A Quick Trip to Saguaro National Park: Part 2

My early March trip to Tucson feels like it was ages ago. Pre-social distancing, I had planned a quick trip to Tuscon, and weeks ago I wrote about part one. It’s finally time for part two!

The eastern Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park is located about 30 minutes east of Tuscon. A quick stop for some snickerdoodle pancakes at Baja Cafe and I was ready to go! I decided to hit the Visitor Center first. While not quite as grand of an exterior as the western Tucson Mountain District, the building was very informative. Just past the visitor center (again, the only place for water in the park) is a manned booth to pay your entrance or show your America the Beautiful pass at. There are several trailheads past here, including my intended first hike of the day, but most important is the one-way scenic Cactus Forest Loop Drive. Tons of pullouts and viewpoints await you on this road, in addition to trails!

All trail signs in the park were clear and easy to follow, with arrows at junctions and listed distance.

I somehow only pulled over once for a view and pictures on my way to the Mica View trailhead. A dirt road takes you to the trailhead, where I managed to snag the last spot. My intended path was a clockwise loop with the Mica View trail and Cactus Forest trail for around two miles. To my surprise, the Mica View trail was paved–and on a sunny March morning, packed! It was very comforting to see tons of people on the trail (May edit: This did not age well), and great to know that both halves of the park were inclusive with accessible paths. I’d heard from a lot of people that the two halves of the park were very distinct, but so far to me Rincon had more saguaros, as far as the eye could see, but not too much else was different.

How many Saguaros do you see?

I felt like I could get closer to the sights here. I also saw what I believe was the most armed (most limbed? Gangliest?) saguaro of the entire trip (pictured right). I didn’t step off trail to count, but my zoom lens makes me believe there were tons of arms (or just a clump of Saguaros all together). The previous day’s rain also left a wonderful petrichor scent on the pavement.

The asymmetrical-and-yet-symmetrical Saguaro.

Onward I walked, trying to take in things close and far. I’ve seen posters talking about nature’s natural Fibonacci sequences, but looking up close I was taken aback by how symmetrical a Saguaro was–even while the limbs and growth was asymmetrical. Does that make sense? Neat rows of prickly spines give the Saguaro its ridges, even on the smallest of limb offshoots. I’m sure to all of the locals on the trail, I looked silly with my fascination, but I really marveled at the wonder of these green giants just as much as I wondered at the size of a California Redwood. I am so glad a park was created to ensure the safety and longevity of these giants!


I reached the junction with the Broadway trailhead, at ‘noon’ on my clockwise path. The pavement ended when I switched to the Cactus Forest trail, and with it went the crowds. Suddenly, I was all alone on the trail! While fear did fill me again, I assured myself that I was being silly, as there were still tons of people around, even if I couldn’t see them. The dirt instead of pavement also made the trail feel more rustic, as if I had been transported back to the old Southwest.

Not going to lie, I had “A Horse with No Name” running through my head on this path.
I believe due to the fuzz this is the ‘Teddy Bear’ cholla.

In addition to the saguaros and prickly pears, this path also got me close to cholla cacti, which are known as ‘creeping’ or ‘jumping’ due to their tendency to latch on the hikers who get too close, even without brushing up against the plant itself! In all likelihood my risk of getting hurt by a cholla was far greater than a rattlesnake or cougar, so I stayed away and let my zoom lens do the work. I did see a few more hikers as I finished the loop, just under two miles round-trip. This trail was the perfect introduction to the park, and can be done both ways on either the paved or unpaved portion. As I said before, the road to the trailhead is a one-way, so I had to finished the scenic drive loop before I could make my way to my next trailhead at the north end of the park.

I say “had” as if I didn’t stop a half-dozen times for more pictures! A view from the scenic drive.

However, the sun was getting higher and warmer in the sky, so it was time to start my next hike. A short drive and I pulled up to the very-crowded Douglas Springs trailhead around 1pm. This was to be my longest hike of the trip. Even though it was getting warmer, I felt great!

The ‘skeleton’ of a dead saguaro.

I hit the trail, sun high in the sky. The trailhead started flat, with saguaros as far as the eye could see. I even got to get up-close and personal with some saguaro ‘skeletons,’ which was a fascinating peek at what the inside of these looks like, and an idea of how they maintain their structure with so many arms weighing them down. The first junction came up, and I was happy to see the same great signage throughout the park as before, lining up perfectly with my park map. I stayed on the Douglas Spring trail past the first two junctions. After the first about 0.75 miles, I noticed I was going up, up, up. When the hike already starts at over 2700 feet, gaining more with the temp in the high 60s/low 70s was a workout!

