cute cholla cactus with saguaros in background early in the morning

The Best Itinerary for One Day in Saguaro National Park With Kids

Saguaro National Park is a stunning US National Park located in the Sonoran Desert in Tucson, Arizona. Home to the nation’s largest cacti (the Saguaros obviously), this lush desert park is not one to miss. You can spend one day in Saguaro National Park if you’re crunched for time. But, if you can make time, we would recommend spending one day in each side of the park.

Saguaro National Park is actually split into two sections: the Tucson Mountain District on the west side of Tucson and the Rincon Mountain District on the east side of town. This park is estimated to have over 2 million Saguaro Cacti!! Not to mention a variety of wildlife including javelinas, gila monsters, coatis, rattlesnakes, many species of birds, and more unique animal species. We absolutely loved our trip to the desert. Below we’ll share our favorite way to spend one day in Saguaro National Park with kids.

Saguaro National Park East vs West – Which One to Choose?

Both sides of Saguaro National Park are amazing! There are pros for visiting each side of the park, and they are both definitely worth your time. I would recommend reading the itineraries below, and deciding which one better fits your interests if you only have one day in Saguaro National Park.

The bottom line? You can’t go wrong! You’ll see Saguaros on both sides of the park and each side has unique features that make it well worth visiting. Both east and west have a scenic drive, kid friendly hikes, and a visitor center where you can find all your cactus souvenirs (including cactus candy!)

The sections of the park below are based on spending one day in each side of the park. So if you have two days, do that – if you only have one day in Saguaro National Park, we would recommend choosing one side and get to exploring! And as always, we recommend starting your day early. National Parks can be busy, but we’ve never had issues when we get up early to start our day. Arizona also can get very hot mid day so if you explore early in the day you won’t have to worry about being overheated or getting sunburned.

Check out our whole post to help you decide Saguaro National Park East vs West: Which One to Choose?

Saguaro National Park West (Tucson Mountain District)

How to Spend One Day in Saguaro National Park West

Start your morning by driving into the park and make sure to stop and take a picture with the National Park sign! This drive will be 30-60 minutes from Tucson depending on which part of town you are staying in. Keep the driving time in mind when you are planning the day.

1. Walk the Desert Discovery Nature Trail

Distance: 0.5 miles
Elevation: flat, paved trail
Stroller friendly? Yes!

The Desert Discovery Nature Trail is a great place to start your morning. This path has a lot of interesting shaped Saguaros and some informational signs about the cacti and the area.

2. Drive the Bajada Loop

Distance: 5 miles, unpaved loop

The Bajada Loop is a scenic drive that will showcase the scenery of the Sonoran Desert, Saguaro Cacti, and lead you to a few of the other hiking trails we recommend. Make sure to drive the loop counter-clockwise (there is a part of the road that is one way only, so you’ll have to backtrack if you drive the other direction). The road is gravel, but you don’t need any special vehicle to drive it. Our rental car was a Tesla and did just fine on the loop!

3. Hike the Valley View Overlook Trail

Distance: 0.8 miles, roundtrip
Elevation: 50 feet
Stroller friendly? No

Along the Bajada Loop Drive, you’ll find the trailhead for the Valley View Overlook Trail. This is a must do easy hike in Saguaro National Park. You’ll walk along the path, which has signs pointing out the different types of cacti, to a viewpoint of the entire valley and several mountain ranges. At the top, there is a couple benches that are perfect for eating that peanut butter sandwich you packed (and maybe a treat or two!) You can fuel up with snacks and enjoy the incredible view from the top before heading back down the trail.

4. See the Signal Hill Petroglyphs

Distance: 0.3 miles

Disclaimer: We didn’t actually get to do this hike! The road to the trail was closed when we drove the loop. But this is a great short hike that you can tack on to your day if you wish. The hike to the petroglyphs is less than a third of a mile. The petroglyphs can also be reached from other trailheads if you’re looking for a longer hike or if the parking lot is full!

On this trail, you’ll have the opportunity to see petroglyphs that are from somewhere between 550 to 1550 years old.

