several roadrunners, lizards, other birds including cactus wrens, and two jackrabbits. We also had a special sighting of our first ever gila monster in the wild.

Gila Monster

Our first wild sighting of a Gila Monster, a venomous lizard

Cactus Forest

Hiking through the Cactus Forest and the Rincon Mountains

Saguaro birdhouse

Sagauro Birdhouse

Ghost Saguaro

“Ghost Saguaro” shows the ribs which allow expansion with water during sparse rains


Saguaro Cacti and the Santa Catalina Mountains

Saguaro National Park East

Saguaro National Park East

Trail sign Saguaro National Park

Trails in the Cactus Forest are well labelled at junctions

Cristate Saguaro

We spotted a Cristate or “Crested” Saguaro Top

Travel time between the two units is about one hour. We highly recommend visiting both sections of Saguaro National Park. We hiked in both units. All trails are available on the National Park Newspaper which is available for free at both units. Plan your hikes for early in the day during the warm spring and hot summer days. All of the hikes involved significant sun exposure, so bring sunscreen, hats and possibly long pants and long sleeved hiking shirts. We stayed at the Tucson KOA in our RV while visiting Saguaro National Park.

Share This