An out-of-this-world scene awaits those interested in RVing Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona. You’ll find yourself surrounded by miles of giant cacti covering a starkly beautiful landscape. A forest of 60-foot-tall saguaro cacti stands as sentries across the Sonoran Desert, like soldiers in an army of colossal succulents.
These amazing plants take hundreds of years to grow and can only be found in southern Arizona and a small part of southern California, making this place a truly magical destination that must be seen to be believed. It’s an unusual landscape of living wonder, full of spine-covered vegetation in a harsh setting, but in need of preservation for the generations still to come.
To help you plan your visit, here’s our guide to RVing Saguaro National Park in Arizona.
Why Visit Saguaro National Park in an RV?
The park is split in half by the city of Tucson. The east side exists within the Rincon Mountain District and receives more moisture than the west side in the Tucson Mountains.
Both areas protect an amazing desert environment that includes prickly pear, cholla, ocotillo, barrel cactus, and, of course, the giant Saguaro cactus. It’s also home to an astounding variety of wildlife. Roadrunners and rattlesnakes are common here, but so are bobcats, deer, black bears, and mountain lions.
While Saguaro National Park doesn’t have RV camping within its borders, Tucson is very RV-friendly. The region has plenty of campgrounds and offers opportunities to enjoy a variety of outdoor activities, thanks to its warm, sunny weather all year long.
In fact, many snowbirds spend their winters in this eclectic city, which is known for rolling out the red carpet for visitors in motorhomes and travel trailers. RVers will have no problem finding RV parks and campgrounds close to the national park. Most have full hookups and numerous onsite features and amenities.
Some offer shuttles to various locations in Tucson and the surrounding area, including Saguaro National Park, making it easy to leave the motorhome or trailer behind. Once in the park, there is plenty to see and do on foot or bike.
When to Visit Saguaro National Park
Planning for the weather is a big part of visiting any national park. So here’s a little more about the seasons in Saguaro.
Saguaro National Park in the Spring
Early spring brings warm but pleasant conditions, although the season heats up quickly. Daily high temperatures average in the upper-70s and low-80s in March and April, but by mid-May are already climbing into the low 90s.
Rainfall is minimal, but annual snowmelt in the nearby Rincon Mountains creates enough moisture to kick off the spring bloom of wildflowers and cacti. This colorful phenomenon lasts from mid-March through mid-April, with some of the local fauna producing flowers well into the summer.
Saguaro National Park in the Summer
Summers in Saguaro National Park are hot, with temperatures routinely climbing above 100ºF and often reaching 110ºF or more. In June, the days are warm and dry, but by July and August, frequent rainfall adds humidity to the air, making things very steamy. Unsurprisingly, this is the quietest season of the year in terms of visitors, although the park’s namesake cacti continue to bloom well into July most years.
Saguaro National Park in the Fall
The arrival of fall brings lower humidity, and temperatures slowly begin to drop. September can remain very warm, with highs in the 90s. By October and November, cooler weather arrives on the scene, with the mercury dipping into the low 80s and upper 70s.
Crowds tend to remain at a minimum, which leaves the park mostly devoid of visitors. If the summer was an especially wet one, however, a second wildflower bloom sometime occurs at this time of year.
Saguaro National Park in the Winter
Due to its stable weather conditions and lower temperatures, winter is the busiest time of year for Saguaro National Park. Daytime highs drop into the mid-60s in December and January before climbing into the low 70s by February. Snowfalls are rare in the park but do occur from time to time.
At higher elevations, a large storm can drop temperatures into the single digits and deposit as much as two to six feet of snow over the course of several days. Accumulations tend to be much lighter at lower altitudes and melt off fairly quickly.
There can also be occasional light rains, but most days are bright, clear, and sunny, making this an excellent time for hikers and backcountry campers to visit.
Where to Stay
There are no RV campgrounds within either of the park’s two regions, although backcountry camping is allowed. Saguaro National Park has six designated campsites that can be reached on foot. Permits are required for all of the locations and can be obtained at recreation.gov for a nominal nightly fee.
Staying Outside the Park
As mentioned, there are a number of private campgrounds and RV resorts within a few miles of both Saguaro West and East. Here are a few to have on your short list of places to park your rig while staying in the area:
- Rincon Country East Resort: Considered one of the best RV campgrounds in all of Arizona, this resort offers 55 campsites with full hookups, free Wi-Fi, onsite laundry facilities, and a dog park. Best of all, it is located just 15 minutes from the national park.