5. Stop at the Red Hills Visitor Center

If you’ve read any of our other National Parks posts, you’ll know that we love stopping by National Parks visitor centers. It’s a great time to get recommendations from a park ranger, participate in the Junior Ranger program, or ask them “I saw this little animal, what is it?”. We also always get our National Parks passport stamped and pick up our souvenirs.

It’s a tradition for us to pick out a magnet on every vacation, we also picked out some cactus candy (so fun!), and the book Desert Night, Desert Day. This book is one of our favorite National Park books for kids.

Up for More? Then check out these other activities that are just outside of the National Park, but in the same area.

6. Optional: Visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Desert Museum is basically a zoo, botanical garden, aquarium, and museum all wrapped into one. It’s mostly outdoors, so remember to wear sunscreen and drink lots of water. They have 242 animal species, two miles of walking paths, tons of unique plants, and more. It’s located really close to the Saguaro National Park West, so it makes sense to save on drive time and visit both of these in the same trip.

Tip: We did stop by here after we visited the National Park, and it was a little bit too much to pack into one morning. Our kids still nap, so we would have been better off doing this another day. Depending on the ages of your kids, you’ll want to decide if it’s worth adding to your itinerary this day or not.

Another tip: They do have strollers available for rent if you need. They do not provide full sun coverage though!

7. Time for Food!

If you’re getting done early enough in the day, drive to Barista del Barrio to get one of the best breakfast burritos you’ve ever had. There might be a little bit of a line, but it’s so worth it for the fabulous service and delicious burritos. We also really liked the iced coffee here! They do have short hours so make sure to check if they are open before you make the drive.

If it’s too late in the day to stop for a breakfast burrito, Seis Kitchen and La Chaiteria were two restaurants on this side of town that we loved. To be honest, it’s tough to go wrong with food in Tucson – every meal we had was top notch.

8. Watch Sunset at Gates Pass

Gates Pass is the best place to watch sunset in Tucson. Arizona is known for having beautiful desert sunsets, but watching it here was magical.

How to get to Gates Pass: You’ll take Speedway Blvd West until it turns into Gates Pass Road. Continue on Gates Pass Road until you reach the top of the hill. If you’re coming from Tucson, the parking lot will be on your right. There are a couple different parking lots that had quite a few spaces.

Things to know before visiting Gates Pass for sunset: This spot is kid friendly (ish). There was lots of broken glass, and the trails are steep. So if you have little kids that can’t sit still, you might not get to relax much while watching the sunset. However, it’s worth stopping by to catch a sunset if you have time, and it’s close to town so you won’t be driving too far.

Aren’t sure if you should visit Saguaro National Park West or East if you only have one day? Here is our guide to Saguaro National Park East vs West to help you choose!

Saguaro National Park East (Rincon Mountain District)

How to Spend One Day in Saguaro National Park East

1. Drive the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive

Distance: 8 mile paved loop road

The Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive is an 8 mile paved loop. There are tons of awesome viewpoints along the drive where you can get out of the car to take pictures or take in a beautiful view. Riding a bike along this road would be amazing as well. We saw a couple jogging with a stroller which would be fun if you start early enough in the day (and can run 8 miles!)

You’ll definitely want to stop at multiple overlooks on this drive, we really liked the Rincon Mountain Overlook and the Javelina Rocks are really pretty. There are lots of chollas (my favorite cactus) near the Javelina Rocks as well.

There are a few different trailheads on this loop including the Mica View Trail and the Desert Ecology Trail. Make sure to look at a map before driving the loop so you don’t pass them by on accident.

2. Hike the Mica View Trail to Cactus Forest Trail

Distance: 1.90 miles
Elevation: 68 feet

The trailhead for this hike is located off a dirt road along the Cactus Forest Drive.

3. Walk the Desert Ecology Trail

Distance: 0.3 miles
Elevation: Flat, Stroller Friendly, Paved

The Desert Ecology Trail is a super short and easy family friendly trail in Saguaro National Park. It’s located along the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop, so make sure you look out for the trailhead. Since the road is one way, if you miss it, you’ll have to drive the whole loop again to access the trailhead.

