During our recent weekend getaway to sunny Arizona, we spent some time in both the western and eastern sections of Saguaro National Park.
Much of what I read online focused on the western side of the park / Tucson Mountain District. I think people prioritize that side because of the big cacti forests:
While similar in terms of plants and animals, the intricate details make both areas praiseworthy. The Tucson Mountain District (west) boasts large stands of saguaro cactus creating a breathtaking saguaro forest, whereas the Rincon Mountain District (east) hosts a magnificent sky island, where you can find bears, cougars and the ever elusive coati (aka coatimundi).https://www.nps.gov/sagu/planyourvisit/index.htm
On our first full day in the area, we spent late afternoon and early evening in the western side of the park, driving the Bajada Scenic loop, viewing the petroglyphs, and witnessing an amazing sunset over the Sonoran desert. However, I also wanted to experience the eastern side of the park so we dedicated our Sunday morning to hiking in that area.
There were a few people parked at the visitor center when we arrived in the morning but we had no trouble entering and driving the scenic, 8-mile Cactus Forest loop. Similar to the Bajada Scenic loop in the western side of the park, the Cactus Forest loop is primarily one way and takes you to a couple trailheads and picnic areas.
After brief stops at the Mica View picnic area to take some pictures of massive saguaro along the road and the .25-mile Desert Ecology Trail where we learned about the area, we parked at the Loma Verde trailhead. We grabbed our poles and gear and quickly set off on a 4-mile loop hike, stitching together the Loma Verde, Pink Hill, and Squeeze Pen trails.
There are a number of other trails accessible off these three if you’re interested in creating a longer loop or following the Douglas Spring trail into the wilderness areas. It was already very sunny and hot despite our early start so the 4-mile loop was the right decision for us!
We encountered a few other people during our hike, including a group on horseback. I really enjoyed the diversity of cacti in this area, especially the fishhook barrel cacti and – my favorites! – the chainfruit cholla cacti, both pictured below.
After returning from our longer hike, we drove toward the Javelina picnic area, making two quick stops at the Javelina viewing area (sadly, we did not see any) and the trailhead for the Freeman Homestead.
We decided to battle the heat and complete the 1-mile loop to the homestead and were severely disappointed – it’s nothing more than a lump of dirt with a poorly placed information plaque describing the Freeman family. We were spoiled, having explored the adobe remains of the early homesteads in Joshua Tree National Park last year where a number of structures are still standing. If you want an easy hike among the cacti, it’s fine and family-friendly – just don’t expect to see any of the homestead.
I’m glad we took time to explore both sides of the park – they are such a short distance from one another and yet quite different experiences!
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