The Ultimate Saguaro National Park Travel Guide
Saguaro National Park is located on both sides of Tucson, Arizona. It’s split into two districts. On the east is the Rincón Mountain District, or RMD, or Saguaro East. On the west is the Tucson Mountain District, or TMD, or Saguaro West. Despite being two separate sections, they’re both part of Saguaro National Park. Shaka Guide’s Saguaro National Park tour takes you to the best parts of the TMD, Saguaro West.
Saguaro National Park History, A Tale of Two Parks
Saguaro National Park’s history is a fascinating story of people working together to protect a resource that might easily have turned into urban sprawl. Back in the 1930s, a Tucson newspaper tycoon named Frank Harris Hitchcock became the 41st US Postmaster General, under Herbert Hoover. The two men were friends, and during that time Hitchcock lobbied heavily for a protected reserve that in 1933 became designated as Saguaro National Monument. It was only the Rincón side at that time, but it quickly became a popular draw to the area and people began to appreciate the desert for its innate beauty rather than see it as a harsh place to be conquered.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed a bill that annexed a huge tract of land on Tucson’s western side. But not until 1994 did Saguaro National Monument receive national park status. And as recently as 2021 new areas have been added.
About the Park
The park is open for permitted use 24 hours a day, such as backcountry hiking and camping, but day use is from sunrise to sunset.
There are two visitor centers, one in each section of Saguaro National Park:
Red Hills Visitor Center (Saguaro West) Tucson Mountain District
2700 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona 85743
Tel: (520) 733-5158
Hours: 9am - 5pm daily
Rincón Mountain Visitor Center (Saguaro East) Rincón Mountain District
3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, Arizona 85730
Tel: (520) 733-5153
Hours: 9am - 5pm daily
The cost to enter Saguaro National Park depends on the type of vehicle you’re driving. Below is a cost breakdown.
- $25/normal passenger car for 1-6 people
Regardless of vehicle type, entry is good for 7 days and is valid in both sections of the park. Many National Park Service passes also apply in Saguaro National Park. Payment must be in cash or with a major credit card.
How to Get to Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is located about 13 miles from Tucson. You can fly into both Tucson International Airport and Phoenix International Airport with easy access to Saguaro.
Nearest airports to Saguaro National Park:
- Tucson International Airport (TUS) is about 25 minutes from Saguaro National Park.
- Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) is about an hour and 30 minutes away from Saguaro National Park.
Drive times from major cities to Saguaro National Park:
- Tucson, AZ: 30 minutes
- Phoenix, AZ: 2 hours
- Albuquerque, NM: 6 hours 30 minutes
- San Diego, CA: 5 hours 40 minutes
- Los Angeles, CA: 7 hours
When to visit Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is best in the spring and fall, as the summer and winter months have significant temperature extremes.
Weather breakdown by season:
- Winter: Hot during the day, dangerously cold at night.
- Spring and Late Fall: Pleasant temps during the day, brisk or chilly at night.
- Summer & Early Fall: Can be dangerously hot during the day, warm or chilly at night.
If we had to choose one season to visit Saguaro National Park, it would be spring. In spring, after the rains, there is often a window of a few weeks when the desert bursts into bloom. Some years this is epic, other years, not as impressive. People travel all over the world to see it, but arriving at just the right time can be difficult. If you get to see the post-rain blooms, you’re in for a treat!
Saguaro National Park isn’t particularly complex in terms of when to arrive, as long as you plan for your own heat preferences. There’s not a peak season, and it’s not so busy that you can’t enjoy it throughout the year. There are currently no reservations needed, unlike some of the more popular parks like Yosemite.
Things to Do in Saguaro National Park
the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum / Michelle Maria, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
- Get the Shaka Guide tour!
- The Red Hills Visitor Center
- Horseback rides
- Backcountry Camping
- Drive the Cactus Loop Drive in the Rincón (East) side
- Watch beautiful sunrises and sunsets
- Take incredible photos
- See ancient petroglyphs
- Run the Saguaro Half Marathon
- Visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Where to Stay in and Around Saguaro National Park
Unless you’re planning to overnight camp trailside, you’ll need to stay somewhere outside the park, as there is no vehicle camping. The city of Tucson has a range of hotels, motels, and RV parks, as well as a few hostels and campsites, so you’ll certainly find something that fits your needs and budget in Tucson. The Gilbert Ray campground, operated by Pima County, is closest to the borders of the park and is in the neighboring Tucson Mountain Park.
Where to Eat Around Saguaro National Park
While there are no restaurants inside the park itself, the city of Tucson has a wide array of restaurants and cafes that cater to every possible need, from cheap take-out from street trucks to fancy fine dining. The closest restaurants to the Tucson side are the restaurant at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Coyote Pause Cafe.
Saguaro National Park FAQ’s
- How much time should you expect to spend in the park? 3-4 hours
- What is the park’s elevation? 2,180 ft to 4,687 ft
- Is there cell service/ wifi? Spotty cell service, no wifi.
- Are advance reservations required? No reservations for park entry required, but permits needed for backcountry overnight hiking.
Saguaro National Park is one of the most unique, interesting parks in the entire NPS system. Its history, culture, and location make it a must-see for anyone in the region, and a Shaka Guide audio tour is the best way to experience it at your own pace, in your own car. Depending on what season you visit it may be perfect temperature or hot or cold, so plan for the climate. But plan to see incredible views and have the visit of a lifetime.
Ready to visit this unique national park? Check out our Saguaro National Park Tour!