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Good desert views and clear skies, this was a rock just off the touring road in the eastern unit of the park.
Photo Credit: guyonthego

Saguaro National Park

3693 South Old Spanish Trail Tucson, AZ 85730
Visitor centers generally open 9-5 & park units are open sunrise to sunset.
520-733-5153 1 day
March 2015 Fall, Winter, Spring
$10-29 Tucson Arizona
Website Nature National Parks
First review
Saguaro National Park is made up of two sections on the east and west side of Tucson. The main eastern unit is the larger of the two at 67,000 acres and also has higher elevations and a greater diversity of plants and animals. The west unit is approximately 24,000 acres. The park is mainly wilderness. Elevations in the eastern section range from of 2,670 ft to 8,666 ft. At higher elevations, desert plants give way to extensive stands of Ponderosa Pines. Elevations in the western unit range from 2,180 ft to 4,687 feet. The western area is also hotter and drier.

Park facilities are fairly basic and include a visitor center/museum in each unit, touring roads and hiking trails. The tour road in the east section is paved; while the tour road in the western area is dirt. Both roads close at sunset, but park trails are generally open 24 hours. Camping is limited to undeveloped primitive campgrounds. There are no lodges or restaurants.

This park was established in 1933 as a national monument in the current eastern unit. It was designated as a national monument by President Hoover near the end of his term and resulted from the hard work and dedication of local conservationists who had the vision and perseverance to advocate for land protection. One of the primary motivations to create the park was to protect the iconic saguaro cactus, which perhaps more than any other plant symbolizes the American west. Additional protection and expansion came in 1961 when the western section was added. More lands were added over time and Saguaro became a national park in 1994.

March is the most popular time to visit as the weather is relatively cooler and the desert flowers are in full bloom. Also, the park schedules more visitor activities in the cooler months from November to April than at other times of year. The temperature was in the mid 80s on a March visit, but it can get well into the 100 degrees in the summer. There was a short line of cars at the entrance gate, but otherwise the main park facilities were not crowded. If you only have time for one of the two units, go to the eastern section. It’s larger, more scenic and has better facilities. Also, the hiking is better. The visitor center museum in the eastern unit was small and not especially notable. The film focused too much on the families that had lived here in the past. It was excessively boring and can be skipped. The Cactus Forest Loop Drive is the main touring road in the east section and definitely should not be skipped. It had a good mix of impressive scenery, informative signs and pleasant short hikes. The main picture to the right was taken just off the loop drive. There is a separate review of Freeman Homestead Trail, which can be accessed from the loop drive.

After the touring road and some short walks, a more meaningful hike was taken in the north side of the east section to Bridal Wreath Falls. This hike was about 3 miles one way from the trailhead at the end of Speedway Boulevard up to Bridal Falls. The trail started out wide and clear but got increasingly narrow and overgrown closer to the falls. There were lots of gnats/flies for company on the way up and plenty of horse crap as well. On the other hand, the trail had an 1,100 elevation gain, which provided a good workout. Views of both the Santa Catalina Mountains and the Tucson area were great. While, the “falls” was more of a trickle than a true waterfall, a grotto in the falls area was cool and could make a decent place to have lunch or just relax for a bit. Also, there were no gnats in the grotto area, but they were back in spades on the walk down.

It was running late after the hike, and it took an hour to drive to the western section. The visitor center there was closed at the time, but there was enough time to walk around the building and read some interpretive signs, and also to drive the dirt tour road and then walk the short Desert Discovery Nature Trail. The discovery trail was relaxing, and the interpretive signs were informative. This trail should work well for everyone, because it was flat, paved and accessible. The tour road though was uninteresting, neither as scenic nor as memorable as the tour road in the east unit.

With a full day you can spend most of your time in the east section and then spend a couple hours in the west. Or, you can spend the entire time in the east without missing out much if you skip the west side entirely. If you want to take longer hikes, consider a two day visit. Overall, this park was enjoyable and had memorable views. Hiking was less impressive though. On a future visit a longer hike to Juniper Basin is possible. This hike would be a full day excursion into the heart of the Rincon Mountains. For most people, the Cactus Forest Loop Drive and related short hikes probably work best along with a stop at the visitor center. If you can make time for a ranger presentation on desert ecology, it will enhance your educational experience.
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