I’ve always been satisfied by a visit to a National Park, and my recent adventure at Saguaro National Park (suh-waa-row) in Tucson, Arizona, kept the streak going. The Sonoran Desert is the only place in the world where the iconic Saguaro cactus grows. Standing beside tall tubular cacti, some over 150 years old, I felt humbled and awe-struck. The giant but slow-growing plants bud their first limbs in 60-70 years. Thankfully, the saguaro is a protected species within two national park sections straddling opposite sides of the city. They cover 143 square miles and include almost 2 million prickly plants.
There are two entrances to Saguaro National Park: the most popular is the Tucson Mountain District (TMD) or Saguaro West. The TMB offers a denser growth of the saguaro and more scenic drives. The other section is the Rincon Mountain District (RMD) or Saguaro East. The eastern area is more rugged and remote. The distance between the two is 30 miles, but allow 45-60 minutes by car.
I drove to Saguaro West from downtown Tucson, following Gates Pass Road, a challenging two-lane street that traversed up, down, and around the scrubby landscape. Focusing on the street is difficult when you only want to stare at the ridiculous beauty around you. Drivers must be cautious and keep their eye on the narrow road, only sightsee the terrain once stopping at overlooks.
What to See at the Red Hills Visitor Center in Saguaro West
I couldn’t help but pull off to take some landscape photos as I approached the park entrance. Turn in when you see the official National Park sign and stop if you want to take a picture. The Visitor Center rests further down the road. You’ll find a big parking lot, restrooms, water fountains to refill water bottles (the park does not sell plastic bottles), plantings with identifying helpful signage, and even a few trails around the building.
Once inside, you can obtain information about the current Ranger-led Programs, including guided hikes, campfire talks, and stargazing events. The rangers answer questions and can provide handouts to help with specific needs. I asked about sunrise and sunset photo locations and received a sheet with places and tips.
I also watched the introductory video about the park, which was more about environmental protection and native history than the saguaro. The curtain rises at the film’s end, revealing an incredible panoramic view.
The Visitor Center glass-enclosed displays highlight the desert plants and wildlife, including the saguaro, prickly pear cactus, barrel cactus, javelinas, coyotes, and desert tortoises.
I learned that Arizona’s state flower, the saguaro cactus blossom, blooms for less than 24 hours. It starts in the early evening and fades by noon the following day. It’s a short window, but bats and early-morning honey bees quickly work the nectar and facilitate cross-pollination. Mid-April through the first week of June, you can see the cacti blooming.
The center also includes a relatively small gift shop and a place to stamp National Park Passport books.
What to Do in Saguaro National Park
The main park activities are hiking, photography, and bird watching. Start early to avoid the day’s heat if you plan to hike. Saguaro National Park offers over 165 miles of hiking trails, providing various experiences, from easy walks to challenging backcountry treks. Popular paths include the Valley View Overlook Trail and the King Canyon Trail. Some unique photography spots include the Signal Hill Picnic Area petroglyphs and the Javelina Rocks in the eastern section.
For those pressed for time, or if the heat is too overwhelming, you can drive around the park without getting out of your car. I chose to check this out by circuiting the Bajada Loop. This 6-mile gravel drive, with a ten mph speed limit, offered sweeping vistas of the Tucson Mountains and the Sonoran Desert. I pulled over several times to use my camera and walk closer to the cacti. Unfortunately, when I turned off the trail to take a short hike to see the Signal Hill petroglyphs, cars packed the parking lot to capacity. So, I missed that opportunity and drove on.
The Cactus Forest Loop Drive is an 8-mile paved road that winds through the park’s saguaro forest in the eastern district.
Birdwatchers are happy as the park is home to approximately 200 bird species.
FYI: The park closes at sunset, so if you come to photograph or observe, you must leave soon afterward.
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
I passed the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum when driving to the park but returned the next day. This popular facility—part-zoo, part-botanical garden, part-history museum, and part-art gallery deserves a stop. You could spend an entire day here. The region’s flora and fauna include 1,200 plants like agave, green-barked palo verde trees, cholla, and prickly pear cacti. The gardens are standouts, but the animals drew my interest. Exhibits feature javelinas, bobcats, mountain lions, Mexican gray wolves, insects, snakes, hummingbirds, and more. As you meander the trails, you will encounter some interactive exhibits especially enjoyed by children. I loved this place and highly recommended it as part of a Saguaro National Park tour.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
I also recommend visiting San Xavier del Bac Mission, a historic Spanish Catholic mission church ten miles from downtown Tucson. The stunning white stucco façade with two towers appears out of nowhere on a large sandy lot.
The mission was founded in 1692 and has continued for over 200 years. The current structure dates back to 1783. Experts regard it as one of the best examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the US, often called the Sistine Chapel of the New World. Since I’d recently visited Mexico, I found the architecture similar to Mexican cathedrals.
The interior showcases a colorful painted ceiling and niches with carvings of saints. Again, as I saw in Mexico, many statues wear cloth outfits. The beautiful gold altar was under renovation, but the church is still very much worth a visit.
San Xavier del Bac Mission remains a Catholic pilgrimage site. Take time to go into the side chapel, where you’ll see objects brought by pilgrims. A very short hike up the hill provides an imposing landscape view.
Today, Franciscan Catholics run the mission and continue to serve the Tohono O’odham Nation.
A Few Tips
The church is open to the public daily.
Members of the tribal Nation prepare food in tents on the side of the parking lot.
Excellent docent-led tours are available on weekdays. Visit the https://sanxaviermission.org for more information.