After a couple of days exploring Albuquerque and Las Cruces, New Mexico we headed on back to Arizona to check off our next national park.
I wish we’d had more time to explore Tucson itself, but we had to drive from Las Cruces to Tucson, explore Saguaro National Park, head back up to Phoenix to check in at our friend’s house, drive to the airport to pick up other friends AND go to a hockey game all in one day. So needless to say, our time in Saguaro was brief, but I honestly think we were able to fit everything in that we wanted to.
We began in the Rincon Mountain Distract, or East side, of Saguaro National Park. It’s a funny park in that there are two different sections to it that are almost an hour drive apart from each other.
After a quick stop at the visitor center, we took off on Cactus Forest Drive.
And a cactus forest it was. I knew there were going to be a lot of cacti, obviously, but I was still blown away by just how many there truly were. As far as the eye can see! Literally like a forest of evergreens that we would have back home, but cacti instead.
It’s a short little loop around, but I liked seeing all the different variations of cacti. And we definitely came at the right time of year. I can’t imagine anyone going in the summer with how hot it must be, but we basically had the park to ourselves in January too. When do people go? It was 80 degrees when we were there. How do more people not explore these beautiful Arizona places in the winter?
The first hike we did was the Freeman Homestead trail. It’s more of a walking path than a hike, but it was cool to stretch our legs and actually get out among the cacti.
We called the trees above Shrek trees because of their green skin. I don’t think we ever figured out what they were actually called, but I like Shrek trees just fine.
It’s a short mile-long hike with signs placed intermittently for kids to play along with (finding different cacti, animals, etc.)
I like the below picture because you can see four completely different species of cacti all in one shot.
We were so lucky with the weather we had all trip. Clear skies and sunshine as far as the eye could see!
It’s hard to tell just how tall these guys are from the pictures, but don’t worry, James and I had a lot of fun posing with them to give you a good scale.
From there we headed over to the Tucson Mountain District or the west section of the park. The drive over was cool to see Tucson down in the valley, but coming back up into the mountains on the other side was beautiful! It was a quaint, winding mountain road that seemed to go on forever before we finally saw signs for the national park again. I LOVED the views from this side of the park.
Just outside the west visitor center is the Cactus Garden Trail where you can walk around and read up on all the different species of plants and cacti in the park.
There’s where we saw our first rattlesnake warning too. I was surprised we didn’t see them all over the place in the east as well, like bear country warnings in Montana and Wyoming.
I was a little nervous about snakes, but we didn’t really see any snakes or rodents or anything. I guess they stay away in the winter. All I really wanted was to see a roadrunner, but maybe next time. Meep meep.
From there we set off on the Hohokam Rd and Golden Gate Rd loop. Unlike Cactus Forest Dr, this loop was all dirt roads. The main loop is still accessible by a standard sedan though and we had no problems in our little rental car.
The one regret I had about our limited time in the park is missing out on the Hugh Norris Trail. I’ve heard great things about it, but we just didn’t have the time to trek out on it. But when we come back we will definitely check out this trail and actually do some substantial hiking up into the mountain.
Instead we decided to do the much shorter Valley View Overlook Trail. I don’t think we saw a single person outside of the visitor center on this side of the park. We didn’t pass anyone on the road and we had the trailhead parking lot and entire trail all to ourselves.
However, I think sleep deprivation finally got the best of me after our long week of traveling (and waking up at 5am that morning) and I just blatantly read a sign wrong and sent us off on the Wild Dog Trail instead. Good thing I’m very directionally savvy because I started to realize something didn’t seem right and good ol’ Google Maps informed me that we were actually halfway through the wrong trail. Wild Dog basically just cuts across the loop road which would’ve been fine if we could’ve somehow summoned our car to come meet us on the other side. But alas, we had to turn around and head back.
The trail we did had incredible views of the valley and surrounding mountains as well though so I don’t think we missed out on too much.
On our way out of the park we stopped at Signal Hill to check out even more petroglyphs! Always fun.
I thought the views were prettier on the west side of the park, but it was very similar to Cactus Forest Drive. I’m glad we checked out both districts, but honestly if you are strapped for time, I think you can get all you need out of visiting just one of the districts. I would recommend the west, but they’re very similar. There are just more mountain views and hiking trails on the west side which is right up my alley.
Three things you can’t miss:
- Hugh Norris Trail
- Cactus Forest Drive
- Tucson Mountain District