Seventeen miles east of the center of Tucson, the Rincon Mountains
section of Saguaro National Park
is the larger and more remote of the two halves of the preserve, and includes an extensive mountainous area with hills as high as 8,664 feet (Mica Mountain). The western edge lies adjacent to the town suburbs, bordered in part by streets of the Tucson grid system, and some nearby areas of desert with plentiful saguaro are steadily being cleared, replaced by new trailer parks and luxury gated estates, as the town continues to expand eastwards.
The cacti here are as large but grow slightly less dense than those at Tucson Mountain in the west
, with more intervening bushes and other vegetation so the overall effect is not quite so dramatic. Faced with a choice between the two, the west is preferable for a short visit, though the east offers many more opportunities for extended hiking, and is the only region where backpacking is permitted.
From the park entrance at the junction of Freeman Road with the Old Spanish Trail, a paved one-way road (the 8 mile Cactus Forest Drive
) loops over undulating land and gives a good impression of the landscape, especially the southern section which climbs a little and passes over foothills of the west end of Tanque Verde Ridge
, where the saguaro are especially plentiful since they prefer gently sloping ground with better drainage. Several short foot paths along this drive allow for a closer view of the scenery; one is the Desert Ecology trail which has interpretative notices explaining aspects of desert life, although it is located on a flat sandy area without many saguaros. There is also a longer hike across the middle of the loop (the Cactus Forest Trail) that winds for 5.5 miles through the desert, across washes and over low hills. The Cactus Forest Drive was completely resurfaced in the summer of 2006 and now has improved parking areas and 12 new roadside exhibits, though it remains a slow journey; a complete curcuit takes around 25 minutes. Along the way are two short spur roads to picnic areas/trailheads - Javelina (paved) and Mica View (unpaved). A network of trails
cross the lowest slopes of Tanque Verde Ridge in the northwest corner, through grasslands and riparian areas as well as cactus groves.
Cacti do not grow at the higher elevations in the east which make up the majority of the Rincon Mountains district - instead grassland, bushes and eventually fir and pine trees are found. Apart from the Cactus Forest Drive, the short paths at the western edge and several other roads that border the west side (Camino Loma Alta, Broadway Blvd, Speedway Blvd), most of the eastern half of Saguaro National Park is accessible only by a network of long paths
, most popular being the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail
, and to explore the area fully needs at least one night spent at one of the park's six back-country campsites. The Coronado National Forest borders the park to the north, east and southeast, and this too has many possibilities for exploration.
A forest of saguaro is truly a unique sight and it is especially striking at sunset; everyone should try to camp for a night in such a place. Although there are no campsites accessible to cars in either half of the park, the saguaro cacti are similarly widespread across many other areas of Arizona where (free) camping is possible, such as along side roads off I-10 southeast of Tucson, around US 93 northwest of Congress or in the Tonto National Forest, northeast of Phoenix. The closest location to the Rincon Mountain district is along Pistol Hill Road, ten miles southeast.