East VS West Saguaro National Park

216
blank

Saguaro National Park is split into two divisions which border the city of Tucson, Arizona.

East Saguaro is known as the Rincon Mountain District (RMD). This area is larger and has more hiking options.

West Saguaro is known as the Tucson Mountain District (RMD). This area has the most Saguaro Cacti and denser vegetation.

tucson mountain district east vs rincon mountain district west saguaro national park map

Both sides of Saguaro National Park are worth visiting, but it takes about an hour to travel between the two districts so you should plan ahead.

In this article, we’re going to cover the highlights of Saguaro National Park East vs West and help you decide which one to visit.

Getting To Saguaro National Park East VS West

Both sides of the park are a quick, 30 minute drive from downtown Tucson. The east district is closer to the outskirts of the city so it’s easier to venture out and grab a bite to eat between hikes.

The west side of the park feels more remote and secluded from the city of Tucson.

To get to Saguaro National Park East District from downtown Tucson: Take E 22nd Street to E Old Town Spanish Trail before arriving at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center.

To get to Saguaro National Park West District from downtown Tucson: Take W Gates Pass Road through Tucson Mountain Park before arriving at the Red Hills Visitor Center.

It takes about 1 hour to travel between the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District.

Entrance Fees: Both parks accept the same entrance pass. So if you purchase admission to one side of the park, it will be good for the other as well!

The cost of admission is $25 per vehicle, $45 annual, or $80 America the Beautiful Interagency annual pass.

Quick Facts: East VS West Saguaro National Park

  • Size: The east side is almost 3 times larger than the west side.
  • Visitation: The west side receives more visitors annually.
  • Elevation: The east side is more mountainous.
  • Vegetation: The west side has denser cactus and a wider variety of plants.
  • Remoteness: The east side is larger and has greater opportunity to get away from the touristy areas.
  • Road conditions: West Saguaro only has dirt roads, East Saguaro is paved.
  • Hiking: East Saguaro has more miles of hiking trails.
  • Camping: East Saguaro is the only side that allows camping and backpacking.
  • Nearby attractions: The west side is located right next to the Sonoran Desert Museum and Old Tucson.
hundreds of cacti in saguaro national park

Which Saguaro National Park is better for seeing cactus?

If seeing the famous Saguaro Cactus plants is on your bucket list than the west side of Saguaro National Park is the best place to visit.

Saguaro West is located at a lower elevation than the east side so it has much denser vegetation and a lot more cactus!

East vs West Cactus Gardens

Both sides of the park have nature trails and cactus garden loops. But the cactus gardens on the west side of the park are our favorite because you can see picturesque views of the Tucson Mountains right from the trail.

The mountains on the west side make the perfect backdrop to the stunning desert plants.

dirt road in saguaro national park

Saguaro National Park East vs West Scenic Drives

Saguaro National Park has two scenic drives that you cannot miss! One is on the east side, and the other is on the west side.

The Cactus Forest Loop drive on the east side of Saguaro is the best. It’s entirely paved so it’s a more comfortable driving experience. The road itself is also a lot more fun! There are tight twists and turns, steep inclines, and never-ending scenic views!

Which side of Saguaro has the best scenic overlooks?

The east side of Saguaro National Park has the best scenic overlooks. The Javelina Rocks overlook is one of the most popular in the park. Here, you can climb on and around large granite boulders alongside giant Saguaro Cacti.

The Cactus Forest Overlook is also located on the east side and it has the best views of hundreds of Saguaro Cacti dotted across the mountainside.

Saguaro East vs West Hiking Trails

East Saguaro has the best hiking trails. In fact, this side of the park is mainly hiking trails! You can find over 100 miles of trails in the Rincon Mountain District that serves every ability level.

The east side is also more mountainous so you get to hike through a wider variety of plants and terrain. One of our favorite hikes (Bridal Wreath Falls) takes you to a seasonal waterfall which is pretty rare to see in the desert.

signal hill petroglyphs in saguaro national park
Signal Hill

Which Saguaro National Park is better for Petroglyphs?

West Saguaro has the best petroglyphs. The Signal Hill Overlook in the Tucson Mountain District has the largest concentration of prehistoric Native American petroglyphs.

You can find over 200 of them decorating the rocks of the Sonoran Desert alongside giant Saguaro Cacti and beautiful wildflowers.

The petroglyphs at King Canyon is another popular hike on the west side where you can enjoy rock art scattered across a 2.2 mile hike.

Which Saguaro National Park is most beautiful?