- Rincon Country West Resort: Another outstanding RV resort located less than a half hour from Saguaro National Park, this campground is similarly outfitted to its sister location. Travelers will find more than 380 well-appointed campsites, all with full hookups, internet connections, and more. Other amenities include a heated swimming pool, hot tubs, and an onsite gym.
- Mission View RV Resort: Located on a Native American reservation, this outstanding campground features 160 campsites with full hookups, along with a heated swimming pool, game room, and gym, all located just 20 miles from the park entrance.
- Far Horizons RV Resort: This resort offers 40 campsites with full hookups, onsite showers, laundry services, a heated pool, a hot tub, and a sauna. It is also conveniently located 20 minutes from the park.
- Prince of Tucson RV Park: An excellent location for RVing families, this resort has 175+ sites with full hookups and wireless internet services. Other amenities include a heated pool, hot tub, game room, and organized onsite activities. And when you’re ready to head over to Saguaro, the park entrance is just 15 minutes away.
Tips for Your Camping Stay
- With no RV camping inside Saguaro National Park, you’ll need to reserve a campsite at one of the private campgrounds nearby. During the winter, those locations fill up quickly, so be sure to book well in advance of your visit.
- Backcountry camping is allowed in the park by permit only. Book your campsite and pay your fees at recreation.gov.
- Cell service is limited and spotty throughout the park, so don’t rely on your smartphone for navigation.
- The park is open year-round, with an entry fee of $25 for most vehicles. Visitors on motorcycles are charged $20, while individuals on foot or bike must pay $15 to enter the park. All passes are good for seven days from when they are issued.
- Visitor centers are open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day of the year except Christmas.
- Saguaro’s West District is open from sunrise to sunset each day of the year, while the East District is open to vehicles from 5:00 AM to 8:00 PM in the summer and 5:00 AM to 6:00 PM in the winter.
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How to Get Around Saguaro National Park
Whether you’re visiting the East or West District, getting to Saguaro National Park is pretty straightforward. One thing to keep in mind, however, is the road to Saguaro West is limited to vehicles less than 25 feet long and weighing no more than 12,000 lbs. If your RV doesn’t fit those restrictions, then plan on exploring in a smaller vehicle or look for an alternate route.
To get to Saguaro West, follow Speedway Boulevard west over Gates Pass to Kinney Road. Turn right and travel four miles on Kinney Road to Mile Wide Roads, turning right into the park. The visitor center is one mile past the entrance.
Arriving at Saguaro East is done by exiting Interstate 10 at Exit 275 (Houghton Road) and going north for eight miles. Turn right on Escalante, traveling for two miles, then turn left on Old Spanish Trail.
Traveling through both sides of the park is best by automobile, as some parts of the scenic loop drives are narrow and twisty. Driving a large RV can be slow and problematic inside Saguaro, with some areas completely off-limits.
Places to Go
Here are a few of the places you’ll definitely want to visit if it’s your first time at Saguaro National Park:
Sonoran Desert Museum
Located one mile from the entrance to Saguaro National Park’s western district, the museum is actually a combination zoo, art gallery, botanical garden, aquarium, and natural history museum, with 230 animal species and 1,200 plants.
If you’re traveling with kids, this place is a must-see. It’s a great way to bring some educational content to your trip and get a better understanding of the region. But even if you don’t have kids, the museum comes highly recommended, as it provides some fascinating insights into the land that you’re traveling through and experiencing.
There is a cactus garden at each of the two visitor centers with interpretive signs and ranger-led tours along an easy nature trail. The gardens are both easy to walk through and include interpretive signs with information about the natural fauna of the desert. Photographers will also enjoy opportunities to get close-up shots of plant life.
Signal Hill Petroglyph Area
Head to the park’s Signal Hill Picnic Area to find one of the most fascinating sites in Saguaro. There you’ll discover a location that is home to over 200 petroglyphs that were created by indigenous people between 500 and 1500 years ago. It is a stunning place that marks the region’s history, demonstrating just how long people have roamed and lived in these lands.
Sunsets in the park can be breathtakingly beautiful. To catch one of these stunning views, take the half-mile hike to Tanque Verde Ridge or pull over at the Javalina Rocks in the East District. Alternatively, the Gates Pass in the West District is an excellent place to catch the last light of the day.
Things to Do in Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is about experiencing all that this unique place has to offer. Here are a few ways to explore the incredible landscapes there:
With over 165 miles of trails, hiking is by far the best way to see Saguaro National Park. Trails can take you from 3,000 feet in elevation to over 8,000 feet. Be prepared for desert climates and go slow if you are not accustomed to the altitude.
