After spending our first day in Tucson, Arizona in the western Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park and then at nearby Old Tucson Studios, we spent the second day exploring the eastern Rincon Mountain District of the national park and visiting Mission San Xavier del Bac and the Pima Air & Space Museum.
The scenic Bajada Loop Drive took us to what Brian calls the “Greatest Hits” in Saguaro West, so we were really looking forward to driving the scenic Cactus Forest Drive at Saguaro East.
The 8.0 mile scenic Cactus Forest Drive through Saguaro East features stunning views of the Sonoran Desert, giant Saguaro Cacti, and pullouts for photography, picnicking, walking, hiking, and sight-seeing.
The Cactus Forest Loop Drive is open from 7:00 am to sunset daily and you can pick up a print guide that tells you all about the natural and cultural history of the Cactus Forest Drive for $2.00 at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center before you begin the drive.
Here are the best family-friendly things to do along the Cactus Forest Scenic Drive:
Start At The Rincon Mountain Visitor Center
The Rincon Mountain Visitor Center in the eastern Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park is rustic and small. It provides park information, brochures, and maps and offers visitors majestic views of the Rincon Mountains, a nature trail, gift shop, museum exhibits, and more.
Stop At The Mica View Trail And Picnic Area
The 2.0 mile round trip, easy, flat Mica View Trail leaves from the Mica View Picnic Area and travels to the Broadway Trailhead and back. While walking this wide, paved, family-friendly trail, enjoy views of the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north, the Rincon Mountains to the east, and Tanque Verde Peak and Mica Mountain to the south. You’ll also see young saguaros under their palo verde “nurse trees”, cholla and prickly pear cacti, and the old, towering saguaro cacti.
Walk The Desert Ecology Trail
The Desert Ecology Trail at Saguaro East is similar to the Desert Discovery Trail at Saguaro West, but at only 0.25 mile, it’s a little bit shorter.
The easy, flat, paved, Desert Ecology Trail heads north away from Cactus Forest Drive then loops back, following Javelina Wash. Signs along the way tell you about the plants and animals in this Sonoran Desert neighborhood and benches are placed along the trail to rest and relax.
Visit Javelina Rocks And The Javelina Picnic Area
Composed of an ancient granite called Catalina Gneiss, the Javelina Rocks Overlook on Cactus Forest drive provides majestic views of the Tuscon basin and the enormous saguaro cactus — and it’s the best place to experience a sunset at Saguaro East.
The Javelina Picnic Area, trailhead for the popular Tanque Verde Ridge Trail, sits in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. The picnic area has a large parking lot and covered stone picnic tables with grills.
Two More Hiking Trails
There are also two hikes we didn’t do because of time and the heat — and if I’m being totally honest, we’re just not into “sweat hikes” (hiking just to hike) and prefer hikes with a reward.
- Cactus Forest Trail: A 2.0-3.0 mile round trip walk (depending on your starting point) on a multi-use trail through the desert in full sun. We skipped this hike because the trail travels through the open space between two different parts of the Cactus Forest Drive, so you can basically see the same views from the road.
- Freeman Homestead Trail: A 1.0 mile trail to the site of an old homestead foundation, a grove of large saguaros, and a desert wash. We skipped this trail because we weren’t going to see anything we hadn’t already seen and voted to visit the Pima Air & Space Museum instead.
Our family would always choose to see and do more things and have more unique experiences, than see the same thing again and again or go on a hike that isn’t much different than the one we just did just to check it off a list.
Know Before You Go
About the Cactus Forest Loop Drive:
- The scenic 8.0 mile Cactus Forest Loop Drive is a scenic drive through the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro East that offers incredible views of the Sonoran Desert and several opportunities for scenic vistas and hiking.
- A guide to the natural and cultural history of the Cactus Forest Loop Drive is available for $2.00 at the Visitor Center.
- The road is open from 7:00 am to sunset daily.
- Trailers longer than 35 feet or any vehicle wider than 8 feet are not permitted on the winding Cactus Forest Drive.
- The trails in this half of Saguaro National Park intersect, cross each other, and meet/cross desert washes, which can sometimes make staying on the right trail tough. It’s a good idea to keep a map on you when hiking for reference. It’s also very hot and dry, so be sure to have plenty of water with you at all times.
About Saguaro National Park:
- Saguaro National Park is open 365 days per year. You can walk or bike into the park 24 hours a day. Vehicle access is from sunrise to sunset daily.
- Admission to the park is $15.00/vehicle, $10.00/motorcycle, or $5.00/person and $5.00/bicycle. Free admissions days are offered on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the first day of National Park Week, National Public Lands Day, and Veterans Day.
- The national park is split into two separate sections, one on each side of the city of Tucson, Arizona in Pima County: the Rincon Mountain District to the east and the Tucson Mountain District to the west.
- Rincon Mountain Visitor Center in the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park is located at 3693 South Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, Arizona 85730 in Pima County.
- The Visitor Center is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed on Christmas Day.
- View maps of Saguaro National Park’s two scenic loop drives and numerous hiking trails and download the park newspaper.
- There are no concession stands, snack/soda machines or restaurants in either section park. Water fountains are found at both visitor centers and only there.
- There is little to no cell reception of service through the entire national park.
- If you decide to do any hiking while driving the Cactus Forest Scenic Drive, be sure to carry and drink lots of water, especially in the summer, and bring food and snacks. Wear sunscreen, sturdy shoes, and bring a hat.
- The Rincon Mountain District at Saguaro East has two picnic areas: Mica View Picnic Area and Javelina Picnic Area. Each picnic area has at least one picnic table with an overhanging end for wheelchair users and most have a charcoal grill nearby. The vault toilet in each picnic area is wheelchair accessible.
- Bicycling is allowed on the Cactus Forest Loop Drive.
- Pets are allowed only on roadways, picnic areas, and the two paved trails — the Desert Ecology Trail and the Desert Discovery Trail. Pets must be on a leash of no more than six feet at all times.
- All resources (living and non-living) are protected in the National Park. Picking/taking of any resource is prohibited.