The easiest way to experience Saguaro National Park is to visit the western unit of the park. There are some short trails here, as well as the scenic Bajada Loop Drive, which should provide most casual viewers with all the Saguaro cactus they could ever hope to see.
You simply can’t travel to the southwest without taking some pictures of the iconic Saguaro cactus. However, you won’t find these cactus growing everywhere in the desert. The Saguaro population is limited mostly to southern Arizona and a strip of land in Mexico.
There are plenty of Saguaro near Tucson, Arizona, and since I was in town, I decided a quick drive through Saguaro National Park was in order. I drove out to the western unit of the park, where an easy loop road and a few short trails provide enough access to satisfy my need for some prickly pictures.
First, stop at the Red Hills Visitor Center on Kinney Road. From there, drive north, just a mile and a half, to access Hohokam and Golden Gate Roads. Together, they form the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive, which passes through an impressive grove of Saguaro.
The loop drive is dirt, but it’s wide and smooth in most places, and shouldn’t be a challenge for any kind of vehicle. There are numerous turnouts, but you should be safe to stop anywhere on this loop, since traffic moves very slowly.
Along this road, you can access the Hugh Norris Trail — a 10-mile round-trip to the top of Wasson Peak. It’s the longest trail in this section of Saguaro National Park, and since it gains more than 2,000 feet in elevation, it’s quite strenuous.
I decided to tackle a much easier trail. The View Trail also begins along the Bajada Loop Drive…
… and only requires a short hike up a slight elevation gain.
Along the way you’ll pass hundreds of Saguaro cactus, including this one, which has arms that hang out into the trail.
Click on the photo for a larger version.
As you’d probably guess, the View Trail leads to a nice viewpoint, looking west over the Avra Valley.
The view looking back towards the Red Hills is quite nice, too.
You’ll even spot some wildflowers along the trail, depending on the time of year.
Back on the scenic road, Hohokam Road ends at Golden Gate Road. If you’re driving a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, you could turn right, and travel over the rougher portion of this road. To complete the scenic loop, turn left.
There’s another trail worth hiking along this section of the Bajada Loop Road:
The Signal Hill trail leads up to the top of a small hill, where the rocks are covered with ancient drawings. I didn’t hike it during my 2014 trip, but I did see it during a hike in 2005.
The loop ends at Sandario Road. From there, you can drive north to connect with I-10. I decided to drive north and west, in search of the Ironwood Forest National Monument. You can read about that adventure here.
The Bottom Line
Saguaro National Park’s western unit is a great place to get a close look at the region’s stately Saguaro cactus. Depending on your level of interest, you could be happy with just an hour or two here, or tackle a long hike and make it an entire day.
Saguaro National Park is divided into two units. The Eastern Unit is known as the Rincon Mountain District, and the Western Unit is known as Tucson Mountain District. Both sections have hiking trails, and a scenic loop drive. Rincon Mountain District has more backcountry trails, while the Tucson Mountain District has several easy, short trails that are easy to access.
On this trip, I chose to access the western unit (Tucson Mountain). From Interstate 19, take Ajo Way to Kinney Road. From I-10, take Gates Pass Road to Kinney Road. The visitor center is located on Kinney Road.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive through Saguaro National Park and Ironwood Forest National Monument: