In this guide we’re sharing the best things to do in Saguaro National Park West, plus where to stay, things to know before you go, and more!
Back in 2019, before we ventured into full time van life, we made a super quick stop at Saguaro National Park while on a road trip from Seattle to Texas. Since we had our pup Kona and nowhere safe to leave her, we just went to a parking area to admire the saguaro cacti for sunset.
Ever since, we have wanted to go back to explore properly and in February 2022, we were able to make it happen! We spent a full day in Saguaro National Park West, seeing more saguaros than our eyes could comprehend, hiking to a peak overlooking the park and surrounding area, and even eating cactus tacos that we made.
Watch our experience exploring Saguaro National Park West in one day!
However, going into the day, we were a bit concerned we would get bored. We typically enjoy parks that have a wide variety of scenery to experience, not just one main attraction. But despite the star of the park being saguaros, we truly had a great time! Every single saguaro is unique, with some having pretty crazy arms, making each one fun to see. We found ourselves pointing out the extra quirky ones and deeming them our favorites of the day.
In this guide we’re sharing how to experience Saguaro National Park West for yourself, including how to get there, where to stay, the best things to do, and more!
Looking for more things to do in Arizona? Check out our Arizona guides and vlogs!
- 2 Days in Scottsdale, Arizona Itinerary
- 2 Days in Sedona Itinerary
- 1 Day at the Grand Canyon South Rim Itinerary
- 1 Day in Page, Arizona Itinerary
- Watch all of our Arizona Vlogs
- About Saguaro National Park
- Different Regions of Saguaro National Park
- When to visit Saguaro National Park West
- Getting to + around Saguaro National Park West
- Where to Stay in Saguaro National Park West
- How much time do you need at Saguaro National Park West?
- Things to know before visiting Saguaro National Park West
- What to bring with you to Saguaro National Park West
- The Best Things to do in Saguaro National Park West
- Looking for more things to do in Tucson?
About Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is located in Tucson, Arizona and is named after the 2 million saguaro cacti that it was created to protect. These saguaro cacti (pronounced “sa-wah-ro”) are the nation’s largest cacti and can only be found in Southern Arizona, as well as western Sonora, Mexico.
These cacti can live between 150-200 years and grow up to 40-60 feet on average, with the tallest ever recorded being 78 feet tall, which fell in 1986. However, they are a very slow growing cacti and a 10 year old can only be 1.5 inches. The greatest growth period for the saguaro is between 50-70 years old, when they start to grow their branches.
Another fun fact about saguaro cacti is that while they may be known for their green exterior, inside they have wooden ribs and after the saguaro dies, these ribs can be used to build roofs, furniture, or fences.
Beyond the saguaro cacti that fill the park, the park is also home to mountains, petroglyphs, and other plant life to see.
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
Different Regions of Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is split up into two separate sections, the Rincon Mountain District, which is east of Tucson, and the Tucson Mountain District, which is west of Tucson.
Saguaro National Park East is home to older and taller saguaros, whereas Saguaro National Park West has a higher concentration of saguaros. In this guide we’ll be focusing on Saguaro National Park West, which is where we have visited on both visits to the park.
When to visit Saguaro National Park West
Due to its desert terrain, Saguaro National Park West can get VERY hot in the summer and there is zero tree coverage to provide shaded relief. We recommend visiting between November to March, when the temperatures are more bearable.
We have visited in both January and February and both times had good weather. But even with cooler temperatures, the sun was pretty intense and made us feel a lot hotter than the actual temperature was. So we cannot imagine what it is like in the park in the summer!
However, if you want to see the saguaro flowers (which look gorgeous!), these start to flower in late April, with peak bloom in mid-May to early-June. You can also see wildflowers around the park between late February-early April, so even if you do not make it for the saguaro flowers, you’ll still get to see some colorful blooms.
Getting to + around Saguaro National Park West
Saguaro National Park is located in Tucson, which is in southern Arizona. It’s the second largest city in the state, so getting to the city and the park is pretty easy!
Flying to Saguaro National Park
If you’re flying to Tucson, you can fly into Tucson International Airport (TUS), which is located south of town and is only about a 30 minute drive from Saguaro National Park West.
