The Beautiful Saguaro National Park East: Helpful Tips for Hiking

Are you visiting the Sonoran Desert? Are you interested to hiking in a cactus forest? If hiking in Saguaro National Park is on your list of things to do, this is for you! Buddy and I are sharing our top helpful tips for hiking the beautiful Rincon Mountain District Saguaro National Park East.

While some of these tips are specific to the Douglas Spring Trail (hello stairs!), most of them apply to any trail in Saguaro National Park east and west!

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Buddy at the Douglas Spring Trailhead at Saguaro National Park east in Tucson, AZ.
Buddy at the Douglas Spring Trailhead at Saguaro National Park east in Tucson, AZ.

First, the details. Saguaro National Park is divided into two areas, the Rincon Mountain District (east) and the Tucson Mountain District (west). As a family, we have hiked trails on both the east and west districts. Both parks have numerous trails that make for some beautiful views and fun desert exploring.

For First-Time Visitors

If it is your first-time visiting Saguaro National Park Rincon Mountain District (east), I highly recommend you drive into the park and explore the one lane Cactus Forest Drive that loops through the park. The views are spectacular. And the loop offers access to five trail heads plus the Visitor’s Center. It is worth a trip!

In addition to the five trailheads accessible on Cactus Forest Drive, Saguaro National Park Rincon Mountain District (east) has four additional trailheads that are reachable on the edges of the park. For example, there are the Rincon Valley Trails accessible via the Loma Alta Trailhead that you will find on South Camino Loma Alta off Old Spanish Trail. The Broadway trailhead is located at the end of Broadway Boulevard. And at the end of Speedway Boulevard, you will find both the Wildhorse and Douglas Spring trail heads.

Buddy hiking among the cactus at Saguaro National Park east.
Buddy hiking among the cactus in Saguaro National Park East.

During our most recent trip to Saguaro National Park East, Buddy and I chose to hike from the Douglas Spring Trailhead located at the end of Speedway Boulevard. We visited on a free entrance day in the National Parks and during high season, which are the winter months in the desert. Some of the trails, like Douglas Spring Trail and the Garwood Trail were very busy. But on other trails, like the Carrillo Trail, we were completely alone.

Choose Your Own Adventure Hike: Douglas Spring Trailhead

Douglas Spring Trail at Saguaro National Park East
Douglas Spring Trail at Saguaro National Park East

Douglas Spring Trailhead is like a build your own adventure trail map! There are so many overlapping and interlocking trails in the area, you can create your own hike!

Buddy picked our hike, and he chose this path: Douglas Spring Trail to Carrillo Trail to Wildhorse Trail, to Tree Tank Trail, to Garwood Trail, and back to Douglas Spring Trail. The Saguaro National Park East hiking guide rates the Douglas Spring/Garwood/Carrillo Trail loop is listed as a strenuous hike due to a greater than 1,000 feet change in elevation.

All in all, we walked 5.7 miles over the course of 2 hours and 45 minutes. We probably could have been a bit faster. However, we did stop a few times to take photos, and film a Movement Postcard and Short.

It was a beautiful sunny winter day in the desert, and we highly recommend visiting the Douglas Spring Trailhead at Saguaro National Park East and choosing your own hiking adventure!

5 Tips for Hiking the Douglas Spring Trailhead at Saguaro National Park East

1. Visit in the winter

Yes, winter is high season for tourists visiting the Sonoran Desert. There is an influx of snowbirds from all over North America (we see you Canada!). But it is a popular time of year for a reason. The weather is beautiful! Most likely, you will be hiking in 70-degree Fahrenheit weather in January. And you can’t beat a 70-degree day in January!

When Buddy and I hiked on January 17, we began our hike at noon. The temperature was 72 degrees during our trek with clear skies and a very light breeze. It was a beautiful day in the Sonoran Desert!

Another benefit of visiting during the winter is that our reptile friends, like the rattlesnake, are in brumation, a state like hibernation. This means that in the winter there is less chance of an encounter with a reptile friend like a rattlesnake while hiking the trails at Saguaro National Park East.

Overlooking a cactus forest in the Sonoran Desert at Saguaro National Park east.
Overlooking a cactus forest in the Sonoran Desert.

Please note, that Buddy and I have yet to see a snake while hiking on any trail in the Sonoran Desert. We have, however, encountered numerous snakes while walking around our Tucson neighborhood! All this to say, if you are worried about meeting a snake while hiking the desert trails, in my experience it less likely than finding one while trick-or-treating in our neighborhood!

