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Saguaro National Park: The Perfect Winter Getaway

Saguaro National Park is one of Arizona's hidden gems.

Named for the huge and unusual cactus plants abundantly growing in the area, Saguaro Park is an excellent example of a preserved Sonoran Desert landscape.

Saguaro National Park is split into eastern and western sections.

The city of Tucson divides the two areas into Saguaro National Park West and Saguaro National Park East.

Cactuses in Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Saguaro National Park
The saguaro cactus gives the Saguaro National Park its name.
Saguaro cactus gives the park its name

Both sides of the park are a spectacle of the wild, untouched desert on the outskirts of a large metropolitan area.

Temperatures in the summer months can reach more than 110 degrees (43 C).

The hot climate makes the winter months the perfect time to visit the park and even enjoy some of Saguaro National Park's hiking opportunities.

The park's west side is just off U.S. Interstate Highway 10 as you travel south from Phoenix, Arizona.

CT and I drove through the park to get our bearings before checking in at our Tucson hotel.

Map of Saguaro National Park
Map of Saguaro National Park

Places to Stay Around Saguaro National Park

There are no recreational vehicles or car camping places in Saguaro National Park.

However, because it is touching the city boundaries, it is just a few miles away from hundreds of hotels, motels, and Airbnb locations in Tucson.

There are, however, two nearby Arizona State Parks where camping is available:

  • Catalina State Park
  • Coronado State Park

Additionally, many private RV and tent campgrounds are scattered around the greater Tucson area.

Related: 5 Amazing Outdoor Places to See in Arizona

The author next to a saguaro cactus as as large as a tree.
Cactus as large as trees

Saguaro National Park West

Wasson Peak

The next day, we planned a Saguaro National Park hiking excursion to Wasson Peak, the highest point on the park's west side at 4,687 feet (1,511 meters).

There are several ways to reach Wasson Peak, but we chose to start at King Canyon trailhead because the route is shorter, and it allowed for a loop hike, rather than just an out and back.

Our primary focus on this hike was to reach a new peak on our long list of summit goals and enjoy the saguaro cactus up close.

The loop hike would be 7.1 miles (11 kilometers) and would include a quick detour to reach Amole Peak as well.

CT standing under Amole Peak in Saguaro NP
CT standing under Amole Peak

When to Hike

We made our visit to Saguaro National Park during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, so the weather was cool and comfortable for a long hike.

Regardless of what time of year you hike in the park, there's no water available out on the trails, so come prepared.

The hike to Wasson Peak was fantastic as we had views of Tucson and the surrounding area as far as the eye could see.

After a long lunch break, we started back down to the trailhead and the warmth of the truck in the parking lot.

Hiking to Wasson Peak in the Sonoran Desert.
Hiking to Wasson Peak

Winter Storm Warning

We began the trek to Wasson and Amole Peaks under a bright, nearly cloudless, cool day.

However, the winter storm we'd been informed of at the Visitor's Center began to take shape as we hiked down off the mountains.

Dark clouds indicate a winter storm is coming.
A storm is coming
Trying to beat the rain on the hike down from the mountains.
Trying to beat the rain

In the distance, we could see the rain falling over the world-famous Sonoran Desert.

Getting wet in the wind and cold of December can be very uncomfortable, even in the desert.

We made haste down the Hugh Norris Trail, turned right onto Sendero Trail, and then finished hiking out on Gould Mine Trail as we followed the Saguaro National Park West trail map.

We were pelted with large raindrops during the final 10 minutes of hiking.

Despite the late rain, the hike was a big success, and we looked forward to climbing to the top of Mount Lemmon on the other side of Tucson in the Santa Catalina Mountains the next day.

Snow on a cactus in the Tucson foothills
Snow in the Tucson foothills

Rain Turned to Snow

Instead of climbing Mount Lemmon, we woke to snow in the Santa Catalina Mountains and the foothills of Tucson.

The mountain roads were closed down by the local authorities. We began to formulate another plan for the day.