This airport offers nonstop flights from many destinations across the US including Houston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and more. It is also serviced by many of the major airlines like Alaska, United, Delta, American, and Southwest, so finding a flight won’t be a challenge.
Driving to Saguaro National Park
If you’re driving to Tucson here is how long you can expect to drive from nearby major destinations:
Phoenix, AZ: 1 hour, 45 minutes (104 miles)
El Paso, TX: 4 hours, 45 minutes (331 miles)
Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim): 5 hours, 15 minutes (335 miles)
San Diego, CA: 6 hours (398 miles)
Las Vegas, NV: 6 hours, 15 minutes (404 miles)
Albuquerque, NM: 7 hours (462 miles)
Getting around Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park does not have a park shuttle, so you will need a vehicle to get around the park, whether it’s your own or a rental car. Any type of car will work just fine!
One thing to note about visiting Saguaro National Park is that the east and west regions are about an hour apart, despite how close they look on the map. We learned while in Tucson that due to only having one major highway, it takes quite some time to drive around and across the city!
Where to Stay in Saguaro National Park West
Since Saguaro National Park is located so close to a large city, there are many options when it comes to lodging, from hotels, to Airbnbs, to camping. Here are some places to consider!
Tucson offers most of the usual hotel chains, but also a few interesting and unique looking hotels.
- Graduate Tucson
- DoubleTree Tucson Downtown Convention Center
- Lodge on the Desert
- AC Hotel Tucson Downtown
- The Tuxon Hotel
Saguaro Courtyard Retreat (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This charming casita has a beautiful, colorful, desert vibe inside and is just minutes to the national park!
Case Study Guest House (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This modern guest house is located close to downtown Tucson, as well as the park, so you’ll be close to everything Tucson has to offer.
Strawbale Studio (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This Airbnb screams “southwest charm,” with a gorgeous property and decor. It’s also located right next to the park!
Tucson Poet’s Studio (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This studio is located 4.5 miles east of downtown Tucson in the midtown neighborhood of the Poets Corner neighborhood. It’s built in the classic Santa Fe style with sun-dried adobe and has a corner beehive fireplace. The best part to us though…it comes stocked with tamales!
Catalina Foothills Azul Courtyard Guest Suite (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): While not as close to the park, this would be a great spot to enjoy some of Tucson’s beauty and explore more of the surrounding area as well. This guest suite is gorgeous and has a lot of charm, but one thing to note is that it only has a small kitchenette.
There are unfortunately no campgrounds in Saguaro National Park West, but just to the south of the park in Tucson Mountain Park is the Gilbert Ray Campground, which has 130 RV sites ($20/night) and 5 tent-only sites ($10/night).
Another campground nearby is the Tucson/Lazydays KOA Resort, which is pricier, but offers a lot of amenities.
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Old Ajo Highway
We stayed here most of the nights we were in Tucson on our most recent trip in early 2022. It’s not glamorous or even that nice, as it’s basically an open lot on the side of the highway, but it’s easy to access, close to amenities, reliable, has mountain views and is very close to Saguaro National Park West. If you need a quick place to park for the night and don’t plan on spending much time at your actual campsite, then this is perfect.
Snyder Hill BLM
We didn’t stay here, but we read that it has many similar qualities to Old Ajo Highway and is located just down the street, so it’s still convenient to Saguaro National Park West.
Pipeline Road Dispersed Camping
We stayed here only one night and wished we could have spent more time. It was very easy to find a mostly secluded campsite off the main road and it had cell service. The only drawback is that it is a further drive from Tucson, as it is west of Marana, so it wasn’t convenient for us to stay the whole time. But if you are looking for a boondocking spot that you plan to hang out in, but is still close to a town, this is a solid spot!
How much time do you need at Saguaro National Park West?
In our opinion, one day is plenty. As we mentioned earlier, the park is centered around one main attraction: the saguaro cacti. So you don’t truly need to do it all to feel like you got to experience these impressive cacti. In the things to do section below, we are sharing the top sights to check out that we recommend prioritizing, which we did in one day.
If you want to visit Saguaro National Park East as well, make sure to set aside another day. We also highly recommend spending at least one day in Tucson, which offers delicious food (it’s a UNESCO City of Gastronomy!), hikes outside of the national park, and more!
