Located just outside Saguaro National Park's West Unit in the Tucson Mountain County Park is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Open year round the private facility is primarily outdoors with over two miles of trails allowing visitors to explore the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert. Featured habitats include a simulated limestone cave, desert grassland, riparian habitat, desert garden, and a small canyon. It offers one of the safest environments to get up close to western diamondback rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, black widow spiders, scorpions and tarantulas, all of which call Saguaro National Park home.
The East Unit of Saguaro National Park offers a broader experience, more diverse terrain and backcountry camping. The six mile long Cactus Forest Trail offers a wide variety of opportunities to park visitors. With the southern terminus located on Freeman Road, on the western edge of the park, the trail heads north through a massive dense saguaro cactus forest. After heading north for about a mile, the trail crosses Cactus Forest Drive and continues north for another 2-1/2 miles before crossing the road again. In continues on for another 2-1/2 miles stopping at the Mica View Picnic Area before ending at Broadway Boulevard on the northern border of the park. The 2-1/2 mile section that is surrounded by Cactus Forest Drive is a designated multiuse trail for mountain bikers and horseback riding.
The East Unit has two short loop trails among many other longer frontcountry trails to take. The Desert Ecology Trail is a quarter mile long interpretive nature trail that is handicapped accessible. The trailhead is located on the north side of Cactus Forest Drive. The Freeman Homestead Nature Trail is a one-mile loop that passes through a sandy region of the park. Located near the Javelina Picnic Area, the trailhead is located on spur road that comes off the south side of Cactus Forest Drive.
On the subject of Cactus Forest Drive, the eight mile, one way paved scenic loop is one of the best ways to see the park by car. The road winds its way through a spectacular forest of saguaro cactus and provides inspiring views of the surrounding area. If you take the spur road out to the Mica View Picnic Area you can hike the two-mile long Mica View Trail. The Mica View Trail is actually one-way, but when combined with the Shantz Trail and the Cactus Forest Trail it forms a loop. The trail passes through a desert garden alive with paloverde, mistletoe, chollas, prickly pear cactus, mesquite trees, and of course saguaro cactus.
The backcountry of the East Unit is divided into three regions, Mica Mountain Area, Spud Rock, and Rincon Peak. Five different trailheads provide access to all regions of the park. The eastern most section sits high in the mountains where mesquite and barrel cactus give way to Ponderosa Pine. Mica Mountain in the northeast corner of the park is the highest point in Saguaro at 8,666 feet.
The park has a network of backcountry campsites at five different locations. Camping is free but a backcountry permit is required and can be picked up at the Visitor Center. There are also two backcountry ranger stations, one at Madrona, in the southern section of the park, and the other at Manning Camp, just south of Mica Mountain.
It is possible to trek across the East Unit cross country across its entire length. Hikers can take the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail to the Juniper Basin Backcountry Campground. The trailhead is located at the Javelina Picnic Area and heads east into the mountains. About 2-1/2 miles east of the campground you reach the top of 7,049 Tanque Verde Peak as the trail continues east. Hikers can continue on a grueling trek on the Cow Head Saddle Trail to Manning Camp, or take the easier route on the Manning Camp Trail, resting for the night at Grass Shack. Through hikers would then exit the park out the Turkey Creek Trail.
An icon of the American west, the saguaro cactus sits in the imagination of most people around the world. The ancient cactus stand defiant to the dry hot conditions of the forbidding desert and not only survives, but thrive in thick forests. As massive development and expansion in Arizona continues the broad range of the saguaro continues to shrink making Saguaro National Park even more critical to the survival of the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona.
Just The Facts
Name: Saguaro Cactus National Park
Location: Southern Arizona, Tucson
Nearest Major Air Service: Tucson, Arizona
Fees & Permits: West Unit is free. The East Unit charges $5 access fee per vehicle. Backcountry permits are free.
Why Visit: Opportunity to explore desert environment surrounded by the icon of the American west, the saguaro cactus. Located close to an urban center allowing for many out of park camping opportunities and comfortable lodging.
When To Visit: November to May
Essential Gear: Depends on activity, sunscreen, hat, lip balm, plenty of drinking water, sunglasses, camera, binoculars (other equipment strongly recommended)
You Should Know: Summertime temperatures can exceed 115 degrees during the day and rarely drop below 80 degrees at night. Wintertime temperatures are far more moderate in the seventies during the day and near freezing at night. The park is home to a number of dangerous and poisonous species including rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, scorpions, and black widow spiders. Watch where you put your hands when scrambling across rocks during the day and be sure to keep your tent zipped up tightly at night.
More Information: Saguaro National Park, 3693 Old Spanish Trail South, Tucson, Arizona, 85730-5601, (520) 733-5153.