Saguaro National Park is located to the west and east of Tucson, AZ, home of the giant saguaro and the largest cacti in the country. The giant saguaro have become the symbol of the American West, and are found in few parts of the nation. Visitors to the park can view these massive, majestic cacti with the beautiful desert sunset in the background. Saguaro National Park is about much more than just cactus though. People have lived in the area for thousands of years, from the prehistoric Hohokam to ranchers and homesteaders. They all left their own mark on the land as they raised families, planted crops, hunted, and tended livestock.

Saguaro National Monument in Arizona was established by Herbert Hoover on March 1, 1933. The monument contained the almost empty desert, fifteen miles to the east of Tucson. Times, however, sometimes change quickly. President Franklin Roosevelt, just two months later, gave the order for sixteen national monuments to be given to the National Park Service. Thus, Saguaro started its journey to the national park it is today.

This progress was often painful. Young cacti were trampled on by cattle for decades, "cactus rustling" was rampant, and water had to be hauled from the town's center by early rangers. Aging cacti and a lack of regeneration caused many people to believe the giant saguaro was a dying breed, quite a bit like the frontier life the cactus symbolized.

In the 1950's, a visitor center was opened in the park, and a better understanding of the life cycle of the giant saguaro through significant scientific research was brought by 1970. President Kennedy, at the urging of Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall and the citizens of Tucson, added an additional twenty-five square miles of spectacular cactus lands located in the Tucson Mountains to the Saguaro National Monument. The national monument became Saguaro National Park in 1994 after Congress set aside an expansive amount of wilderness area. Certain attractions may be temporarily closed or require advance reservations. Hours/availability may have changed.

1.Wilderness Hiking

Wilderness Hiking
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For visitors looking for adventure in Saguaro National Park, a long hike into the park's rugged wilderness it a great opportunity for some adventurous exploration. An overnight hike through the park's wilderness will take hikers around fifteen miles from an elevation of about 3,000 feet to more than 8,000 feet. Hikes can begin from any of the five trailheads. These trails range from the Douglas Spring Trailhead, which is easy to access at Speedway Boulevard's east end, to the Italian Spring Trailhead, a remote trail that can be accessed through Reddington Pass.

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2.Nature & Science

Nature & Science
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The Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District make up Saguaro National Park. The Rincon Mountain District stretches from the eastern side of Tucson, while the Tucson Mountain District stretches from the western side of the city. These two districts were created to preserve and showcase the Saguaro Cactus forests. While most think of the park as a desert park, there is much more to it than that. The well-known desert environment exists more at the park's lower elevations where Sonoran Desert vegetation is found. The Tucson Mountain District, ranging from 2,180 feet to 4,687 feet in elevation includes two biotic communities, desert grassland, and desert scrub. The average precipitation each year is about 10.27 inches, and wildlife commonly found in the area includes the desert tortoise, Gambel's quail, and coyote.

Saguaro National Park's Rincon Mountain District ranges from 2,670 feet to 8,666 feet in elevation and consists of six biotic communities. The biotic communities include mixed conifer forest, pine forest, pine-oak woodland, oak woodland, desert grassland, and desert scrub. The average precipitation per year is about 12.30 inches. More diversity in wildlife and plant life, as well as more biotic communities exist in the Rincon Mountains than the Tucson Mountains due to its peaks reaching a substantially higher elevation. Animals such as white-tailed deer, Mexican spotted-owls, black bears, and Arizona mountain king snakes live in the Rincon Mountain District because of the higher elevation.

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Many different species of animals call Saguaro National Park home, despite the Sonoran Desert's foreboding nature. Adaptation to the desert's scarce supply of water and high temperatures has been key to these animals' survival. Several species avoid the hot temperatures during the day and are only active during the night. Some seek shelter in burrows or shaded nests. Other animals possess features that help them stay cool in the high temperatures, such as the large ears of the jackrabbit that radiate heat away from its body.

An assortment of unusual animals live within Saguaro National Park, a few of which only exist in southern Arizona. Collared peccaries, horned lizards, roadrunners, and Gila monsters are all often seen by visitors. While the park is located on the Sonoran Desert's edge, Mica Mountain stretches in height to over 8,600 feet. The altitude of this mountain, found within the Rincon Mountain District, allows for pine trees and cooler temperatures. This environment is home to mammals such as white-tailed deer and black bears. Coati, as well as other species more often associated with tropical environments, also can be found within Saguaro National Park. Desert waters that are often hidden contain mud turtles and aquatic leopard frogs.

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Plant life can be found in abundance throughout Saguaro National Park, despite the fact that the park is situated in a desert. These plants have adapted to drought conditions are able to go dormant during long periods of no rain in order to conserve their water. The plants may look lifeless during these times, however, after rain falls they come back to life with green leaves. The park is in fact full of green vegetation throughout the rainy season.