Things to know before visiting Saguaro National Park West
There is a $25 entrance fee per car to enter Saguaro National Park, which covers 7 days in the park. There are a few ways to pay, including self-pay stations, online, and at the Visitor Center. Unlike some parks that have a booth to drive through and pay, they do not have this at Saguaro National Park, so it’s up to you to pay the fee.
We recommend getting the America the Beautiful pass, which is $80 per year and gets you into all National Park Service managed sites and federal lands for free.
We always recommend starting your day early at the national parks to beat the crowds, but at Saguaro National Park you’ll also want to do this to beat the heat. With zero tree coverage and many sunny days, even on a cooler day, the sun beating on you can feel very hot. Plan to do any strenuous activities first thing to ensure you have the energy!
Dogs are not allowed (in most areas)
Like most national parks, dogs are NOT allowed on many trails in Saguaro National Park. The only areas they are allowed are on the unpaved Bajada Loop Drive, the paved Desert Discovery Trail, and on the portion of Golden Gate Road to the east of the Bajada Loop Drive.
Curious what we do with Kona when she cannot join us on a hike? Read this guide about how we travel with a dog.
What to bring with you to Saguaro National Park West
To see everything we take hiking, check out our hiking gear as well as our guide about how to make a 10 essentials kit. But for this specific area, we have a few items we really want to stress bringing with you.
Because of how exposed the park is to the sun, you’ll definitely want to bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen to protect yourself from its rays.
Make sure to pack lots of water! There are water fountains at the Visitor Center if you need to fill up, but our 3L Camelbak bladders helped ensure we had enough water throughout the day.
Food and snacks
Unless you want to leave the park, we suggest bringing food to eat in the park, as there are no restaurants inside the park.
The Best Things to do in Saguaro National Park West
Watch our experience exploring Saguaro National Park West in one day!
Now that you have some saguaro educactation, plus know where to stay and some tips for the park, here are all of the best things to do in Saguaro National Park West!
There aren’t that many things to do in Saguaro National Park West, which makes visiting this park slightly less overwhelming, as you won’t have to figure out what to prioritize. In the list below we’re sharing what we’d suggest doing on this side of the park, based on our experience. We were able to do all of these, minus the bonus item, in one full day, starting at sunrise and ending at sunset.
Hike to Wasson Peak
Wasson Peak is the highest peak in the western side of Saguaro National Park at 4,688 feet and was hands down our favorite thing we did in the park! From the second you start the hike you have great views of the surrounding area, saguaros, and mountain peaks.
And as you make your way to the top, the views only get better and even though we had some gnarly wind at the summit and only stayed a few minutes, it offered the best views in the park.
There are a few different ways you can reach the summit, which we’ll quickly share below, but for more information on this hike, check out our guide to hiking Wasson Peak!
Via King Canyon and Hugh Norris Trail
Miles (roundtrip): 7.9
Elevation: 1,863 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
This is the route we took and highly recommend it! It is a loop that combines the King Canyon Trail and part of the Hugh Norris Trail, so you won’t see the same trail scenery twice.
We recommend doing this trail counterclockwise. You’ll go up King Canyon (which has a good sized parking lot) and down Hugh Norris, but you could also take the King Canyon Trail out and back if you’re short on time, which makes the hike 6.7 miles.
Beware, when starting on the King Canyon Trail, you’ll see a peak straight ahead and like us, may assume this is Wasson Peak. But it’s not and we felt duped by this false summit. Thankfully the Wasson Peak summit isn’t too much further or higher than this peak, but it may help to know this in advance so you aren’t surprised.
Want to get 30% off an AllTrails+ membership? Click this link or use our code aplusk30 (you must redeem this code on the website, not the app)!
We use AllTrails+ on every single hike and it is the most helpful hiking tool out there! Some of the features we love are offline maps (so we can navigate even without cell service), wrong-turn alerts, and its 3D maps feature, so we can get a feel for trails before we hike.
Hugh Norris Trail
Miles (roundtrip): 8.9
Elevation: 2,398 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
This route takes you up and back down Hugh Norris, and is the steepest route option, with a big incline in the first mile. Similar to the route we did, you can expect lots of views on the entire hike, but make sure to start this route early, as the parking area is pretty small.
