entrance sign to saguaro national park east

Saguaro National Park East vs West: Which Side to Visit!

Saguaro National Park is actually split into two different sections – Saguaro National Park West, also known as the Tucson Mountain District, is located on the west side of Tucson, Arizona. Saguaro National Park East, also known as the Rincon Mountain District, is located on the east side of Tucson and was established almost 30 years prior to Saguaro National Park West. Both sides of the park have their own benefits and are beautiful, so you really can’t go wrong. But I’ll detail below Saguaro National Park East vs West and which one you should choose!

If you only have one day in the park, this guide will help you choose which side of Saguaro National Park to visit! If you have two days to spend, we would highly recommend you spend one day in both the Rincon Mountain District and the Tucson Mountain District.

Saguaro National Park West is typically the side people will tell you to choose, but if you’re wondering if Saguaro National Park East is still worth visiting, the answer is YES! The east side of the park is the less visited side, but it is bigger, has more miles of hiking trails, an older Saguaro population, and feels more remote and less touristy. On both sides you’ll get to see a beautiful collection of Saguaro Cactus, wildlife, and many other species of cacti.

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

Which side of Saguaro National Park is More Popular?

The Tucson Mountain District is the more popular of the two sections, and has a larger concentration of Saguaro Cacti. Because it’s more heavily visited, Saguaro National Park West also has a larger visitor center, if you’re looking for specific souvenirs, you may be more likely to find them on the west side of the park at the Red Hills Visitor Center (the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center still has souvenirs!) However, if you’re looking for some solitude, East Saguaro is going to be less crowded since it’s bigger and less visited.

Which Side of Saguaro National Park is Bigger?

When it comes to which side is bigger, Saguaro National Park East wins. The Rincon Mountain District spans over 67,000 acres compared to the Saguaro National Park at just over 24,000 acres. The Rincon Mountain District is also the higher elevation area of the park, with the tallest peak reaching 8666 feet (Mica Peak). The Tucson Mountain District has a highest point of 4687 feet (Wasson Peak).

Does Saguaro National Park East Vs West Have More Hiking?

Since it’s almost three times as big, it’s no surprise that the east side of the park has more hiking trails. Saguaro East has 128 miles of hiking trails compared to 43 miles in Saguaro West. On the West side, you’ll find attractions like the petroglyphs and popular hiking trails like the Desert Discovery Trail and the Valley View Overlook. The East Side has a ton of trails that are less popular and can connect for longer or shorter loops depending on how far you’re interested in hiking. The East side of the park even has a seasonal waterfall hike, Bridal Wreath Falls.

The west side probably wins here for short, family friendly trails. However, if you’re looking for more variety and longer hikes, you’ll probably want to explore the East side of the park.

Popular Trails in Saguaro National Park West:

  • Desert Discovery Trail
  • Valley View Overlook
  • Signal Hill Trail

Popular Trails in Saguaro National Park East:

  • Tanque Verde Ridge
  • Bridal Wreath Falls
  • Desert Ecology Trail

For a full list of hikes in Saguaro National Park – check out the National Park Service Website for a hiking map.

Which Side has Better Camping?

Unfortunately, neither side of Saguaro National Park has campgrounds unless you’re willing to hike. Saguaro West has no camping. Saguaro East has the only campsites in the park, with 6 backcountry sites. If you’re looking where to stay outside of backcountry camping, you can camp at Catalina State Park (another beautiful area you should explore!) or stay in a vacation rental or hotel in Tucson, Arizona.

Can I visit Both Sides in One day?

While it is possible to visit both sides of the park in one day, I probably wouldn’t recommend doing that. The two sections are about an hour drive apart and you’ll get more out of your experience if you just choose one side and explore it as much as you can. Especially if you’re traveling with kids, you’ll get more bang for your buck if you stick to one side per day. We’re all about spending less time in the car when possible!

Which Side has a Better Scenic Drive?

Both Saguaro National Park East and Saguaro National Park West have beautiful scenic drives to add to your National Park itinerary. The West side has Bajada Loop Drive, a 5 mile gravel loop that will take you to several trailheads and through towering Saguaro Cacti. The East side of Saguaro National Park has Cactus Forest Drive, an 8 mile paved loop that hits several viewpoints and pullouts. Both drives are beautiful and worth doing, but I thought the Cactus Forest Drive was the more impressive of the two loops. Next time I visit, I would love to ride the Cactus Forest Loop on my bike!

Which Side is Closer to Tucson?

They are both similar distance from town depending on where you’re staying. If you only have one day in Saguaro National Park – you’ll probably want to stick to the west side because you can pack in a little more bang for your buck with some other attractions nearby. We spent time on both sides of the park, and loved them both.

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

Overall, Which Side of Saguaro National Park is Better?

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, stunning hikes, and a visitor center where you can find all your cactus souvenirs.

  • If you want to camp? Saguaro National Park East
  • If you want longer hikes with many to choose from? Saguaro National Park East
  • Better visitor center? Saguaro National Park West
  • Better scenic drive? Saguaro National Park East
  • Family friendly hikes? Saguaro National Park West
  • More things to do nearby? Saguaro National Park West

Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out our National Parks page for itineraries, family friendly hikes, and more!

If you’re visiting Saguaro National Park with your kids, check out our guide to One Day in Saguaro National Park! We outline our favorite hikes, what you need to know before visiting the Saguaros, give you tips for each side of the park, and even share a few of our favorite places to eat near Saguaro National Park.

And here are all the foods you need to try in Tucson – 17 Delicious Foods to Try in Tucson as well as the perfect place to stay with Beautiful Boutique Hotels in Tucson, Arizona!
Happy Travels!

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