Itineraries,  National Park Travel

A Perfect Saguaro National Park Itinerary: 2 or 3 Days in the Sonoran Desert

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I don’t consider myself a botany nerd, but there are some really cool species in the American Southwest. As the harshest climate in our country, the plants (and animals) that have adapted to the deserts of the United States are fascinating. Best of all, our National park system protects many of them: wildflowers bloom in one of the most hostile places on earth (Death Valley); trees grow slowly to preserve energy but withstand the sands of time (Joshua Tree); cacti become so efficient at managing sparse water that they grow to tower over us (Saguaro).

I’ve always loved the iconic saguaro cactus and other aspects of Southwest including its food and history. When I learned about Saguaro National Park – which protects the mighty Saguaro, has petroglyphs, and neighbors the dark sky-friendly community of Tucson – I knew a trip was in order. My college best friend and I made a trip in 2019 and I’ve been meaning to share my experience ever since.

Saguaro National Park Itinerary Hero

In this post, I’ll share what I consider to be the ideal Saguaro National Park itinerary, inspired by our trip. You’ll learn about how the park is defined, what to do there, and how to spend a perfect weekend in Saguaro National Park. Whether you have 2 days or 3 days in Saguaro, you’ll experience both the harsh climate and resilient biological and social aspects of life in the desert. Read on to plan your own trip to Saguaro National Park.

In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the O’odham Jeweḍ, Tohono O’odham, Sobaipuri, and Hohokam peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Saguaros vs. Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is actually named after the saguaro, a type of giant cactus that grows exclusively in the Sonoran Desert. Saguaros can grow up to 66 feet tall! In other words, Saguaro National Park is one of the only places to see these massive cacti!

Saguaro National Park is actually split into two different sections. The first is the Saguaro National Park East, also known as the Rincon Mountain District. This part of the park has fewer saguaro cacti, but it has the only camping spot in the park instead.

The second part of the park is Saguaro National Park West, also known as the Tucson Mountain District. This is where most of the saguaro cacti are concentrated. But that’s certainly not all that this part of the park has to offer! It also has quite a few popular hiking trails.

Saguaro Travel Tips

Before jumping into lists of attractions and itineraries, I wanted to spend a short time covering some of the top questions about visiting Saguaro National Park and planning your itinerary.

Visiting Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park Itinerary - Park Sign

As part of the National Park system, Saguaro National Park operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.

Here are your options:

Of course, the National Park Service has an entire website for Saguaro with all the info you and up-to-the-day current conditions.

When to Visit Saguaro

Since Saguaro National Park is in the Sonoran Desert, that means that temperatures get very hot in the summer. As a matter of fact, in June and July, temperatures often climb over 100 degrees Fahrenheit! Given that you’ll be spending most – if not, all – of your time at Saguaro National Park outside, you’ll want to wait until temperatures cool down.

Unfortunately, we’re not the only people to take the weather into consideration. Saguaro National Park’s most popular season runs from the end of December (more specifically, Christmas) to April. Consequently, the sweet spot of cooler temperatures and smaller crowds takes place between October and December.

That said, if you’re visiting to see Saguaro National Park specifically to see the saguaro cactus flowers in bloom, you’ll want to visit during the last week of May or the first week of June. This window of time is so small, because saguaro cactus flowers only bloom for 24 hours! In other words, seeing the bloom is a very rare sight. You should definitely consider yourself lucky if you manage to catch a glimpse of them.

How to Travel to Saguaro

Saguaro National Park Itinerary - Road to the Park
Photo credit: Peter Rintels via Flickr

Tucson, Arizona is right in the middle of the two parts of Saguaro National Park. That makes it quite easy to make the short drive from the heart of town to either side of the park.

That said, Tucson is a relatively small city. Many visitors to Saguaro National Park actually commute from Phoenix, Arizona, the closest large city. To reach this national park from Phoenix, you’ll need to drive for an hour and half and cover just over 100 miles. (This is what I did when a friend and I spent a few days in the area back in 2019.)

Unfortunately, there are no public transportation options to Saguaro National Park. You’ll have to use a car to get there. If you’re in Tucson, Uber or Lyft is an option – but can be challenging to get a return pick-up back to the city. If you’re coming from Phoenix (or even further), you’ll have to use your own car or a rental car. I’ve had good experiences with Alamo and Enterprise in the past.

What to Pack for Saguaro

In addition to the usual items you’ll want to pack for a short trip, there are a few other items that you’ll want to add to your Saguaro National Park packing list.