Some of the tops trails that can be found in the park include:
- Loma Verde Loop – 3.8 miles (60 feet of elevation gain)
- Freeman Homestead Trail – 1 mile
- Hope Camp and Ridgeview Trail – 2 miles (400 feet of elevation gain)
- Garwood Dam and Wildhorse Tank – 6.4 miles
- Tanque Verde Ridge Trail – 8.7 miles
- Wild Dog Trail – 1.8 miles
- King Canyon/Gould Mine Loop – 2.4 miles (380 feet of elevation gain)
- Sendero Esperanza Trail – 8 miles (Up to 1600 feet of elevation gain)
Hiking is a must-do for all visitors to Saguaro National Park. If you intend to pay the park a visit, plan to go on at least one good hike. This will help you see parts aspects of the landscape that you can’t reach in an RV or vehicle. Here’s some more information on hiking this wonderful national park, and be sure to review Saguaro’s hiking restrictions before setting out.
Backpacking and Backcountry Camping
Backpacking is one of the best ways to see the park and is the only way to reach Saguaro’s remote backcountry. The park covers nearly 92,000 acres, much of which is never seen by most visitors. But adventurous backpackers can access these areas, particularly when setting out from Douglas Spring Trailhead in the east or delving into the Rincon Mountain Region in the west.
There are six backcountry campgrounds within park boundaries. All of the locations offer primitive camping only, which means they have few amenities. Plan to bring plenty of water for the length of your stay, as there is little to be found in the backcountry. Some of the campgrounds may have water, depending on the season.
Saguaro’s in-park campgrounds include:
- Manning Camp: Six campsites onsite, and a ranger is usually posted here between April and September.
- Spud Rock Spring: This is the most remote campground in the park. There are only three campsites here.
- Happy Valley: This campground is accessible via a dirt road that’s not regularly maintained. You’d need a jeep or a lifted truck to get there. There are three sites here.
- Juniper Basin: There are three sites at Juniper Basin, which has water on a seasonal basis. Fires are allowed except under extremely dry circumstances.
- Grass Shack: This campground offers three campsites and is one of the best places to camp in the park. There is shade and water most times throughout the year, although fires are not allowed.
- Douglas Spring: Cottonwood trees provide plenty of shade here. There are three campsites to choose from.
Permits are required for backcountry camping and can be obtained from recreation.gov prior to arrival.
Backpacking in Saguaro National Park can be quite the undertaking, so ensure you have all the right gear and are well-prepared for your backcountry adventure. Camping World sells all sorts of gear that can assist when traveling in remote locations, so be sure you have everything you need before you depart.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
- The park’s visitor centers offer limited drinks and snacks, so travelers must bring food and water for the length of their stay.
- The desert environment is often very dry and hot, so stay hydrated at all times. This is especially important if you are hiking or camping in the backcountry.
- The park ranges in altitude from 3,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. If you are not accustomed to those elevations, you may find yourself experiencing shortness of breath, headaches, or mild nausea. Take your time while hiking and allow your body time to acclimate to the conditions.
- Bring a backpack to carry your gear while hiking. In addition to food and water, throw in an extra layer no matter the season, as well as a headlamp, first aid kit, and sunscreen.
- The landscapes inside the park can be rocky and rugged. Wear a good pair of supportive hiking boots when venturing onto a trail.
- During the early spring, late fall, and winter, the park can be cool or even cold. Be sure to bring extra layers to help keep you warm, including an insulated jacket and fleece layer.
A Brief History of Saguaro National Park
The first residents of this region were the Hohokam tribe, who lived in the area between 200 and 1450 BCE. They left numerous petroglyphs throughout the region, which have become one of the hallmark attractions of the park. The indigenous group subsisted on deer, cactus buds, squash, and corn that they managed to grow in the overly sandy soil.
Spanish explorers arrived along the Santa Cruz River in 1539, where the San Xavier del Bac Mission was built, just south of the western portion of the park. After that, the area remained relatively free of development until the late 1800s.
After the Apache Wars ended, settlers and miners filtered into Tucson and the surrounding desert to seek their fortune in the West. But it wasn’t until 1920 that members of the Natural History Society at the University of Arizona called for the protection of the unique saguaro cacti that are found only in this region.
By 1933 President Herbert Hoover proclaimed a section of the Rincon Mountains to the east of Tucson as Saguaro National Monument. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy added 16,000 acres to the west, expanding the monument and formerly creating the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District.
In 1994, the two separate units were combined into one and formally declared a national park, which sees nearly one million visitors annually.
Have you ever been to Saguaro National Park? Leave a comment below.
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