When we think of western movies, you will certainly recall the giant cacti that are always in the backdrop. The best place to see them up close is definitely Arizona and, more precisely, the area around the city of Tucson, where the Saguaro National Park is located.
This national park was created to preserve this particular variety of cactus, called saguaro, which at the time this park was designated, was at risk of extinction. If you are fond of southwestern landscapes and you are planning a road trip on the West Coast, you may consider adding it to your itinerary.
- Where is Saguaro National Park
- Things to Do in Saguaro National Park
- Saguaro National Park Climate: Best Time to Visit the Park
- Where to Stay Near Saguaro National Park
- Are There Other Areas Where You Can See the Giant Cacti?
Where is Saguaro National Park
How far is Saguaro National park from Tucson? Well, as it was mentioned above, Saguaro National Park practically “surrounds” Tucson. In fact, the park is so extensive that it is divided into two regions, one to the east of the city and the other to the west. It takes about 2 hours to reach the park from the city of Phoenix. However, if you’re coming from Flagstaff, get ready for at least 4 hours by car.
There are two separate Visitor centers:
- Rincon Mountain District – East Section
- Red Hills Tucson Mountain District – West Section
Both visitor centers are open every day of the week from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and are closed only on Christmas Day.
The park admission, valid for 7 days, will give you access to both sections of the park at a cost of $25 per car, unless you have the America the Beautiful Annual Pass.
If you want to visit both areas of the park, consider that it generally takes between 30 and 45 minutes to get from one side to the other (but this may vary depending on traffic conditions in Tucson).
Things to Do in Saguaro National Park
Obviously, the large saguaro cacti are the main attraction of this park, where you can observe them against the backdrop of a beautiful desert landscape.
Tucson Mountain District – West Section
In this area of the park, you can drive along Bajada Loop Drive. This scenic road is the recommended choice if you have limited time available and you want to visit at least part of the Saguaro National Park. During the 6.2 mile loop, you will have the chance to admire several giant cacti. Note that the road is not paved (but still kept in good condition), so be more careful, especially if your car (or rental car) is not high above the ground. The entrance to the scenic road is about 1.5 miles north of the Red Hills Visitor Center.
Along the way, I suggest you take a detour to an area called Signal Hill Picnic Area. After parking your car in the picnic area, you can take a short walk to the top of Signal Hill, where you can admire some ancient petroglyphs.
Valley View Overlook Trail: If you feel like walking a little bit and weather permitting, you can go on this short trail that is just under a mile long that will take you to an elevated observation point from where you can enjoy a beautiful view of the Avra Valley below you.
Rincon Mountain District – East Section
This is the larger section of the two, and if possible, it is best to visit this part of the park in the afternoon. There are two main reasons for this. First, given the higher elevation, you will find yourself admiring splendid views of the surrounding area, especially at sunset, when the light transforms the desert landscape. In addition to this, during the summer, temperatures will be milder and more pleasant in the afternoon, allowing you to stay a little more outdoors.
Cactus Forest Drive is a scenic road that runs through a forest of saguaro cacti, but is a little less dense than its western counterpart. However, it has the significant advantage of being completely paved which makes travel by car or bicycle smoother.
Saguaro National Park Climate: Best Time to Visit the Park
If you want to visit the Saguaro National Park it is good to know what temperatures are at different times during the year. The recurring factor to take into account is the great temperature change that occurs with the passage from day to night, when temperatures drop considerably.
- May to September: as you can imagine, this is the hottest time. Average temperatures reach 104 degrees during the day and 68 degrees at night. July and August are also the months with the most rainstorms, in the form of short but violent downpours. Beware, therefore, of flash floods.
- October to April: in theory, this would be the best time to visit Saguaro since during the day the maximum temperatures vary between 62 and 72 degrees. Be careful, though, because at night temperatures can drop below zero.
Where to Stay Near Saguaro National Park
Obviously, if you are looking for accommodations in the area, given the immediate vicinity to Tucson, you should look in the city. So if you want to have an overview of the main hotels that you can find there and some more detailed information, you can read our article about where to stay in Tucson.
Are There Other Areas Where You Can See the Giant Cacti?
If after your visit to Saguaro National Park you are still looking for places to photograph landscapes with giant cacti (or the park is a little too out of the way for your itinerary), you can consider a visit to these other two places in Arizona.
Sonoran Desert National Monument
This part of Arizona only became National Monument in 2001. Unlike the other parks, it does not have a main attraction, but was primarily designed as a conservation area for the local ecosystem. If you don’t have time to visit the park, consider that along Interstate 8 (which cuts it almost perfectly in half), you can see a fair amount of cacti growing on the sides of the road.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
This national monument is located at the border with Mexico and here you will find another species of cactus typical of this area called the “organ pipe cactus”, which recalls the shape of the pipes of an organ. It is in one of the hottest areas of the United States but, it can be visited comfortably even only by car. The most popular scenic road is Ajo Mountain Drive, which, even though it is unpaved, you can drive on it even if you don’t have an off-road vehicle (drive safely anyway).