Many visitors will say that the west side of the park is most beautiful because it has a bigger variety of plants in a more compact area. The ease of access between all of the overlooks, petroglyphs, and hiking trails makes the west side an attractive place to visit.

beautiful desert trail in saguaro national park

East vs West Wildlife

Wildlife can be found on both sides of the park, but the east side of Saguaro has the greatest variety because of the large elevation change associated with the Rincon Mountains.

High up in the mountains, you can find animals like black bears and white-tailed deer. At lower elevations, visitors often encounter roadrunners, horned lizards, and Gila monsters.

spring wildflowers blooming in Saguaro National Park arizona

Which side of Saguaro has the best wildflower Trails?

Saguaro National Park east has the best wildflower trails. This side of the park has sooo many hiking trails that you get more opportunity to venture out and walk among the wildflowers.

Wildflowers grow and bloom multiple seasons in Saguaro which makes it a cool place to visit even in the winter. Some of the top rated trails to see wildflowers are Bridal Wreath Falls, Wasson Peak, and the King Canyon Trail.

Which side of the park is best for birdwatching?

Saguaro has 155 species of birds which can be found at various times throughout the year. The east side of the park has the most bird species so if you’re looking for a wide variety, that’s the place to go.

One of the best birdwatching locations in the Rincon Mountain District is on the Desert Ecology Trail.

the dog-friendly desert ecology trail in saguaro national park arizona

Which side of the park is best for biking?

The east side of Saguaro has the best roads for road biking. The 8-mile Cactus Forest Loop is the perfect way to roll though the park and enjoy the landscape. The road has many tight twists and turns. It’s one-way only and entirely paved.

What side of Saguaro National Park has the best camping?

The east side of the park is the only place where you can find established campgrounds. All of the campsites in Saguaro National Park are hike-in so you need to be prepared for a long day and pack lots of water.

backpacking to a campsite in saguaro national park

Which Saguaro National Park is best for backpacking?

East Saguaro in the Rincon Mountain District is the only area within the park that allows for backpacking. This is a great way to escape the crowds and get up-close and personal with the desert terrain.

Which side of the park is best for seeing sunsets?

Both sides of the park have incredible sunsets, we couldn’t pick!

The best sunset on the west side of the park can be seen at Gates Pass which is located at the end of Speedway Boulevard in Tucson Mountain Park.

There is a small parking lot at the top of the winding road to stretch out and treat yourself to a colorful desert sky.

The best sunset on the east side of the park can be seen from the Javelina Rocks pullout.

Which side of the park is best for dogs?

The east side of the park has more dog-friendly trails. It is also located closer to the Coronado National Forest which has hundreds of miles of hiking trails which are pet-friendly.

desert overlook at the western visitor center in saguaro national park arizona
Overlook at the Red Hills Visitor Center

Saguaro National Park east vs west Visitor Centers

The Red Hills Visitor Center in the west side is larger and has better views. Inside the visitor center you can find a bookstore, media film, and natural history exhibit.

The Rincon Mountain District Visitor Center on the east side is more compact and basic. There is a small exhibit where you can find out about the different plants in the Sonoran Desert.

Which side of the park has the best food?

East Saguaro National Park is located closer to the outskirts of Tucson so it’s easier to run out for a bite to eat and go back in.

The West side of the park is more remote so you are limited to what you’ve packed in your cooler.

Which side of Saguaro National Park has the most nearby attractions?

The West Side of Saguaro is located nearby the Sonoran Desert Museum and Old Tucson which are both popular attractions in the area.

We highly recommend pairing your visit with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. They have beautiful cactus gardens, a desert wildlife zoo, and a small aquarium. It’s also one of our favorite destinations in Tucson.

Saguaro West: Tucson Mountain District Highlights

  • Red Hills Visitor Center
  • Bajada Loop Scenic Drive
  • Signal Hill Petroglyph Area
  • Desert Discovery Nature Trail
  • Petroglyphs at King Canyon
  • Wild dog Trail
  • Wassen Peak Trail
  • Valley View Overlook

Saguaro East: Rincon Mountain District Highlights

  • Cactus Forest Loop Scenic Drive
  • Freeman Homestead Trail
  • Hope Camp Trail
  • Garwood Dam Trail
  • Bridal Wreath and Earnie Falls
  • Mica View Trail
  • Javalina Rocks Overlook
  • Cactus Forest Overlook
  • Camping & Backpacking

If you only have one day to visit saguaro which side is best?

Tourists who are limited to one day in Saguaro National Park should visit the West side of the park in the Tucson Mountain District. This will give you the largest variety of attractions from petroglyphs to overlooks, scenic drives, and cactus viewing.