The hiking trails and scenic drive in Saguaro National Park East are lined with splendid examples of the giant multi-armed Saguaro cactus, an icon of the Southwest.
One of the most thrilling sights in southern Arizona is the majestic saguaro cactus which towers above the Sonoran desert. It’s easy to admire them from afar along the highway, but many visitors wonder where they can get out and walk among them.
One of the best things to do in the city of Tucson, Arizona is to visit Saguaro National Park. It is divided into two districts on either side of the city, Saguaro National Park East (Rincon Mountain District) and Saguaro National Park West (Tucson Mountain District).
Together they offer hiking trails, scenic drives, and picnic areas amid thousands of acres of pristine desert and hundreds of giant saguaros.
Both the east and west park area have their own personality. Start at the visitor center to find out what to see and learn about this fascinating cactus, the largest in North America.
Saguaro National Park – East
- Saguaro National Park – East
- Scenic Drives
- Saguaro National Park East Trails
- Gila Monsters
- Saguaro National Park East – Address
The eastern branch of Saguaro National Park is the largest of the two. It lies at the foot of the Rincon Mountains which rise to 8,000 feet.
Much of the park is relatively flat in elevation or covers gentle hills. When gazing across its vast expanse from an elevated viewpoint, the saguaros seem to sink into the landscape with only their heads popping up. This is deceiving, for this park has a great diversity of life zones.
One needs to walk out on the trails to fully appreciate some truly amazing saguaro specimens and the variety of other desert plants and wildlife.
Saguaro National Park East is the only district where camping is allowed. These are backcountry campsites and a permit is required, available from the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center.
Cactus Forest Drive
Cactus Forest Drive is the main road through the park. This 8-mile, paved scenic drive makes a loop from the visitor center and leads to many of the trailheads. It’s a one-way road for most of the way, making for stress-free driving and a chance to enjoy the scenery.
There are pull-outs and scenic overlooks all along Cactus Forest Drive, often with interesting signboards about the park’s features and landscape. The park’s two picnic areas are well signposted, and these have pit toilets, but no drinking water.
Mica View Road
Mica View Road is a short drive off the main loop that leads to a viewpoint, picnic area, and hiking trails.
This is a great area to go bird watching and enjoy a picnic.
The paved surface of Cactus Forest Drive makes it popular with cyclists. But it’s no piece of cake. There are narrow stretches, with many tight turns, and the steep hills are both a challenge and a thrill.
For mountain biking, there is only one section of off-road riding on the Cactus Forest Trail. This 2.5-mile, multi-use stretch bisects the loop drive north to south. Cyclists can ride it in either direction but must follow the traffic pattern on the paved loop road.
Saguaro National Park East Trails
The loop road runs through only a small part of the park’s western sector. From here, around 128 miles of trails spread north and east through the desert scrub and into the backcountry of the Rincon Mountains and saguaro wilderness.
There are easy walks that take less than an hour, moderate walks for a pleasant couple of hours in the desert, and strenuous hikes for those who like an all-day challenge.
Hiking trails in Saguaro National Park East include:
Desert Ecology Trail
A quarter-mile stroll on a paved walkway outside the visitor center and wheelchair accessible; the interpretive signs are good for learning about the desert plants.
Mica View Trail
The park’s easiest loop trail starts at the Mica View picnic area and returns along the Cactus Forest Trail, with no elevation gain. 2 miles, approximately 1 hour.
Freeman Homestead Trail
An unpaved trail leads from the southern tip of the loop trail to an old pioneer homestead site and an impressive saguaro grove, with interpretive signs along the way. It has some moderate grades and rock stairways. 1 mile, approximately 1 hour.
Loma Verde Loop
The best option for a longer but easy hike, the Loma Verde Trail leads from the northeast end of the loop drive into a huge network of trails. A popular route runs north past an old copper mine, turns east up the Pink Hill Trail for a splendid vista over the cactus forest, and returns via the Squeeze Pen Trail through a lush, tree-lined stretch near the trailhead. 3 miles, approximately 2 hours.
Hope Camp Trail
A moderate hike in the park’s southern quarter past two former cowboy line camps. 5.6 miles, up to 4 hours.
Douglas Spring Trail to Bridal Wreath Falls and the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail
The Douglas Spring Trail to Bridal Wreath Falls and the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail are longer, difficult hikes into the rugged wilderness of the Rincon foothills.
For more information, contact the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center in the park.
There is a small trail near the Rincon Visitor Center that is great for photos!
I am 6 foot 5 and look short next to the giant Saguaro Cactus. This is a great spot to learn more about the park and see some of the plants up close.
Gila Monsters are one of only two venomous lizards in the world!
Gila Monsters are most active during daylight from spring through fall within Saguaro National Park. We were lucky to see a few of them during our visit to the park.
They spend 98% of their time in their burrows so seeing one was amazing.
Keep an eye out for them during your visit but make sure you do not get to close. They cannot spit venom but you still don’t want to get too close.
We took this photo with a large telephoto lens so we were not very close to the Gila Monster.