Although winter is a wonderful time for your hike, visiting Saguaro National Park east during the fall and spring are also great options. Especially if you are an early riser and will be hiking earlier in the day. The hotter it gets, the better it is to hike early.

I do not recommend visiting in the summer. The temperature is consistently in the double digits. Dehydration and heat stroke are real risks. Also, in the later part of the summer, monsoon season begins. Flash floods, heavy rain, and lightning are real risks on a summer hike.

2. Where to park

There is a small parking lot for the Douglas Spring Trailhead at the end of Speedway Boulevard. You can take Speedway east until it ends, and you will find the parking lot on the south side of the road. The parking lot is small and tends to fill up quickly. There is amble parking for hikers on both sides of Speedway in the area. The day we visited, Buddy and I did not find parking in the small lot and parked on the south side of Speedway.

The Douglas Spring Trailhead parking lot is adjacent to the entrance to Tanque Verde Guest Ranch. I do not recommend parking there.

3. Watch out for horses

Douglas Spring Trail, and others that connect to the Douglas Spring trailhead at Saguaro National Park East, are frequented by people, horses, and mules. That said, watch out for horses on the trail and give them the right of way when you can. Especially on the narrow areas.

Horses on the Douglas Spring Trail

And with lots of horses comes lots of horse poop. Watch out for horse poop! Some of the trails we hiked, like Douglas Spring Trail, were littered with horse poop. Be careful where you step!

Also, be on the look out for horses as you approach the end of Speedway Boulevard by car. There are signs in the area warning of equestrian activity. Please heed the signs! I was approaching the entrance to Whitehorse trailhead, which is slightly west of the Douglas Spring Trailhead, by car when suddenly a young person on a horse emerged from the trailhead into the road at a gallop without looking! Luckily, I was driving slowly and was on the lookout. Beware of horses in and around the area.

4. Prepare for stairs

Buddy on some of the many stairs on Douglas Spring Trail at Saguaro National Park east.
Buddy on some of the many stairs on Douglas Spring Trail.

This next tip is specific to the Douglas Spring Trail. You will hike many many stairs on the Douglas Spring Trail as you climb (or descend) in elevation. If you prefer to take the stairs going down rather than up, you want to hike the Douglas Spring Trail counterclockwise.

Buddy chose our path on Douglas Spring Trail clockwise. And because I did not do my research in advance, I did not know that most trail guides recommend taking the trail counterclockwise. However, the official Saguaro National Park East hiking guide lists the Douglas Spring/Garwood/Carrillo scenic loop in the cactus forest as clockwise. If you follow that path, you will climb the stairs. But the views are definitely worth the climb.

Clockwise or counterclockwise, either way you choose you will be either ascending or descending downstairs on the Douglas Spring Trail so prepare for stairs and enjoy the climb!

5. What to bring

These are just a few recommended items. Please personalize this list, adding to it what you see fit.

The basics: Sunscreen, a water bottle, a hat, and a first aid kit like the HART Outdoor Day Hike First Aid Kit available at REI.

When hiking, we also always carry a whistle that also has a compass and thermometer, hand sanitizer, a pocketknife. I also take bear spray with us when hiking in Saguaro National Park east and Sabino Canyon in the unlikely chance that we encounter a mountain lion friend.

Bring layers! Especially if you are hiking in the winter. In general, there is a 30-degree Fahrenheit difference in daytime and overnight temperatures in the Sonoran Desert. The day could begin chilly and then warm up very quickly during your hike. It is best to be prepared and bring layers. A light layer for sun protection when the UV rays are at their strongest is also a good choice.

Buddy holding a blue water bottle overlooks the valley below at Saguaro National Park east.

Buddy’s Tips

  1. Bring water so that you don’t get dehydrated. Bring more than you think you need. It is very dry in the desert.
  2. Wear light clothes. That can prevent you from getting heat stroke as well.

Have you visited Saguaro National Park East? What about Saguaro National Park West? Have you hiked in a Saguaro cactus forest? Let us know in the comments!

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12 thoughts on “The Beautiful Saguaro National Park East: Helpful Tips for Hiking

  1. We absolutely love hiking as a family. Saguaro National park looks like it would tick all our hiking boxes. Adding to our bucket list. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. I’ve never heard of Saguaro National Park, but you’ve definitely convinced me that I need to plan a visit. Thanks for sharing!

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