Saguaro National Park Hiking and Backpacking Overview

Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park (Purestock/Getty)

Saguaro National Park Hiking and Backpacking

  • The Tucson Mountains District west of Tucson has easy trails off the Bajada Loop Drive. For a challenge, follow King Canyon Trail up 4,687-foot Wassen Peak in seven miles round-trip, more if you make a loop with other trails.
  • Desert Discovery Trail in the Tucson Mountains District is an easy paved loop of about a half-mile. Interpretive signs show how animals and plants adapt to the Sonoran Desert. The trailhead is 0.9 mile northwest of the visitor center.
  • The Rincon Mountains District east of Tucson has easy trails along Cactus Forest Drive, moderate trails in the Cactus Forest Trail System, and strenuous backpacking trails to the heights of Saguaro Wilderness.
  • Mica Mountain at 8,666 feet is the highest summit in the Saguaro Wilderness. As it's far from trailheads, you need to plan on a multi-day trip, staying at one of the six designated campgrounds and obtaining a camping permit.
  • Saguaro National Park East (Rincon Unit) has two nature trails off Cactus Forest Drive, the quarter-mile, round-trip Desert Ecology Trail and the one-mile, round-trip Freeman Homestead Nature Trail.
  • The Cactus Forest Trail System in the park's Rincon Mountain District offers about 40 miles of interconnecting trails. Those in the west cross gentle terrain; farther east the hills become more rugged and scenic.
  • Both districts of the park have a cactus garden beside the visitor center where you can learn about the desert plants that you will be seeing on your hikes.
Special Feature
Hush among the Saguaro - Hiking the Tucson Mountains near Saquaro National Park

Saguaro East

About 128 miles of trails wind through the desert and mountain country of Saguaro East. Short hikes will introduce you to the plant and animal life of the Sonoran Desert, while backcountry trails will allow you to explore the higher elevations of the Rincon Mountain Wilderness area.

Interpretive Trails: The 0.25-mile paved Desert Ecology Trail, located along Cactus Forest Drive, provides a brief explanation of water's role in the desert. This self-guiding trail is accessible to the disabled. The Freeman Homestead Nature Trail is a one-mile loop trail located near the Javelina Picnic Area. Interpretive signs discuss early and modern Tucson as well as homesteading in the desert during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many other trails along the scenic drive are suitable for short hikes into the nearly pristine desert environment of this area, winding through the cactus forest in the Rincon Mountain District. The terrain varies from fairly level to gently rolling to moderately steep. For information on these trails, stop at the visitor center.

Backcountry Access: Several longer hiking trails, including the Tanque Verde Ridge and the Douglas Spring Trails, penetrate the vast wilderness of the Rincon Mountains and their foothills. This is part of the park few people experience because is it accessible only by foot or on horseback. It is quite unlike the lowland cactus deserts. In the Rincon Mountains, woodlands of scrub oak and pine and forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir similar to those of the northern United States and southern Canada prevail.

Because many of the trails of Saguaro East intersect one another, trips of varying length can be planned. Horseback riding is permitted on all trails except the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail, Miller Creek Trail, and the Rincon Peak Trail. Before hiking or horseback riding into the Rincon Mountains, check with a park ranger on trail conditions. Backcountry permits, which can be obtained free of charge at the visitor center, are required for all overnight stays, and camping is allowed only at designated sites.

Saguaro West

A hike in Saguaro West can be a stroll on a nature trail among majestic Saguaros or or a day-long wilderness trek into the rocky Tucson Mountains. Within a mile of the information center you can find two nature trails. Longer trails penetrate the wild country of the Tucson Mountains and their foothills. Because these trails intersect one another, you can make your hike as long or as short as desired. Horseback riding is permitted on all trails. It is recommended that you stay on trails; abandoned mine shafts make off-trail exploration hazardous. Camping is not permitted.

Short Walks and Nature Trails (1.5 miles or less, round-trip):

Cactus Garden - 100 yards
This walk begins directly in front of the parking lot at the Red Hills Visitor Center. Interpretive signs will acquaint you with the most common native vegetation in the Tucson Mountain District. The trail is wheelchair accessible.

Desert Discovery Trail - 0.5 mile
You will find the trailhead to this self-guided nature walk on Kinney road, one mile northwest of the Red Hills Visitor Center. Here you can familiarize yourself with the native plants, animals, and ecology of the Sonoran Desert.

Valley View Overlook Trail - 0.8 mile
This trail was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. The trailhead is located on the Bajada Loop Drive, 3.5 miles north of the Red Hills Visitor Center. While hiking this trail, you will pass through two washes and then gradually ascend to a ridge. The view from the ridge is superb, with Avra Valley sprawled below and Picacho Peak standing to the north.