Within only two days following a rain shower, the ocotillo plant's appearance changes from what seems to be a small pile of dead sticks to a happy shrub covered in leaves on tall green branches. Many different plant species can be found throughout Saguaro National Park thanks to the varying elevation levels. According to current research, approximately 400 species exist in the Tucson Mountain District and approximately 1,200 different species in the Rincon Mountain District.

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5.Water in Saguaro National Park

Water in Saguaro National Park
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Since Saguaro National Park is located in a desert, many people may think that there isn't much water in the area. However, this isn't exactly true. The park contains several unique water aspects that help the broad variety of plants and animals survive the desert environment. There are two districts that make up Saguaro National Park, one to the east of Tucson and one to the west. The two districts, while the same park, are immensely different. The east side district is higher in elevation, rising from the valley to more than 8,000 feet at Mica Mountain. Vegetation varies from temperate pine forests to desert scrub. More than thirty inches of rain falls on the mountain each year, providing streams and springs down farther on the mountain front with water. The west district has a lower elevation with mostly desert vegetation, and only receives about a foot of rain each year.

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6.Junior Ranger Programs

Junior Ranger Programs
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Younger visitors are encouraged to explore and discover new things in the Saguaro National Park environment through activities such as a desert hike, dissecting owl pellets, drawing a cactus, or using a backpack stove to cook a trail snack. These are only a handful of the possible activities kids can experience when they participate in the Junior Ranger program at the park. The park service believes future stewardship of Saguaro National Park is extremely important.

Junior Rangers are explorers, learners, and protectors of the national parks. They discover new ways they can help ensure there will be parks in the future to visit. Junior Ranger participants learn about things they can do both in the parks and at home. Upon completion of the program's activity booklet, participants are sworn in as Junior Rangers and also receive a certificate and badge.

There a few ways children can become a Junior Ranger. The first way is for them to pick up a workbook at the Visitor Center for the Self-guided Discover Day Pack. The pack takes about one to three hours to finish and is completely self-guided, allowing kids to complete it at their own pace. Children participating in the Junior Ranger program and their families explore the park using the activity booklets specifically designed for them. These booklets point out interesting things that perhaps wouldn't be noticed otherwise, as well as introduce visitors to park stories.

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7.Not So Junior Ranger Program

Not So Junior Ranger Program
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The new No So Junior Ranger Program at Saguaro National Park gives children's parents, seniors, and young adults the opportunity to participate in their own ranger program. Participants try to collect as many points as possible by completing activities such as hiking trails, stopping by visitor centers, answering trivia questions about saguaro, and observing wildlife. Children can also now become Online Junior Rangers if they aren't able to participate in the Junior Ranger Program at the park. More information about this can be found on the park's website.

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8.Summer Programs

Summer Programs
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A second way children can become a Junior Ranger is by joining one of Saguaro National Park's fun Summer Junior Ranger Camps. The summer programs are held in the east district in the park. Kids are able to discover the desert by learning about the importance of water, the native animals of the desert, and how to safely hike in the desert. There are also interactive activities, games, and more.

Back to: Best Things to Do in Tucson, Arizona

3693 S Old Spanish Rd, Tucson, AZ 85730, Phone: 520-733-5153

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Best Places to Visit in Arizona: Saguaro National Park in Tucson

More Ideas: Tumacacori National Historical Park

Located in the Santa Cruz River Valley of southern Arizona, Tumacácori National Historical Park is a 360-acre park commemorating several historic Spanish mission communities throughout Santa Cruz County. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the continental United States, the Tumacácori area was the home of the Tohono and Akimel O'odham indigenous people, descendants of the Sobaipuri people.


The history of Spanish mission activity in the Santa Cruz River Valley dates back to 1691, when Eusebio Francisco Kino established two Jesuit missions, Mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori and Mission Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi. The first Tumacácori mission, San Cayetano, was resettled on the Santa Cruz River’s west bank in 1751, following a battle between the Jesuits and a force of Akimel O'odham who attacked the settlement. Throughout the next century and a half, the Jesuit community became the leading social and economic force in the region, operating the original two missions along with a third mission, Mission San Cayetano de Calabazas, which opened in 1756. The advent of the Mexican wars for independence in the early 19th century began to precipitate the decline of the missions, however, which were finally abandoned following a series of Apache raids and a difficult winter in 1848.

The mission sites became part of the state of Arizona after the United States’ Gadsen Purchase in 1854. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the Tumacácori site part of a National Monument and restoration efforts on the buildings began to bring them up to condition for public touring. The Tumacácori mission site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, and in 1990, the National Monument was converted into a National Historical Park, encompassing all three historic missions.


