View from Saguaro National Park’s west section as taken from my iPhone
Tucson was the third leg of my trip to Arizona that began with Sedona then Phoenix. Tucson is surrounded by natural beauty. It is in the middle of the west and east sections of Saguaro National Park, approximately 30 minutes from downtown to either section. Moreover, the city is nestled between mountain ranges; primarily the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north, the Santa Rita Mountains to the south, the Tucson mountains to the West, and the Rincon Mountains to the East. Nevertheless, Saguaro National Park is the primary attraction to see for travelers to Tucson. As the name states, it is home to giant Saguaro cacti: the premiere and most recognizable flora of the state of Arizona. Seeing the Saguaros with one’s own eye is definitely a bucket list item. In addition to their size, no Saguaro is shaped exactly like another cactus. While the Saguaro can be seen throughout Arizona, Saguaro National Park is naturally the best place to see the cacti in the state. Moreover, March was a perfect time to visit because the wildflowers are in full bloom. While I saw wildflowers in Sedona and Phoenix, the flowers were spread out and the yellow color was a bit diluted. I needed to look for the flowers to notice them. The wildflowers were much more concentrated on the drive down to Saguaro National Park and in the park. When I drove down I-10 towards Tucson, the middle of the highway was packed with a thick concentration of yellow. It looked and felt like driving down the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz [I did not attempt to snap a picture while driving because it was not worth a potential accident no matter how beautiful it looked]. The flowers were also bunched together in Saguaro National Park. It was a beautiful sight to see the sea of yellow mixed in between with the ocean of Saguaro.
In terms of Tucson, it is a city that is spread out. It is also a college town serving as the home of the University of Arizona. For residents, there is plenty to do (e.g. Reid Park is a quality and big city park) and options for great food. On the other hand, there are not must sees outside of the National Park for tourists. Sabino Canyon and the scenic byway drive to the top of Mt. Lemon are popular natural attractions. I considered doing both but I had a short 5 day trip to Arizona and felt there were other things I preferred to see in the state. In terms of the city, it is very much a concrete jungle. Even though there has been a resurgence in recent years, the current architecture is dated and a bit of an eye sore. I also asked the bartender at a restaurant if there is anything he felt a tourist should see. His answer was that there was not much to see but the downtown area has plenty of food and bars at night. Again, there is plenty of stuff to do if you live there. However, it is probably a better place to live than visit because travelers can get similar amenities elsewhere. I spent about 24 hours (1 night) in Tucson/ Saguaro National Park. It was more than enough time to see cacti and eat some tasty food. Tucson can also be a pass through destination for half a day as you see one section of the park, pass through town to eat some food, then see the other section of the park before heading to another destination in the state. It can also be a day trip from Phoenix as it is only a 2 hour drive one way.
- Saguaro National Park
The Park sandwiches Tucson on the west with the Tucson Mountain District and on the east with the Rincon District. The more visited section is the west side. The concentration of Saguaros on that side are a lot denser. When I visited in March, the wildflowers were also in full bloom. With the thick patches of yellow throughout the park, it looked like a field of gold and Saguaro. For the best place to see Saguaros in Arizona, the Tucson Mountain District is definitely the best spot to be. Accordingly, I consider that side a must see. The Rincon District is a nice to see that I also recommend. While there are mountains on the west side of the Park, the East side has more impressive mountain ranges to its north and its south. As a result, it is a better place to take a picture of Saguaros with mountains in the background. Interestingly, they look like purple mountains.
Both sections of the park feature a driving loop so visitors can enjoy the cacti from the comfort of their cars. Nonetheless, there are a plethora of trails to hike around. It is definitely worth getting out of the car and exploring a little bit to walk among the Saguaro cacti.
Tucson Mountain District
When you enter the west side of the Park, you will need to go to the Visitor’s Center to pay the Park fee. You will see a lot of Saguaro cacti around and behind the building. Immediately, I stared at the sea of Saguaro and thought “Wow”. I had never seen anything like it. The experience got even better when I drove around the 6 mile Bajada Loop nearby. The road is a dirt path but level so a 4X4 or four wheel drive vehicle is not required to drive on it. Along the loop, tourists will find the most concentrated and beautiful views of Saguaro cacti in Arizona.
Moreover, there are plenty of hiking trails. I went on the Valley View overlook trail. It is 0.4 miles one way (0.8 miles round trip) to an overlook where you look down at a floor full of cacti. The trailhead is clearly marked at the respective parking lot on the Bajada Loop. Once you start onto the trailhead, there is a sign near the beginning at a fork in the road that is a little confusing. There are three routes noted on the sign. I went on the path that was elevated [Wild Dog] because I knew I was looking for an overlook. It only made sense since I needed to go on the trail that goes up to find an overlook. Next, it is a short walk to the overlook with very modest elevation change. When I got to the lookout point, it was a decent spot in the Park but I was not blown away by it. Nonetheless, I recommend the short walk since the path allows you to get up close to the cacti and see all the different shapes and sizes. Walking among the Saguaro is definitely part of a full experience in the Park. While there are other paths that connect at the beginning of the trailhead, I do not think it is necessary to go on any long hikes to fully immerse yourself in Saguaros. It would just be for exercise if you did so. I felt the sights were becoming more of the same after an hour driving and walking around the Park. In other words, the novelty of seeing cacti wears off. Accordingly, driving along the Bajada loop and walking along the Valley View overlook trail for an hour or two is the perfect amount of time to spend on the west side of the Park. I also recommend a quick detour off the Bajada Loop to Signal Hill. The word “hill” is a generous description. It is more like a big mound. Nonetheless, it provides a good vantage point to take pictures of the cacti and Park.
The road leading into the West side of the park also floods from time to time during the year. Accordingly, check the conditions of the road on the National Park website before your visit.