Signal Hill Petroglyphs Trail - 0.25 mile
This easy climb takes you to dozens of ancient Indian art works. It zigzags up a small hill just north of Signal Hill picnic area, which is off Golden Gate Road, five miles from the Red Hills Visitor Center.

Desert And Mountain Hiking Trails (3.5 to 4.9 miles, one-way):

King Canyon Trail - 3.5 miles
The trailhead and parking area for this hike are directly across the road from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, two miles southwest of the Red Hills Visitor Center. The first 0.9 mile is a gradual climb up to the Mam-a-Gah picnic area, named after a Tohono O'Odham Indian Chief. The next 1.4 miles are steeper. After the Sweetwater Trail junction, numerous switchbacks encompass the next 0.9 mile to the Hugh Norris Trail. Stock are prohibited on the King Canyon Trail from the Sweetwater Trail to Hugh Norris Trail. The final 0.3 mile ascends to the top of Wasson Peak (elevation 4,687 feet), the highest point in the Tucson Mountains.

Hugh Norris Trail - 4.9 miles
This is the longest trail in the Tucson Mountain District. It begins off the Bajada Loop Drive, 2.5 miles north of the Red Hills Visitor Center. The trail was named after a former chief of the Tohono O'Odham Indian Police. The trail begins immediately with a series of switchbacks to the top of a ridge overlooking the cactus forest. From there it ascends along the ridge top through areas with splendid views and unique rock formations until it reaches Amole Peak, approximately 4.1 miles from the trailhead. It continues up a series of switchbacks and then climbs gradually to its end atop Wasson Peak, elevation 4,687 feet. Stock are prohibited on the Hugh Norris Trail.

More on the Hugh Norris Trail

Ringtail Trail - 1 mile
The Ringtail Trail is a major access to the trail network in the eastern part of the district from Picture Rocks Road. The trail connects to several other trails in the area, including Picture Rocks Wash Trail, providing several loop opportunities. The terrain varies from fairly level, to gently rolling, to moderately steep. Use extreme caution while accessing this trail at Picture Rocks Road. Traffic can be heavy.

Sendero Esperanza Trail - 3.2 miles
This trailhead is approximately 6 miles from the Red Hills Visitor Center, 1.5 miles east of the intersection of Bajada Loop Drive and Golden Gate Road. The trail ends at King Canyon Trail and the Mam-a-Gah picnic area. For approximately the first mile, the trail follows the sandy path of an old mine road. It then climbs a series of switchbacks to the top of the ridge west of Amole Peak. Then it descends 1.4 miles to Mam-a-Gah picnic area and the King Canyon Trail. It is .9 mile down King Canyon Trail to Kinney Road, directly across from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Sweetwater Trail - 3.4 miles, 4.5 miles total to Wasson Peak
Sweetwater Trail is the only access to Wasson Peak from the eastern side of the Tucson Mountains. Trailhead parking is at the eastern end of Camino del Cerro Road. After 3.3 miles of steady climbing the trail ends at the King Canyon Trail. To reach Wasson Peak, continue up the switchbacks 0.9 mile on the King Canyon Trail to the Hugh Norris Trail. Stock are prohibited on the King Canyon Trail from the Sweetwater Trail to Hugh Norris Trail. Follow the Hugh Norris Trail the final 0.3 miles to Wasson Peak.

More on the Sweetwater Trail

Cam-Boh Trail - 2.7 miles
This trail runs parallel to Picture Rocks road from Cam-Boh Picnic Area to the Ringtail Trail. As a major connection between the east and west parts of the district, the Cam-Boh Trail provides several loop opportunities for both equestrians and hikers.

Cactus Wren Trail - 1.5 miles
Cactus Wren Trail is a major access to the trail network from the western side of the district. The trail runs from the corner of Sandario Road and Rudasill Road to Signal Hill Picnic Area. This trail is fairly flat and crosses several washes. Stock are prohibited on the Cactus Wren Trail south of Encinas Trail.

For Your Safety
Hiking and other strenuous activities in extreme heat can be hazardous. Pace yourself and rest often. Carry water (at least one gallon per person per day is recommended) and drink even when you don't feel thirsty. There is no water available at picnic areas or along most trails. Beware of painful encounters with cacti and other prickly plants. Be especially careful near cholla cactus spines that, with just the slightest touch, can become embedded in your skin. If a cactus joint attaches itself, use two sticks, a pocket comb, or other object as a lever to flip it away.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Jan 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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