Today Park Chasers is sharing another installment in our series on epic drives within the National Parks. Each year, millions of Americans embark on road trips and driving adventures around the National Park Service. This series–including today’s post on scenic drives in Saguaro National Park–showcases the roads and scenic drives you don’t want to miss on your next national park visit. Check out other scenic drives in the series, including Going-to-The-Sun-Road in Glacier National Park and Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Depending on the time of year you plan to visit Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona, you had better prepare for the heat. Despite how much we love to hike, the scorching summer sun was a barrier to us getting out on the trail during parts of our visit. Because of the heat, we spent a bit more time in the car than we usually do in a national park.
Thankfully, scenic drives in Saguaro National Park are easy to come by. The National Park Service maintains two excellent options for car travel that bring you up close and personal with the Sonora Desert landscape from the comfort of your air-conditioned vehicle.
While we definitely recommend you prioritize hiking in the early morning and evening to get a full experience of the park, today we’re sharing the two scenic drives in Saguaro National park that should be on your bucket list when you visit the park.
Bajada Loop Drive
Where is Bajada Loop Drive?
Bajada Loop Drive is one of two main scenic drives in Saguaro National Park. You’ll find it in the western Tucson Mountain District of the park. The Bajada Loop Drive is roughly six miles of unpaved road, and there are several entrance points to start the drive. Portions of the route are one-way, so having a map inside the vehicle is essential.
Most visitors begin 1.5 miles northwest from the Red Hills Visitor Center and complete the route counter-clockwise. You can also find turn-offs to Bajada Loop Drive from the Golden Gate Road and Sandario Road.
Bajada Loop Drive is unpaved, but appropriate for low profile vehicles. Our compact-size rental car didn’t have any issues navigating the route. RV’s and camper trailer vehicles may want to check with a visitor center about road conditions though.
What You’ll See
Bajada Loop Drive travels through some of the largest concentrations of saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park. Along the six miles of
Stops to make on Bajada Loop Drive
As you’re making your way along the scenic Bajada Loop Drive, here are the points of interest we recommend:
- Red Hills Visitor Center – stop to grab your national park passport stamp, watch the park film, and check on any wildlife sightings along the loop road.
- Desert Discovery Trail – While not technically on the loop route, we recommend the easy, paved self-guided trail as a good introduction to the plants and animals you might see along the rest of the scenic drive.
- Valley View Overlook Trail – This was probably our favorite hiking trail during our time in Saguaro National Park. It’s a short climb through old and young saguaro cacti. The view at the end of the 0.8-mile trail can’t be beaten!
- Signal Hill Petroglyphs – The Signal Hill Picnic Area is the perfect spot to stop for a picnic, stretch your legs, and check out some of the ancient petroglyphs
lthoughtto have been left behind by the Hohokam people.
Cactus Forest Drive
Where is Cactus Forest Drive?
Once you’ve wrapped up the Bajada Loop Drive, you’ll want to be sure to add Cactus Forest Drive, a scenic drive in Saguaro National Park’s Western Rincon Mountains District. The Cactus Forest Drive travels eight miles of one-way paved road through the oldest parts of Saguaro National Park.
What You’ll See
You’ll see the cactus forest and have multiple opportunities for overlooks, hiking, and Instagram photo ops with a saguaro. In contrast to Bajada Loop Drive, Cactus Forest Drive travels through parts of the park, which were subject to livestock grazing in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As a result, the landscape looks dramatically different than what you find in the western part of the park.
We were glad to have done the Bajada Loop Drive first, and then traveled Cactus Forest Drive second during our 2 day trip to Saguaro.
Stops to make on Cactus Forest Drive
As you’re making your way along Cactus Forest Drive, don’t miss these stops:
- Rincon Mountain Visitor’s Center – You’ll need to stop at the Visitor’s Center Entrance Gate to pay the entrance fee before you travel on Cactus Forest Drive. While you’re there, check out the park film and exhibits about the Rincon Mountains.
- Mica View and Desert Ecology Trails – The two most popular spots for hiking along Cactus Forest Drive are Mica View Trail and the Desert Ecology Trail. Both are flat, easy hikes suitable for families. The Desert Ecology Trail is paved and good for hikers with mobility issues.
- Freeman Homestead Trail – Several Euro-American pioneer families called the area in and around Saguaro National Park home. The Freeman Homestead Trail is a 1-mile hike departing from the Javelina picnic area that takes you through a large cactus grove to a site of an old homestead foundation.