Saguaro National Park is a wonderful, often overlooked National Park. Literally just minutes from downtown Tucson, the Ricon Mountain District (East) offers sublime backcountry camping opportunities as well as great scenery. Backcountry camping is permitted in the Saguaro Wilderness Area only located in the Rincon Mountain District.This backcountry area consists of 59,930 acres and was designated as a wilderness area in 1976. Overnight camping requires a permit fee of $6.00 beginning March 1, 2003, which can be obtained through the mail or in person at the RMD visitor center. Permits are not available after noon on the day of departure. There are six wilderness campgrounds, which are only accessible by foot or horse. All of these campgrounds are a minimum of six miles from the nearest trailhead. Water is available seaonally in the wilderness area. Check with the RMD visitor center for a current water report. Manning Camp has a permanent spring, however, it may be frozen over during the winter months. It is stongly recommended that all water be treated before drinking. Saguaro National Park does NOT offer drive-in camping facilities on either district. Camping is available in nearby county and state parks and in the Coronado National Forest.
All the park's backcountry hiking and camping opportunities are in the Rincon Mountain District (the eastern section), which includes the 59,930-acre Rincon Mountain Wilderness. Varying considerably in elevation, this area contains both hot desert sprinkled with saguaro and other cacti, and relatively cool forests of pine and mixed conifer. The main access routes into the backcountry are the Douglas Spring Trailhead and Tanque Verde Ridge Trailhead. From these two trails you can access more than 100 miles of interconnecting trails, as well as the park's six backcountry campgrounds. Dirt roads lead to several other trailheads; check with park rangers for directions and current conditions. Rangers strongly suggest that those going into the backcountry carry topographical maps, which can be purchased at either visitor center. If you wish to camp in the backcountry, pick up the required (but free) permit at the Rincon Mountain District Visitor Center. Permits can be obtained in advance by writing to the park.
Cactus Forest Trail: 5 mi. one-way. Easy. Access: Near the east end of Broadway Blvd., just east of Freeman Rd. This sandy, level trail, which can also be accessed from two points on the Cactus Forest Drive, is simply a very pleasant walk though a forest of cactus, primarily saguaro; a variety of other desert plants, such as paloverde and mesquite; as well as large beehive-shaped lime kilns, dating from about 1880.
Douglas Spring Trail: 6 mi. one-way (to Douglas Spring Campground). Strenuous. Access: East end of Speedway Blvd. This trail through the foothills of the Rincon Mountains is considered strenuous, starting off fairly level but gradually becoming steeper, and then alternating between steep and flat sections all the way to Douglas Spring Campground. Along the way you'll find lots of cactus, especially prickly pear, and some interesting rock formations. Signs of damage from a devastating 1989 fire can still be seen here, as well as the results of revegetation. The trail continues beyond the campground, providing access to other backcountry trails. You need a backcountry permit to stay overnight at the campground.
Tanque Verde Ridge Trail: (reviewed) 6.9 mi. one-way (to Juniper Basin Campground). Strenuous. Access: Javelina Picnic Area off Cactus Forest Dr. This trail offers splendid panoramic views as it follows a ridgeline northeast into the wilderness area. You'll see saguaro, cholla, prickly pear, and other cactus for a while, and then pinyon, juniper, and some oak as you climb higher into the foothills. The Juniper Basin Campground, at 6,000 feet, is 2,900 feet higher than the trailhead. Although the trail continues, this is a good spot for day hikers to turn around.
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Location: Tucson, Arizona
The Rincon Mountain District may be reached from the City of Tucson by traveling east on Broadway or Speedway to Freeman Road; Take Freeman Road south (right) to Old Spanish Trail (4 miles [6.5 km] from Speedway, 3 miles [5 km] from Broadway). Turn left onto Old Spanish Trail heading south. Look for signs to the Park entrance. The Park entrance is approximately .25 miles [.4 km] from Freeman Road.
The Tucson Mountain District may be reached from Tucson by traveling west on Speedway Boulevard. At the junction with Camino de Oeste, Speedway Boulevard will change names to Gates Pass Road. From this junction, continue to drive west on Gates Pass Road until you reach the "T" intersection with Kinney Road (4 miles [6.5 km]). Turn right on Kinney Road and drive three miles [5 km] north to the Park entrance. The entrance is on the right side of Kinney Road.
Activities: Hiking, picnic, backcountry camping in Saguaro East
Admission: Rincon Mountain District - Entrance $6/private car, $3/individual, $20/7 Days, The optional annual pass is for Saguaro National Park only. It is good for one year from the month of purchase. Tucson Mountain District - Entrance Free!
No entrance fee required, however, National Park passes are available in the Visitor Center.
Hours: Both districts of the Park are open daily from 7:00 am to sunset. Visitor centers are open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. Both Visitor Centers are closed on Christmas Day.
Additional: Most visitors to Saguaro National Park use private vehicles to get around. Public transportation is NOT available within the Park. All roads with Saguaro National Park are open to bicycle use; however, they must abide by the same laws as motor vehicles. Facilities: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association (SPMA) operates a bookstore in the visitor center offering a large selection of books on the Sonoran Desert and the Southwestern United States. Wheelchair accessible public restrooms are available at the visitor center. There is only back country camping in Saguaro East.
Lodging: We stayed at the Sun Catcher ed and Breakfast when we were not camping. They offered a great location (right on some Saguaro East trailheads), good hospitality, nice rooms and free wine! http://www.thesuncatcher.com/
Area Overview: Saguaro National Park East, Arizona