I noticed that the trail was feeling more and more empty, with tons of people at the beginning heading to their cars, and fewer and fewer people. I did notice there was a couple a few hundred feet behind me, who after while seemed to be headed to the same destination. It was actually super comforting to have these people along for the journey, as again, I was a little fearful of hiking alone. Having people a few hundred feet away gave me solitude amongst the saguaros, but also peace of mind. I looked around me constantly, marveling at every turn of the sheer number of saguaros. I decided the symmetrical cage-like ones were my favorite.

A symmetrical cage cactus, as I dubbed them.

I passed a few more junctions, as well as a cute stream, as I continued to climb. I didn’t know it when I picked it, but this hike gains 1300 feet! I guess I should have known, with my end point being a spring and waterfall, that once I crossed a stream I’d keep climbing until I reached the source. The trail hugs the creek for awhile, with one more crossing where I finally thought to dunk my hat in. I was thankful for topping off my water before hitting the trail, even if I was a little worried about stepping off-trail to pee (fear of both stepping on something that bites or stings; and fear of putting on a show for the people still behind me). At just past 2.5 miles, I came to a junction, with a left turn leading me to the spring, and a right turn a spur that takes you to a waterfall. I hesitated, not wanting to lose my guardian angel trail company. They caught up, and I boldly asked them which way they were going, letting them know I appreciated their ‘company’ from afar. Luckily, they didn’t think I was crazy, and on we went towards the spring. They were a friendly couple from Arizona with lots of hiking experience, so they knew to push forward when we came to a gate. I likely would have been scared of trespassing had I not known! It’s about 0.6 miles from the junction to the spring, and worth all the sweat and sunburn to see.

Douglas Spring. It was so great to dunk my hat in the water to cool off!

There it was: the spring. I spent some time there, relaxing with the couple, reapplying sunscreen (not well enough), and eating an orange I had snagged from my hotel. Writing this now in lockdown, I am even more appreciative of this amazingly beautiful hike and the camaraderie of getting to meet other hikers and chat a bit. I couldn’t believe how empty it was for a gorgeous spring day! I asked the couple if it was worth the extra ~0.7 round trip to see Bridal Wreath falls and they said it was, although it might seem small compared to the PNW falls I was used to.

I did think it was worth the side trip, even if the falls weren’t much more of a trickle, as it was pretty, but the real draw was the shade. My skin and body were not used to blinding sun at altitude, and even in the low 70s, the cool shade this spot offered was just as nice as the saguaro-studded cliffs the falls spilled over.

I bid farewell-ish to my companions, confident I could hustle back and they’d still find me if I ran into danger. I hustled back to the junction and towards my car, trying to gain enough ground to safely pee in private. By this point, between the bottle in my car and refilling my bladder I had consumed a massive amount of water, so I was really moving! The motivation of a beer or two also had me moving. I kept an eye on my RunKeeper, estimating that between my hikes earlier, I’d hit over 9 miles for the day, a long hike for me at home, much less on vacation at altitude with a time change!

More than two months later, part of me wonders if I am remembering this trip with coronavirus-tinted glasses. It was my last trip for who knows how long, and my last hikes for the unforeseeable future. However, I am certain that even if my various other trips were still on my calendar, I’d be remembering the Eastern Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park for a long time.


In summary:

Distance: The Rincon Mountain district has over 120 miles of trails. Both districts offered wonderful pamphlets breaking the trails into ‘easy’ ‘moderate’ and ‘more challenging.’ Talk to a ranger if concerned about your abilities and time constraints. The two trails described here were 2.0 and 7.1 miles round-trip.

Elevation: Will vary based on trail. Keep in mind the park itself is at higher elevation than Seattle!

Parking: $25 fee to enter for a week, or an America the Beautiful Interagency pass will cover you.

Bathrooms: Visitor Centers have flushing bathrooms, as well as pit toilets at the Mica View trailhead.

Best Beer Bet: The closest breweries according to Google were in Eastern Tucson, which offers many options. I had hoped to hit two, but only made it to Copper Mine brewing, which I greatly enjoyed!

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