Via Sweetwater Trail
Miles (roundtrip): 9.3
Elevation: 2,093 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
This route approaches Wasson Peak from the northeast, connecting with King Canyon towards the end, and while it is the longest option of the three listed, it is not as steep as Hugh Norris. This trailhead has a decent amount of parking (but not tons), so plan to arrive early to ensure you get a spot.
Desert Discovery Nature Trail
The 0.4 mile Desert Discovery Trail is a flat, paved walkway that takes you through saguaros, as well as other desert plants, with signage that talks about the plants and wildlife in the area. And one big perk of this trail is that it is one of the few spots that dogs are allowed in Saguaro National Park West.
If you love plants, have a dog, or need a quick, paved option, this is a good choice. But if you’re running low on time, we’d personally skip this to ensure you have time for the Valley View Overlook Trail, which we will share below and think is a more nature-y experience with even better views.
Drive the Bajada Loop Drive
One popular thing to do on the west side is the Bajada Loop Drive, which is a 6 mile gravel loop that is made up of Hohokam and Golden Gate Roads. Despite this being gravel, it is totally doable in any vehicle and along the way you’ll find a few different trails, roadside views, and quick stops.
However, one important thing to know about this road is that the second half of Hohokam Drive is one way, so to drive this as a loop without any backtracking, we suggest driving it counterclockwise.
Another thing to note is that the road “closes” at sunset. Since we planned to be on a hike along the road at sunset we called to ask what time they closed the gates. They told us they do not close the gates, but they ask for folks to please leave after the sun sets. So if you’re like us and are worried about getting trapped on the road, you’ll be okay, just please respect their rules and leave after sunset.
Here are a couple stops we loved along this road!
Valley View Overlook Trail
After Wasson Peak, our second favorite thing we did in Saguaro National Park West was hike the Valley View Overlook Trail.
This flat, 0.8 mile hike takes you through a dense area of saguaros, with a few having some very unique shapes, before ending at a viewpoint that overlooks a valley filled with saguaros. At this overlook you’ll be high up above the valley, making these cacti look tiny, which is a cool contrast to how tiny you’ll feel among them while on the main part of the trail.
We stayed here for sunset and were treated to a gorgeous flood of golden light onto the saguaros. And since it was so short and easy, we made it back to the van before it was even dark out.
Note: The parking lot is very small (it can hold maybe 6 cars?) and when we first drove the Bajada Loop Drive it was full, but when we looped back later and tried again, we got a spot. At sunset on a weekday we were two of three people there.
Signal Hill Petroglyphs
The Signal Hill Petroglyphs is the largest petroglyph site in Saguaro National Park West, with over 200 Native American petroglyphs from the Hokoham people.
Along a 0.3 mile trail you can get a better look at some of them, with one good viewpoint being at the bottom of the staircase on the trail (bring binoculars to zoom in!) and also at the top of the trail, where there is a gorgeous spiral petroglyph that has a mountain backdrop. There are also great views of the area at the top too!
While you cannot see more than a handful of the 200 petroglyphs, this is a great place to see Native American history. There is also a nice picnic area here, so if you want to enjoy a lunch you packed, this is a good spot to do it!
Bonus: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
One of the most popular things to do in all of Tucson is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and while it’s not located in the park, it’s located just outside of it and is worth mentioning.
This museum is a combination of a zoo, natural history museum, art gallery, aquarium, and gardens, so there is something for everyone! It costs $24.95 per adult (less for seniors, military, kids, and locals) and offers many attractions outside, so you can still soak up the beauty of the area while learning history, seeing animals, and admiring saguaros.
While we did not visit this trip, we hope to check it out in the future, as it came very highly recommended from many of our Tucson viewers.
Looking for more things to do in Tucson?
Watch this video to see how we spent two days exploring, hiking, and eating in Tucson!
Besides Saguaro National Park, Tucson is home to sooo many incredible things to do (and food to eat). In the video we linked above, we share what all we did in the area outside of the park, but here is a quick rundown of our favorite spots from both visits we have made to the city if you’re looking for more to do before or after your Saguaro National Park adventure.