Driving into the west side feels like going into a National Park as you go from the highway into the desert. Driving to the entrance to the east side of the Park feels very different. Its entrance is right next to a residential neighborhood in Tucson. On the other hand, the Rincon District includes a lot of backcountry trails if visitors opt to go deep into this section. As a FYI, Visitors need a permit to camp overnight. However, most tourists will just take the scenic drive around the 8 miles Cactus Forest Loop. It is a completely paved road. Again, the cacti are less dense than they are in the Tucson Mountain District. Nevertheless, the mountains are more impressive on the east. The backdrop of purple rocks provides a picturesque background. In particular, the most beautiful views on the drive are near the end where the road inclines up. The elevated vantage points to see the cacti and mountains are gorgeous.
In addition, there are many hiking trails along the Cactus Forest Loop. They are relatively flat and easy walks in the park. I stopped at various points on the Loop to walk parts of some of the trails. For the most part, it was good to walk around to see more of the Park. However, the scenery was similar to what I could see from the comfort of my car. The first trail I stopped at was the Cactus Forest Trail. In total, it is a 2 ½ miles path. I only walked a little bit of it before I turned around to take a shot of cacti with Mt. Lemmon in the background. The next trail I stopped at was the Loma Verde trail. I went on the path for about 20 minutes before I turned back. Both trails were easy, relaxing walks but certainly not must dos. They are good if you want to walk for exercise. The one trail I do recommend is the Freeman Homestead Trail. It is near the end of the Loop and starts around a picnic area. It is a cozy, beautiful part of the Park. It is a path with modest elevation gain and small hills. As such, it is picturesque sight to see hills of Saguaro with the mountains in the background. The short 1 mile walk was certainly worth it. It was my favorite trail on either side of Saguaro National Park.
1. Baja Café (2970 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, AZ 85719)
It ranks among the best breakfast/ brunch spots I have eaten anywhere. I ordered the Liege Waffles. It is not an exaggeration to say it is definitely the best waffle I have ever eaten. The outside was crisp but the inside was super soft. The unique aspect that put it over the top was the Belgium pearl sugar. The small pellets of sugar added a delightful crunchiness. Moreover, the berries on top were fresh: blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. In particularly; the blueberries were very big, which are my favorite kind of blueberries. The waffle also came with mascarpone. It is an Italian cream cheese. It was good but not my taste. I got tired of it after a little bit. While the waffles are phenomenal, there is a limited supply every day. Nonetheless, I sat by the kitchen and every dish that came out looked amazing.
Not surprisingly, Baja Café is a very popular breakfast spot. It was packed by 8 AM on Sunday and guests were sitting in lawn chairs as they waited on line. Accordingly, try to get there early but it is worth the wait.
- Café Poca Cosa (110 E Pennington St, Tucson, AZ 85701)
Café Poca Cosa is a Mexican restaurant in the downtown area. It features an upscale look but maintains the casual dining feel. Another interesting aspect about this restaurant is its menu changes every day so it is presented in chalk on a chalkboard. I ordered the Asada Diabla. It was a beef dish with a chipotle cream. I definitely recommend anything on the menu if it has that sauce. The chipotle cream tasted like an immaculate tomato sauce on steroids. The beef was also good. However, it was cooked on the medium well side and I prefer a medium rare so the meat is chewier. The dish also came with jasmine rice, salad, beans, tortilla, and water melon. The sides were overall very good. The tortilla was fantastic. I used it to roll around the beef and the other sides to make tacos.
Naturally, there are a countless number of Mexican restaurants in Tucson. As such, there are plenty of other options if you wanted to avoid the downtown area. Nonetheless, Café Poca Cosa is very good and provides a unique take on Mexican flavors. In addition, the restaurant is at the base of a public parking lot. I found the lot much more convenient than trying to find street parking. It only cost me $2 to park inside for a couple of hours.
- Kimchi Time (2900 E Broadway Blvd, Tucson, AZ 85716)
When I was in Tucson, I was surprised to read that Korean restaurants are trendy in the city. I was curious to try one out. Kimchi Time is a family owned, hole in the wall type spot inside a shopping plaza. I have eaten a lot of great Korean food in New York. I can definitely say Kimchi Time is legit and authentic. The soontofu soup with beef was very good. The beef was tender and so chewy. The soup had a kick to it. Moreover, the tofu was very smooth. Next, the jap chae was great too. It was exactly what I expect from the dish. The complimentary sides were also delicious. The kimchi was excellent. The bean sprouts were crunchy. The pickled radish and potato salad were another standout. I devoured everything quickly. The dinner certainly hit the spot after a long day exploring both sections of Saguaro National Park.
- Presta Coffee (2502 N 1st Ave #100, Tucson, AZ 85719)
Presta is an awesome coffee shop in Tucson. It measures up to a lot of the great coffee I have tasted around the country. The latte I got was flawless. It was rich and smooth. Moreover, it had the best latte art I saw among all the coffee shops I visited during my Arizona trip. The interior is very comfortable. It is spacious and there are sofa chairs to relax while you sip your coffee. There is also plenty of room to study or do work. On the other hand, the exterior is odd. It looks like a steel cage. In addition, the sign is a very small sign. I drove right past it because it looked like an abandoned building. Nonetheless, I totally enjoyed the experience after I found the coffee shop.
- Arroyo Chico Neighborhood
I rented an AirBnb in the Arroyo Chico neighborhood. It is a residential area with a suburban feel. It was quiet and safe at night. The AirBnb was also close to Reid Park, which is a very large city park. It was a good spot to just walk around for an hour and unwind at the end of the day. I definitely recommend an AirBnb in the neighborhood if you are staying a night in Tucson.