Contact Saguaro National Park, 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, AZ 85730-5601 (tel. 520/733-5100; www.nps.gov/sagu). Information is also available at the website of the Friends of Saguaro National Park, 2700 N. Kinney Rd., Tucson, AZ 85743 (tel. 520/733-8610; www.friendsofsaguaro.org). For information on other area attractions and services, contact the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, 100 S. Church Ave., Tucson, AZ 85701 (tel. 800/638-8350 or 520/624-1817; www.visittucson.org).
Those particularly interested in the plants, animals, and geology of the park can get additional information from books sold at park bookstores. If you're spending more time in the Tucson area, or looking to explore other parks in Arizona, we also recommend Frommer's Arizona, by Karl Samson, which includes information on Tucson, Phoenix, and all the major national and state parks, from the Four Corners area to the Grand Canyon.
The park has two visitor centers, one in each district. Both visitor centers are open daily from 9am to 5pm (closed Dec 25). The park is open daily 7am until sunset.
On the west side of the park, in the Tucson Mountain District, the Red Hills Visitor Center (tel. 520/733-5158) has a museum, an information desk, and a bookstore. The museum offers exhibits on desert life and a 15-minute program on the uniqueness and importance of deserts.
On the park's east side, in the Rincon Mountain District, the visitor center (tel. 520/733-5153) has similar facilities on a smaller scale. There's an excellent 15-minute video on the flora and fauna of the park, and exhibits on saguaro and deserts.
Fees & Permits
Entry to the park (either side or both) costs $10 per private vehicle, or $5 per person on foot or bike. Permits for backcountry camping cost $6 per campsite per night and can be obtained in advance by writing the park, or at the Rincon Mountain District Visitor Center after arrival.
Special Regulations & Warnings
Extreme heat, cactus spines, and poisonous reptiles are the main safety hazards here. Temperatures that soar to 115°F (46°C) in summer make hiking not only uncomfortable, but also often dangerous. Those who insist on hiking in the hot months can minimize the dangers by starting very early in the day, perhaps by 4am, and getting off the trails by noon. Hikers should carry plenty of water and drink it even if they do not feel thirsty.
Cactus spines can be very painful, as anyone who's backed into one while trying to line up a photo can tell you. The bites of rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, and scorpions are poisonous. Park rangers recommend that you always look before putting your hands or feet under rocks or in other hidden spots, and that you use a flashlight at night to help avoid unwanted encounters. Weather-related dangers include lightning (stay off exposed ridges during thunderstorms) and flash floods (avoid drainages during rain).
For those who have not experienced the Southwest's deserts, and particularly the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, Saguaro National Park can be an unusual experience, according to Tom Danton, the park's former chief of interpretation.
"Many visitors are petrified," he says. "It's essential they stop at the visitor center to learn about the park before going out into it." The park environment, with its extreme heat and forests of saguaro, is alien to most people's experiences. Visitors can be more frightened when they learn there are rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, and other poisonous creatures.
Among his suggestions for enjoying Saguaro West are hiking the 5.5-mile Hugh Norris Trail. "Within 30 minutes you feel like you're on the top of the world," he says. "You get a tremendous sense of accomplishment." For those with less ambition or time, he suggests the short Valley View Overlook Trail and the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, both also in the western district.
On the east side, he suggests the easy Freeman Homestead Trail, which passes by the site of a historic homestead, and the challenging Tanque Verde Ridge Trail, which, he says, is "steep and rugged, but gives you great views of Tucson and the mountains." To really be alone, he recommends trying some of the backcountry trails, where you'll be hiking from desert up into forests of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine.
The prettiest time at the park is spring, when the wildflowers and cacti are in bloom, but Danton says he would visit in midwinter, when the weather is best for hiking. In winter there are also many interpretive programs, such as moonlight walks, and you seldom see any poisonous reptiles.
Danton says that one problem for visitors going to Saguaro East is the lack of parking, even at the visitor center. He suggests that those with recreational vehicles use a smaller vehicle in the park, if they have one, or check with rangers about where to park their big rigs. At the pullouts just inside the Cactus Forest Drive, RVs can be parked when there's no room in the parking lot.