  1. A huge water bottle. Or multiple water bottles. The dry heat of Saguaro National Park will dehydrate you pretty quickly, and it’s important to stay hydrated!
  2. Sunscreen is a must-have in the Sonoran Desert. After all, it’s important to protect your skin from the brutal sun.
  3. If you want to add another layer of sun protection, a sun hat or baseball cap aren’t bad ideas either.
  4. Any activity-specific gear. This can include good hiking boots or camping gear.

The Best Things to Do in Saguaro National Park (& Nearby)

Saguaro National Park Itinerary - Panorama

There are loads of things to do in Saguaro National Park. Below, I’ve included some suggestions to help you structure your own trip.

Go Hiking

Photo credit: Compass Points Media (L) via Flickr

If there’s just one thing that you must add to your Saguaro National Park itinerary, it’s a hike! As a matter of fact, you may want to do a few. After all, the main appeal of Saguaro National Park is the beautiful natural landscape.

If you’re looking for the best hike in Saguaro National Park West, check out the King Canyon/Gould Mine Loop. This moderate, 2.4-mile hike takes you through the middle of the breathtaking King Canyon.

If you’re searching for the most amazing hike in Saguaro National Park East, look no further than Tanque Verde Ridge Trail. This 20-mile out-and-back trail is one of the most difficult paths in the park, but it’s totally worth the effort. Along the way, you’ll be able to see hundreds of gorgeous saguaro cacti. And as an added bonus, you’ll also get to see a few other types of cacti, including chollas and ocotillos. Just be prepared and bring enough gear and water to handle a hike of this length.

But, of course, those two trails aren’t the only noteworthy ones in the park. A few others include Mica View Loop Trail, King Canyon to Wasson Peak, and Loma Verde Loop.

View Petroglyphs

Photo credits: bobistraveling (L) and Jon Gudorf Photography (R) via Flickr

In addition to hiking, one of the best things to do at Saguaro National Park is peeking at the petroglyphs.

The petroglyphs in Saguaro National Park were created by the Hohokam people. The Hohokam people are technically considered to be a Native American group, although it is clear that they also have strong ties to ancient Mesoamerican cultures, including the Aztecs and Mayans.

Archeologists estimate that the Hohokam people existed between 200 and 1400 BCE. This timeline means that the petroglyphs at Saguaro National Park are at least over a thousand years old.

The best place to see these petroglyphs in Saguaro National Park is definitely the Signal Hill Trail. While there, you can see the pictorial language depiction of everything from people to animals to a calendar.

If you do decide to visit the petroglyphs, remember to look but not touch! The oils from your skin can actually damage the carvings, and the goal is to preserve the petroglyphs as long as possible.

Visit Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Technically, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum isn’t inside Saguaro National Park. But that doesn’t mean you should skip it. Instead, I highly recommend that you visit; you’ll likely end up spending hours at this wonderful, educational attraction.

Despite its name, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is more of a zoo than a museum. You’ll be able to see loads of animals that thrive in desert habitats, including bobcats, mule deer, mountain lions, river otters, and many more. There’s even an entire aquarium section, so you can say hello to Pacific seahorses, yaqui top minnows, moorish idols, and loads of other marine creatures.

And while the animals are definitely the main highlight of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, there are other things to see as well. Admire the blooming flowers at the botanical garden, peruse the nature-inspired pieces in the art gallery, and learn about the area’s geology in the natural history section.

Slow Down for Sunsets

Saguaro National Park Itinerary - Sunset

Sunset may be the most beautiful time of day at Saguaro National Park. When the golden glow of sunset is reflected onto the striking red landscape, it becomes absolutely perfect.

There are a couple of different places to see the sunset in the park, but the Hugh Norris Trail is undoubtedly the best. While the full Hugh Norris Trail is ten miles long, you certainly don’t have to hike all of it to see the lovely sunset. Rather, you just have to hike five or ten minutes before you reach the ideal sunset watching spot.

If you’re willing to venture a little bit out of the park, Gates Pass is the local hotspot for sunset watching.

Stargaze

Saguaro National Park Itinerary - Saguaros at Night
Photo credit: Bob Wick via BLM

The activities at Saguaro National Park don’t come to an end just because the sun goes down. After dark, you can enjoy some fantastic stargazing! Thanks to the low amounts of light pollution, you can see hundreds of stars and even a handful of planets.

It is important to note that Saguaro National Park technically closes at sunset. In other words, if you want to do a bit of stargazing, you may want to camp overnight in the park. You can also book a designated stargazing tour, which will allow you to have access to the park after opening hours.