Presta Coffee Roasters is an amazing local roaster that we have visited both times because we love it so much. They have multiple locations, but we enjoyed the E 9th St. location on our most recent visit, which had a nice outdoor seating area.
Exo Roast is another great coffee shop we have visited that has a cool industrial interior.
Try a Sonoran hot dog
Sonoran hot dogs are one of the most iconic food items in Tucson. It was created in Hermosillo, the capital of the Mexican state of Sonora, in the late 1980s and since Arizona borders Sonora, it eventually made its way to the Tucson area.
It’s a hot dog wrapped in bacon, laid inside a bolillo bun with tons of toppings including cooked and raw onions, tomatoes, beans, mustard, mayonnaise, and a jalapeño salsa, with a chile güero on the side.
There are over 200 places to get one in Tucson, but we loved El Sinaloense Hot Dog Cart. Some other popular spots are El Guero Canelo, BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs, and Taqueria Aqui Con El Nene.
We LOVED Seis Kitchen on our first visit to Tucson. Their tacos were amazing and it’s located in the super cool Mercado San Agustin, which has some cool shops and a nice courtyard.
Eeegee’s is a Tucson institution! This fast food spot serves up frozen fruit drinks, sandwiches, and fries. We LOVE their frozen drinks, called an eegee (highly recommend mixing strawberry and pina colada or trying their flavor of the month!) and their ranch fries.
There are tons of locations around town, so you’ll never be far from one!
See the murals
We love to see colorful murals when we visit cities and Tucson has tons of murals around town to check out. Some favorites of ours are the Greetings From Tucson Mural, Succulent Popsicle, Goddess of Agave, and the Whale Mural.
See the views from “A” Mountain
While driving around Tucson you’ll likely notice a mountain behind downtown that has a white “A” on it. This is Sentinel Peak Park, also known as “A” Mountain. This “A” was constructed by University of Arizona students in 1915 and you can either drive (certain days and times of the week, check the link above for details) or hike 1.7 miles to the top.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
The San Xavier del Bac Mission, nicknamed the White Dove of the Desert, is located on the Tohono O’odham reservation (pronounced Thaw-Naw-Awe-Thum) and is a gorgeous church that is worth visiting, whether religious or not. While under construction during our visit, we could still see the majority of the beauty on the outside and the inside is just as beautiful too!
Hike Bear Canyon to Seven Falls in Sabino Canyon
This popular hike takes you to a beautiful waterfall in the desert, which feels like an absolute oasis, and was hands down one of our absolute favorite things we did in Tucson. However, there is a lot to know before you attempt it.
- There are two places to start this hike. You can start at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center and either walk 1.5-2 miles (each way) to the trailhead or take their shuttle, which is $6 per adult. Or you can do what we did and start on Bear Canyon Road, which has a small parking lot.
- The Sabino Canyon Visitor Center has an $8/car day use fee OR you can use the America the Beautiful pass.
- Dogs are NOT allowed in Sabino Canyon.
- This trail gets BUSY on the weekends, but we didn’t encounter anyone on the hike to the falls by starting right before sunrise on a Tuesday in February.
- There are many water crossings on the hike, but during our visit they were very low and we didn’t get our feet wet. We suggest checking AllTrails before you go to see what people have reported the conditions to be like.
Drive up Mount Lemmon
This was another huge highlight for us while in Tucson! Mount Lemmon is the highest point of the Santa Catalina mountains at an elevation of 9,159 or 9,171 feet (we read both heights). It gets its name not after the fruit, but after a botanist named Sarah Lemmon who was the first white female to hike up the mountain.
To get close to the top you drive 6,000 feet in 26 miles, which is the biological equivalent of driving from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada.
Along the way, you’re treated to some EPIC views of the surrounding area, mountains, and cool rock formations that make up the road. There are different overlooks to stop at as well, which have signage about the area and history. And if you visit in the winter, you may find snow to play in like we did!
Once at the end of the road, make sure to stop by the Mt. Lemmon Cookie Cabin to get a cookie sampler, with 6 different types of cookies all baked together.
Ready to see tons of saguaros?
Pin this guide with the best things to do in Saguaro National Park West to help plan your trip!