If you’re thinking about camping at Saguaro National Park and are unsure what your options are, you’ve come to the right place! Keep reading to learn all you need to know to plan the best Saguaro National Park camping trip ever.
What to Expect When Camping at Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is located just outside of Tucson, Arizona. The park is in the Sonoran Desert and includes the Tucson Mountain District in the western part of the park and the Rincon Mountain District on the eastern side of the park.
Summer in Saguaro National park is sweltering. During the day, temperatures can reach over 110 degrees, even in the shade, and nighttime lows average around seventy-two degrees.
At lower elevations, winters are mild, with temperatures in the daytime averaging around sixty-five degrees and temperatures at night around forty degrees. It can get quite cold during the winter in higher elevations, with temperatures dropping as low as the single digits.
April through mid-June are the driest times of the year. The rainiest month is typically August, with an average rainfall of just over two inches.
Nature and Wildlife
The park’s namesake is the stunning Saguaro cactus, and you’ll see plenty of those on your visit.
Saguaros can live for hundreds of years and grow as tall as trees. A typical Saguaro cactus grows to around forty feet tall but the largest Saguaro ever recorded was seventy-eight feet tall!
The park has many other desert plants, including succulents, wildflowers, trees, and shrubs.
Many animals live in the park, including Gila monsters, jackrabbits, lizards, deer, desert tortoises, six different species of rattlesnakes, and more.
Fees and Permits
Admission fees for Saguaro National park are $25 for a single vehicle, $20 for motorcycles, and $15 for an individual entering the park on foot or by bicycle. The pass is valid for one week.
A park pass can be purchased online in advance, at the Rincon Mountains Entrance, at the Red Hills visitor center, or in self-service kiosks.
One of the biggest concerns when camping in Saguaro National Park is water. Freshwater, such as streams and rivers, is scarce in the park and sometimes non-existent.
Since there is no running water near the campgrounds and it is hard to come by in the landscape, campers must bring all the water they need.
Cell phones work in many of the wilderness areas of the park. If you’re having trouble getting service, try moving to a higher or more open area.
Saguaro National Park Camping
There are six different campgrounds in Saguaro National park, with twenty-one total backcountry campsites. They each require several miles to hike in and have minimal amenities. No RVs are allowed, and there is no running water near any of the campsites.
The campgrounds range in elevation from 4,800 to 7,920 feet and require a hike of four to over ten miles to reach.
Douglas Spring Campground
One of the best campgrounds at Saguaro National Park is Douglas Spring. The hike to the campground is about seven and a half miles, with 1,800 feet of elevation gain and stunning views along the way.
Once you reach the campground, there is plenty of shade around to shield you from the hot desert sun. No fires are allowed at Douglas Spring due to the fire-prone grassland surrounding the camp.
Douglas Spring is the park’s lowest campground, making it ideal during the winter months when higher elevations are experiencing very cold temperatures.
Another good option is Manning Camp. At nearly 8,000 feet, Manning Camp has the highest elevation of any campground and is quite a challenge to get to, and a thirteen-mile hike is required.
If you don’t mind a long hike, the fantastic views at the campground and along the way are well worth the effort. At the campground, there is plenty of room to spread out and flat spaces to pitch a tent.
The temperatures are cooler in summer up at Manning compared to the lower elevations, which makes it a good option in the warmer months.
Freshwater is usually available nearby; the stream only dries out in extremely dry years. Fires are allowed at Manning Camp, and you’ll find both fire rings and picnic tables at the campground.
Permits are required for all overnight camping in Saguaro National Park. The cost is $8 per campsite per night, and up to six people are allowed for each campsite. The total maximum stay is ten nights, with a limit of five nights per campground.
Camping Nearby Saguaro National Park
Camping in Saguaro National Park is a unique experience that is well worth doing; however, it does come with several challenges, and backpacking isn’t for everyone.
If you want to be in a less remote location, bring an RV, or enjoy access to more amenities, you may want to consider camping in one of the nearby campgrounds instead of inside the park.
Gilbert Ray Campground
Located just outside the park and only thirteen miles from Tucson is Gilbert Ray Campground. This affordable campground has 130 RV sites and five designated tent sites. Electric hookups are available, restrooms and a dumping station, and no showers are available.
Tucson Lazy Days KOA Resort
The Tucson Lazy Days KOA Resort is a great place to camp by Saguaro National Park if you like a lot of amenities. They offer a year-round swimming pool, playground, laundry room, workout room, and more.
There are plenty of tent and RV sites and several cabins available.
Justin’s Diamond J RV Park
Justin’s Diamond J RV Park is a nice, quiet campground with large campsites for tents or RVs. The location is very convenient to Saguaro National Park, and they have a restroom, laundry room, and other amenities.
Take advantage of the hiking trails right behind the campground during your stay.
Things to do while camping at Saguaro National Park
Freeman Homestead Trail
If you’re looking for an easy trail, try the Freeman Homestead Trail. The path is one mile long and includes views of cliffs, large saguaros, and other desert plants.
There are signs along the path to tell you about the plants and history of the area. Great Horned Owls are often visible on the cliffs, and you can see wildflowers in spring.
Tanque Verde Ridge Trail
For more of a challenge, try the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail.
This is the trail you’ll take if you’re staying at the Juniper Basin Campground. Much of the hike is along ridged areas that offer incredible views of the valley below and mountain ranges on the other side.
If you’re staying at Juniper Basin, Tanque Verde Peak is only about two miles farther up the trail. To get to the peak from the start of the trail, you’ll hike a total of 8.7 miles.
There are over 200 prehistoric petroglyphs at the Signal Hill Petroglyph site. They were made by Native Americans between 550 and 1550 years ago. Many of the petroglyphs are visible from the trail.
Ranger Led Programs
The park offers several programs and events throughout the year that are led by park rangers, including hikes, talks, and other events.
Take a look at the online calendar to see what events will be going on during your visit, or check the bulletin board in the visitor center while you’re there.
Junior Ranger Program
The Junior Ranger program is a great way for kids to have fun and learn more about the park. Kids can pick up a workbook at one of the visitor centers, complete the activities, take a pledge to be sworn in as a junior ranger, and get a badge!
There are two different cactus gardens in the park. One is located near the Red Hills Visitor Center on the west side of the park, and the other is located by the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center on the East side of the park.
Visitors can see many desert plants in the gardens up close, especially different kinds of cacti. There are signs throughout the gardens to help you learn more about the plants.
Watch the Sunset
Sunsets are nothing short of incredible in Saguaro National Park. The Tanque Verde Ridge trail is one of the best places to watch the sunset in the park. Hike just a half mile from the trailhead for fantastic views, and bring a camera!
What to bring on a Saguaro National Park Camping Trip
You’ll need the usual gear for a Saguaro National Park camping trip, like a tent, sleeping bags, cooking supplies, and flashlights. If you’re planning to camp at one of the hike-in sites, make sure your gear is light enough to carry for several miles.
Good Hiking Shoes
Good hiking shoes or boots are a must. Even if you’re camping outside the park, you can do plenty of walking and hiking during your visit. The terrain is rough and uneven in many places, and a sturdy pair of hiking shoes will protect your feet and help keep you safe.
Make sure to bring plenty of water. It can get scorching in the park, especially in summer, and water sources are scarce in the desert. If you’re staying overnight at one of the campgrounds inside the park, bring at least one gallon of water per person daily.
Wrapping up Saguaro National Park Camping
Whether you want to spend some extended time in the wilderness or you’d like a nice campground with plenty of amenities, you’re sure to have a great time on your Saguaro National Park Camping trip. For more state park camping guides, check out the National Park Camping Section on the blog.