After a driving tour of Tucson and eating lunch at a downtown restaurant, we made our way to one of the highlights of our trip.

The whitewashed San Xavier del Bac Mission in Tucson, Arizona
San Xavier del Bac Mission

San Xavier del Bac Mission

The San Xavier del Bac Mission is seven miles south of Tucson, Arizona.

It can be seen for miles and miles as the bright white paint creates a strong contrast of colorful beauty against the blue sky and the stark brown earth of the desert floor.

The mission still holds Catholic services every day and is a museum and historical tourist attraction.

In 1783, the local Native Americans built the mission known as the Tohono O'odham Tribe “under the direction of” the Franciscan Priests from Spain.

It is affectionately known as “The White Dove of the Desert.”

The self-guided tour takes you inside both the building and walled grounds. A visit to the gift shop is also a must.

Petroglyphs in Saguaro National Park
Petroglyphs in Saguaro National Park

Picnic and Petroglyphs

The next day, we planned to return to Saguaro National Park West.

We met some friends for a short hike to the petroglyphs and had a picnic lunch in the park.

Both the east and west sides of the park have dozens of trails for all levels of hikers.

The hikes near the West and Eastside Visitors' Centers are easy and historically informative.

One of those trails leads to a set of ancient Native Peoples petroglyphs.

See also: Where to Hike on a Road Trip to Zion National Park

Ancient Native American rock art
Ancient Native American art

Saguaro National Park East

After lunch on the west side of the park, CT, her friends, and I drove about one hour to the east side of the park on the other side of Tucson.

There is a Saguaro National Park Visitor Center on each side of the park, and we stopped to see both of them.

While much of the main entry and popular parts of the east side of the park are flat, there are a series of very long trails to explore and some places to backpack and stay in primitive campgrounds.

Distant, multi-day hikes to Rincon Peak and Mica Mountain at 8,666 (2,641 meters) are available to very hardy climbers.

Near the Visitor's Center, take your vehicle around the circuitous Cactus Forest Drive to see the giant Saguaros and the Sonoran Desert in comfort.

However, if you want to get a close-up feel for the area, park the car and hike the Cactus Forest Trail, which bisects the asphalt drive.

Cactus Forest Trail is 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) one way, but it is mostly flat and easy going.

The hike is gorgeous, and by going in the winter, it's not at all hot.

Map of the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area

Our hike up Bear Canyon in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area was our favorite hike during our week in Tucson.

We made our way to the city's northeast side during our last day in Tucson to take in some of the scenery and hiking in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.

After a short tour of the visitors center and talking to the volunteers, we decided to hike to “Southern Falls” along the Bear Canyon Trail.

They warned us that it was 8.3 miles round trip.

The warning came with the advice that we did not have enough time left in the day to make the trip before dark.

We gave a polite little LOL and got underway, knowing we could hike that far in just three hours.

Climbing down to one of the Seven Pools in Bear Canyon
Climbing down to one of the Seven Pools

Bear Canyon is so lush and green in places you can forget that you're in the desert.

Monsoon rains and winter snowmelt off the Santa Catalina Mountains provide Bear Canyon with a year-round, healthy stream.

Our hiking trail was lined with tall and exotically wild grasses, and we were shaded in places by sycamore, walnut, ash, cottonwood, and willow trees along the route.

Eventually, we arrived at Southern Falls, and the many pools and short waterfalls were an awesome sight.

See also: Hiking the Havasupai Trail to Havasu Falls

Waterfalls and pools in Bear Canyon, Saguaro National Park
Waterfalls and pools in Bear Canyon

My advice for nature lovers who visit Saguaro National Park and Tucson is to make the extra effort to explore Bear Canyon and the Southern Falls.

We could only imagine what a water playground this place would be in the summer heat.

That said, Saguaro National Park is a great place to visit in the wintertime, as for much of the year, this location is scorching and therefore difficult to enjoy fully.

In addition, while in Tucson, Arizona, make your way to San Xavier del Bac Mission and the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area for a complete experience.

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