Camp

For avid nature enthusiasts, you can even camp at Saguaro National Park! There are six campgrounds spread throughout the east side of the park. That said, none of these campgrounds are accessible by car. Instead, you’ll have to hike a minimum of 4.1 miles to reach your campsite.

It is important to note that all of the campgrounds at Saguaro National Park have a very limited number of campsites. Be sure to make reservations far in advance.

A 2-Day or 3-Day Saguaro Itinerary

Okay, let’s get to the itinerary part of this Saguaro National Park itinerary. If you only have 2 days in Saguaro National Park, you can simply skip the third day of this itinerary.

Day 1: Explore the West Part of the Park

Since Saguaro National Park is split into two sections, it makes it pretty easy to divide this itinerary as well. For day one, it’s all about Saguaro National Park West.

Photo credits: daveynin via Flickr

Before it gets too hot, start your day with one of the best hikes in the park, the King Canyon/Gould Mine Loop. As you make your way along this 2.4-mile trail, you’ll be in awe of the incredible scenery. Take in the towering cacti, the stunning red rocks, and the hidden mine shaft.

After that moderate hike, you’ll want to do something a little less strenuous to recover. Luckily, you can rest while still sightseeing on the Bajada Loop Drive. This six-mile-long drive is home to the highest concentration of saguaros in the park! In other words, it’s a must-do activity in Saguaro National Park.

Midway through the Bajada Loop Drive, you’ll come across the Signal Hill Trail. This 0.3-mile hike isn’t really a hike, and it’s definitely worth the small amount of effort. When you reach the end of this short trail, you’ll be rewarded with amazing petroglyphs that were created by the ancient Hohokam people!

Saguaro National Park Itinerary - Sunset

After your hike and scenic drive, the sunset should be just a few minutes away! To get the best view of this natural nightly show, head to the Hugh Norris Trail. All you have to do is hike for five to ten minutes and then enjoy the stunning view! Between the golden glow and the towering saguaro cacti, you won’t be able to see a similar site anywhere else in the world.

Day 2: Explore the East Part of the Park

Day 2 begins with the relatively easy Mica View Loop Trail. While this hike is 3.7 miles long, there’s pretty much no elevation change, which makes it suitable for most hikers. Along the way, you’ll get to see lovely wildflowers and friendly birds. It’s so amazing, it seems like it was plucked out of a storybook!

Saguaro National Park Itinerary - Cactus Forest Drive
Photo credit: daveynin via Flickr

Since one scenic drive on this Saguaro National Park itinerary just isn’t enough, day 2 includes one as well: Cactus Forest Drive. This eight-mile drive may have fewer cacti than the Bajada Loop Drive from day one, but it’s just as stunning. Along the way, you can stop at the many things that may catch your eye. Take in the views from the Javelina Rocks Overlook, have a picnic, and snap a few pictures with a massive cactus.

Tonight is a great night for stargazing, if that’s something of interest to you. Saguaro National Park is one of the best places for stargazing in Tucson and you can find a number of perfect dark pockets to enjoy the stars whirling overhead.

Day 3: Explore Beyond the Park

If you have time for 3 days in Saguaro National Park, I highly recommend exploring beyond the park. Tucson is right in the middle of the two halves of Saguaro National Park, so why not spend your third day exploring the highlights of this amazing Arizona city.

Photo credits: Sean (UL), BFS Man (LL), and Jöshua Barnett (R) via Flickr

Our only must-do in Tucson is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Say hello to the desert animals, stop to smell the gorgeous flowers, and learn all about the geological gems found in the area.

Other than that, you can pick whichever activity suits your interests best. If you want even more nature, stop by Tucson Botanical Garden. If you’re a pilot-in-the-making, pop by the Pima Air & Space Museum. Or if you’re a movie buff, you can visit former movie sets at Old Tucson Studios.

Where to Stay near Saguaro National Park

In addition to the campgrounds mentioned above, there are some other great places to stay near Saguaro National Park.

On my trip, my friend and I stayed at Cat Mountain Lodge, which is right outside the west side of the park. The rooms in this small adobe-style roadside inn are designed with an abundance of southwest motifs and surround a beautiful courtyard. We stayed in Spencer’s Suite which was $149 per night at the time. They also have a small astronomical observatory on-site that’s open for guests.

For a few other options on the west side, check out Hacienda Linda or Casa Tierra Adobe.

On the east side of the park, try Desert Trails Bed & Breakfast, Rincon Creek Ranch, or splurge at Tanque Verde Ranch.

There you have it: a great way to spend a weekend in Saguaro National Park, whether you have two days or three. Do you have any questions about this Saguaro National Park itinerary or visiting the towering cacti of southern Arizona? Let me know in the comments!

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