Today, Mission San José de Tumacácori is open to the public as a living history museum inside the Historical Park. Visitors may explore the mission’s remains, including its grounds, as part of self-guided tours. The central building of the mission is its church building, which features a blend of Egyptian, Roman, and Moorish architecture, including a three-story bell tower that was never completed by its builders. The interior of the church building includes a preserved nave, choir loft, baptistry, sanctuary, and sacristy, which opens out onto a convento courtyard. Outside on the mission’s grounds, visitors may explore the facility’s cemetery, storehouse, and the ruins of its convento, along with its gardens and orchard. A replica of a melhok ki, a traditional O'odham dwelling, is featured on the grounds, as well as a lime kiln used for making plaster and a compuerta that served as part of the mission’s water system. A statue of Father Kino is on display at the facility, along with a model of the mission as it existed during its religious use.

The park’s other two missions, the Guevavi and Calabazas missions, are not open to the general public for touring but may be explored via special appointment with park staff. A Visitor Center and Museum facility, opened in 1937, stands at the entrance to the park, serving as an orientation center and featuring exhibits related to the history and culture of the three missions. Murals painted by Herbert A. Collins detail important historical events of the missions, such as a large smallpox outbreak that claimed more indigenous lives than all of the area’s battles combined. Preserved wooden statues of saints from the church are displayed, along with lifelike models of the mission’s priests. A bookstore at the Center sells locally-made products and texts related to Tumacácori history, and a 15-minute orientation video is available for viewing via an interactive display.

Ongoing Programs and Education

Several themed field trip experiences are offered for pre-K through high school students, focusing on topics related to the history, architecture, and culture of Tumacácori. An hourlong River Walk tour experience is also offered for visitors of all ages as part of small group tours. Young visitors can participate in a self-guided Junior Ranger program, which leads participants through scavenger hunt activities throughout the park. Several Junior Ranger Days are also scheduled throughout the year, including a Mud Rangers program for middle school students that allows participants to earn community service hours.

Daily cultural demonstrations are presented on site by a variety of local and indigenous chefs, artists, and crafters. A number of special events are hosted at the park throughout the year, including a Harvest Party, a Día de los Muertos celebration, and the annual La Fiesta de Tumacácori, showcasing the culture of the area’s indigenous people.

1891 I-19 Frontage Rd, Tumacacori, AZ 85640, Phone: 520-377-5060

More Things to Do in Arizona

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More Ideas: Tonto National Monument

Located in the Superstition Mountains in Gila County, Arizona, the Tonto National Monument is an area that features several well-preserved cliff dwellings from the Salado culture dating back to the 13th, 14th, and early 15th centuries. Situated on the northeastern edge of the Sonoran Desert, the National Monument is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and attracts visitors from all over the world to see the dwellings, which overlook Theodore Roosevelt Lake and the surrounding Sonoran Desert.

Cliff Dwellings

Located within the Tonto Basin of the Upper Sonoran Desert, the Tonto National Monument takes care of two beautifully preserved prehistoric cliff dwellings, along with an array of various artifacts and items found in the area. The well-preserved cliff dwellings dating back to the 13th, 14th, and early 15th centuries when they were occupied by the Salado culture, who farmed in the Salt River Valley. The Salt River originally flowed through the Tonto Basin, creating a well-irrigated and lush landscape on which to farm. Today, the Tonto Basin has flooded and formed the Theodore Roosevelt Lake, over which the dwellings look. Fine craftspeople, the Salado produced intricately woven textiles and vibrant polychrome pottery, remnants if which have been discovered at the site and are on display in the Visitor Center Museum. The site features a 20-room Lower Cliff Dwelling and a 40-room Upper Cliff Dwelling, both of which are believed to have been started in around 1330 CE.

Natural History

In addition to the cliff dwellings, the National Monument is surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes that are home to a diverse variety of fauna and flora. The Tonto National Forest features desert scrubland, flat plains, and dense alpine forests, while the Upper Sonoran ecosystem is renowned for its native saguaro cacti, as well as other plants such as yucca, prickly pear, cholla, barrel cacti, agave, and mesquite trees.

A lush riparian area of the region is home to a range of trees such as hackberry, Arizona Sycamore, and Arizona walnut, and acres of colorful wildflowers in good years when there is rain. Native fauna to call the region home include mountain lion, whitetail and mule deer, bobcat, and three rattlesnake species, among others. The area surrounding the Tonto National Monument also includes several designated National Wilderness Areas, including Salome Wilderness, Superstition, and Four Peaks.

Visitor Information

The Tonto National Monument is located within the Tonto Basin of the Upper Sonoran Desert, in the Superstition Mountains in Gila County, Arizona and is open to the public from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm daily. The Lower and Upper Cliff Dwellings are reached by short hiking trails - one mile to the Lower Cliff Dwelling and 3 miles to the Upper Cliff Dwelling from the Visitor Center. Guided tours of the dwellings are also available.

A Visitor Center offers an excellent introduction the monument, the cliff dwellings and the people who built them more than 700 years ago and a newly remodeled museum feature artifacts and replicas of items found in the homes. A park movie is shown on demand, and a bookstore sells educational and monument-related items.

26260 AZ-188, Roosevelt, AZ 85545, Phone: 928-467-2241

Back to: Things to do in Arizona

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