4. Head to the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center

We love checking out the visitor centers! This is another great spot to get a passport stamp and talk to a ranger. If you’re interested in doing more hikes on this side of the park, I would highly recommend talking to one of them. Saguaro East has so many hiking trails that we definitely plan to check out next time we visit.

5. Grab a Bite to Eat

Tucson has one of the best food scenes in the US. So you’ll definitely want to eat some delicious meals while you’re here. Tumerico is about 20 minutes from Saguaro National Park East, but well worth the drive. Tumerico is a Latin vegetarian/vegan restaurant – keep reading even if you’re not vegetarian – and it was rated the #1 restaurant in the US by Yelp for 2024. This is actually the only place we ate at TWICE while in Tucson. The food is so fresh and flavorful, and their menu changes every day.

Plus, they have a great play area for the kids while you enjoy your meal in peace! If you’re looking for more Tucson food recommendations, see our post for 17 Delicious Foods to Try in Tucson

6. Optional – Catch a Beautiful Desert Sunset

We didn’t actually make it to sunset in Saguaro East since it was a bit far from where we were staying. BUT, if you’re up for a little more fun, head back into the park for sunset. According to the National Park website, the best sunset views are along the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail. The whole trail is about 3 miles, but you can just walk a short distance to find a good spot to watch sunset.

Why Visit Saguaro National Park?

Saguaro National Park is one of the most underrated US National Parks. We were absolutely in awe at the majestic Saguaro Cacti, and how green the desert was (we visited in early March). We’d even been to the desert before, and this experience was so much more magical than any other area of the desert we’ve visited. The Saguaros are huge and EVERYWHERE, and we saw some really unique wildlife that we haven’t seen in any other National Park.

If you have little kids, you might have to spend some time reminding them to “NOT TOUCH THE CACTI” but there are so many family friendly trails here. There are some hazards, like anywhere outdoors, but it’s a really kid friendly park with accessible trails, a unique landscape, and lots of fun things to do. You can even head into Tucson after your day of hiking and eat some of the best Mexican food you’ve ever had.

Best Time to Visit Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is open year round from sun up to sun down. The weather is the best from November to March when it’s not too hot. We visited at the end of February to early March and it was absolutely perfect, mid 70s and hardly any people. If you get farther into March, you might get more crowds from Spring Break, but the wildflowers will be blooming and it will be beautiful.

If you choose to visit in the Summer, be prepared. Temperatures can be extremely hot, and you’ll probably want to limit your exploring to really early mornings, bring sunscreen, and drink lots of water.

How to Get There & Getting Around

Saguaro National Park is one of the more urban National Parks, located just outside of Tucson, Arizona – a super cool city by the way! If you’re staying downtown or near Oro Valley, you’ll have a 30-45 minute drive to the Red Hills Visitor Center (Saguaro National Park West) or to the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center (Saguaro National Park East).

Tucson is surrounded by mountains, with great hiking trails in every direction. Since the parks are a bit of a drive, you’ll definitely want to rent a car. We love the flexibility of having a rental car, and being able to get up early (let’s be real our kids wake us up) to go hiking. Another fun option is to rent bikes to bring into the National Park. Since the parks are a bit out of the way, I’d still recommend you rent a car. But biking would be a fun way to see the sights in this park.

Where to stay in Tucson, Arizona?

Check out our post on 8 Beautiful Boutique Hotels in Tucson, Arizona. These hotels are full of art and history and inspiration from the Sonoran Desert. You can’t go wrong!

Looking to plan the rest of your Tucson vacation? Check out our best 5 Day Tucson Itinerary with Kids. We’ve got you covered with the best hiking spots, places to eat, and more!

Our Favorite Things About Saguaro National Park?

Can’t Miss:
  • Experiencing a desert sunset & hiking through the Saguaros!
Would Skip:
  • Visiting both parks in one day. Choose one park and explore it more fully so you don’t spend too much time in the car.
Next Time:
  • I would love to do more hiking, check out the petroglyphs, hike to a desert waterfall, and ride bikes through Saguaro National Park East!

Map of Things to do With Kids in Saguaro National Park

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