Travel

This Criminally Underrated National Park Is a Sonoran Desert Wonderland

And this winter, you can have it all to yourself.

Saguaro Cactus Park, Arizona | Ingram Publishing / getty images
Saguaro Cactus Park, Arizona | Ingram Publishing / getty images

It’s almost cliché to say the Sonoran desert looks like the background of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. But hiking through forests of towering saguaro cacti feels nothing short of cartoonish. The silly, green giants with arms pointed in all directions look like they’re about to break into a musical number at any second.

The saguaro (pronounced sah-WHAH-ro, if you don’t want to be corrected by locals) is also exceedingly rare, found only in southern Arizona and northern Mexico. And if you want to spend the day with these goofy, prickly characters, Saguaro is one of the easiest national parks to visit.

Long overshadowed by Arizona’s marquee national park, the Grand Canyon, Saguaro is a 92,000-acre desert wonderland just outside Tucson. And if you go anytime other than summer and you’ll find it hits that perfect national park trifecta of ideal weather, unusual landscape, and minimal crowds. 

When to visit Saguaro

Prime time in southern Arizona is spring or fall, when daytime highs rarely get over a dry 90 degrees and the mornings are pleasantly cool. Winter is also fantastic if you want to hike during the day—morning and night can be chilly, but nothing a good jacket can’t fix (unless you plan to camp in the backcountry, which can get very cold post sundown).

You’ll find few parks as accessible from major cities as Saguaro, which sits less than half an hour from Tucson and less than two hours from Phoenix. It’s separated into two sections, each of which can be easily tackled in a day: East (also called the Rincon Mountain District or RMD) and West (aka the Tucson Mountain District or TMD). In between are the I-10 and the city of Tucson, so getting here by air or interstate is pretty straightforward.

Hiking in Saguaro National Park

Though the mountainous desert topography might look intimidating, Saguaro National Park is one of the easier national parks to hike.

The crown jewel for hikers is the trek to Wasson Peak in the more-mountainous western section. The entire hike is about eight miles long, and takes between four to five hours. For pretty much the entirety, you’ll be treated to panoramic views out over the park. It ends at the highest point in the western side, the 4.687-foot Wasson Peak.

For something easier on the west side, take the .8-mile Valley View Trail, which as the name suggests also boasts phenomenal views of the valley, on a far shorter walk.

The park is also home to a large number of ancient petroglyphs, best viewed along the Signal Hill Petroglyph Trail, which runs about a quarter of a mile off the Bajada Loop Drive.

The eastern part of the park is flatter, a cinch to hike, and easily accessible from the Douglas Spring trailhead at the end of Speedway Blvd. This trailhead has the added bonus of no guard shack, and thus no admission fee.

From here you can delve headfirst into a magical saguaro forest along the Garwood Trail. Follow this to Garwood Dam and then take the Carillo Trial along the mountain ridgeline and back to the trailhead. You’ll be surrounded by saguaros as you hike up to the ridge line, which boasts sweeping views of the park. The whole loop is just under seven miles, or three to four hours.

The best shorter hike on the east side is the Freeman Homestead Trail, which takes you through a desert wash to the foundation of an old homestead—it’s not unusual to see some great horned owls along the way.

Driving and biking in the Sonoran desert

If you prefer to see national parks from the air-conditioned comfort of your car, Saguaro makes that easy too. The most popular scenic drive is the Cactus Forest Loop in the west. The eight-mile paved road offers the best scenery of any route in the park—hiked or driven. You’ll wind through desert mountains covered in saguaros, with plenty of pull outs and photo ops along the way.

On the east side, take the Bajada Loop Road, which is only six miles but is partially unpaved. Make sure to stop at the Signal Hill Petroglyph trail and take the short walk to the ancient etchings. And hit the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, a half-mile detour where you’ll learn all about the flora and fauna of the area.

Both roads are popular with cyclists too. Just make sure to watch out for errant ACME trucks.

Camping and other accommodations 

One of the reasons Saguaro National Park is such a wonderful escape is the sheer lack of RVs, busses, and other large vehicles: The park is intended for hikers and backpackers, so you won’t find any RV sites within its gates. There are only about 20 campsites TOTAL, all of which are only accessible through backcountry hiking. So unless you’re looking to rough it in the desert, you’ll likely need to find a hotel.

The Tanque Verde Ranch borders the east side of the park, and is actually visible from the park’s ridgeline. The luxe dude ranch is about as close to staying in Saguaro National Park as you can get without gear, and even offers guided horseback rides through the saguaros with the added bonus of a bar to enjoy a local craft beer overlooking the Saguaro sunset.

Or just go to Tucson: It’s only a half hour from the park, has an outstanding food and drink scene, and a chilled-out artsy vibe. The Downtown Cliftona chic retro motel done right—has a funky, Austin-back-in-the-day vibe and prices are reasonable.

This easy access and convenient lodging makes it all the more puzzling that Saguaro doesn’t get more love. But its relative obscurity is also its greatest strength—it’s a national park where you can still feel like you’re lost in nature without delving into the backcountry. Its unusual landscape and ideal weather combine to create the experience many look for during a short winter getaway. And as a bonus, you might just feel like  you’re walking around the cartoon set of a childhood memory.

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Matt Meltzer is a Miami-based contributor for Thrillist, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, former pageant judge in the Miss Florida America system, and past contributor to Cosmopolitan magazine. Matt graduated with a BBA from University of Miami and holds a master’s in journalism from the University of Florida. He currently lives in Miami with his Betta fish, Bob.