The quintessential symbol of the American desert, saguaro cacti occur naturally only here in the Sonoran Desert. Sensitive to fire and frost, and exceedingly slow to mature, these massive, treelike cacti grow naturally in great profusion around Tucson, but have long been threatened by development and by plant collectors. In 1933, to protect these desert giants, the federal government set aside two large tracts of land as a saguaro preserve. This preserve eventually became Saguaro National Park. The two units of the park, one on the east side of the city (Rincon Mountain District) and one on the west (Tucson Mountain District), preserve not only dense stands of saguaros, but also the many other wild inhabitants of this part of the Sonoran Desert. Both units have loop roads, nature trails, hiking trails, and picnic grounds.

The west unit of the park is more popular with visitors because of its proximity to both the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum ( and Old Tucson Studios ( it’s your best choice if you’re trying to see a lot of Tucson in a short amount of time. This section also happens to have the most impressive stands of saguaros. Be sure to take the scenic Bajada Loop Drive, where you’ll find dramatic views and several hiking trails (the Hugh Morris Trail involves a long, steep climb, but great views are the reward). To reach the west unit of the park, follow Speedway Boulevard west from downtown Tucson (it becomes Gates Pass Blvd.). Stop in at the visitor center for an overview of the park’s natural history.

The east unit of the park contains an older area of saguaro “forest” at the foot of the Rincon Mountains. This section is popular with hikers because most of it has no roads. It also has a visitor center, a loop scenic drive, a picnic area, and a trail open to mountain bikes (the paved loop drive is a great road-bike ride). To reach the east unit of the park, take Speedway Boulevard east, then head south on Freeman Road to Old Spanish Trail.