Here’s what a million-plus visitors a year mean to Saguaro National Park

The cactus crush continued at Saguaro National Park in 2023

Stand tall.
Reach for the sky.
Be patient through dry spells.
Conserve your resources.
Think long term.
Wait for your time to bloom.
Stay sharp!

—Advice from a Saguaro

For the third time in the past five years, annual visitation topped 1 million at the park bracketing Tucson.

The 1,010,906 recreation visits logged by the National Park Service (NPS) last year were the third most in Saguaro’s 90-year history, first as a national monument, then a national park. Until 2019, the park had never seen more than 1 million visitors in a single year.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The impact is easy to see. Just drive out to the east end of Broadway or Speedway on a sunny day in spring and try to find a space in one of the trailhead parking lots.

There are cars parked on the street that go half a mile in both directions. You can definitely see the need for increased parking and increased opportunities for people to access the park.

Congestion is also increasingly common at Saguaro’s east and west visitor centers especially in March, typically the busiest month at the park.

Though it varies year-to-year, visitation has increased by almost 50 percent overall since 2013 when Saguaro saw fewer than 680,000 recreation visits. The current surge to 1 million visitors and beyond began in 2017 though it was briefly interrupted by the pandemic which sent the figure back down below 765,000 in 2020.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nationwide, 2023 ranked as the fourth busiest in Park Service history with 325,498,646 visitors at 394 sites managed by the agency from California to Florida and Alaska to Hawaii.

So far, though, Saguaro appears to have avoided many of the problems plaguing other popular parks close to urban areas. The sharp rise in visitor volume has not resulted in an increase in crime, vandalism, or even litter.

The community takes a lot of pride in the park and they’re not going to let things fall apart.

Recent feedback from the public seems to back that up.

As part of a larger visitor use study early last year, officials conducted a survey in the park to find out where people were coming from and what they were there to see and do. More than 1,500 visitors were interviewed at various locations and a sizable majority of them said they found Saguaro to be clean, safe, and not too crowded.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Friends

Even as attendance has exploded in recent years, Saguaro has seen its federal funding flatline preventing the park’s workforce from growing along with its visitation. According to a park’s spokesperson, Saguaro has roughly the same number of uniformed staff now as it did a decade ago.

That’s where the Friends of Saguaro National Park come in.

Since it was founded in 1996, Saguaro’s nonprofit fundraising partner has provided $12 million in support to the park. They are able to provide funding for things the park wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

For example, the park’s environmental education programs are entirely paid for by the Friends, according to Fred Stula, executive director of the nonprofit group.

Last year alone, the group and its donors supplied Saguaro with $671,000, its largest yearly contribution to date. And that figure did not include the hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours of work the Friends have provided for trail maintenance and other work.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then there is the group’s Next Generation Ranger Corps Internship Program which has placed more than 100 paid temporary workers at the park since 2015.

The goal of the program is to supply Saguaro with some much needed personnel while helping “diverse young people to get their foot in the door” at the park service and other federal agencies

(58 percent of interns are women and 76 percent come from Latino, Indigenous, or other historically underserved communities).

Nearly every graduate of the program has gone on to work in the environmental field including 38 who have landed jobs with federal agencies. Eighteen former interns are now on the permanent staff at Saguaro.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upgrades coming

The Park Service hopes to address some of its congestion issues starting next year with a major construction project at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center.

The work will more than double the current number of parking spaces and add spots large enough for buses and recreational vehicles. It should also improve visitor safety by rerouting the entrance road between Old Spanish Trail and the fee stations to separate it from the parking lot.

The project represents the first major upgrade to the visitor center parking lot since the early 1950s when fewer than 80,000 people a year visited what was then a national monument limited only to the Rincon Mountains.

President John F. Kennedy expanded the monument to include portions of the Tucson Mountains in 1961 and Congress elevated the land to national park status in 1994.

The final designs and cost estimates for the visitor center upgrade have not been released but according to park officials the work will be funded in part with the additional entrance fee revenue Saguaro has received as a result of its increased visitation.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No changes would be made to Cactus Forest Drive, the iconic, one-lane scenic loop through the Rincon foothills that dates back to the earliest days of the national monument in the 1930s and is considered “part of the historic character” of the park.

The Red Hills Visitor Center in the Tucson Mountains is far newer—and so is its parking lot—but it is also due for its first major renovation since it was built in the 1990s.

The Park Service just launched the design process for that project which will focus on a new layout and all new exhibits for the inside of the building.

Park officials have no immediate plans to expand the parking lots at Saguaro’s most popular hiking spots, namely the Broadway and Douglas Springs trailheads on the east side of the park and the King Canyon trailhead on the west side.

Best advice is come early in the day. By 9:30 or 10 a.m. parking at some locations can be hard to come by.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cactus and crowds

The three busiest years in the history of Saguaro National Park have all come since 2019. Here are the annual recreation visits for the past 10 years, according to the NPS:

  • 2023: 1,010,906
  • 2022: 908,194
  • 2021: 1,079,786
  • 2020: 762,226
  • 2019: 1,020,226
  • 2018: 957,405
  • 2017: 964,760
  • 2016: 820,426
  • 2015: 753,446
  • 2014: 673,572
  • 2013: 678,261
Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Packing the parks

Of the 21 NPS sites in Arizona only two are among the nation’s 10 busiest—and the Grand Canyon isn’t one of them. Here’s where park sites in Arizona ranked on the list of America’s most visited parks in 2023:

1. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia: 16,757,635 recreation visits

2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California: 14,953,882

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee: 13,297,647

4. Gateway National Recreation Area, New York and New Jersey: 8,705,329

5. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida and Mississippi: 8,277,857

6. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.: 8,099,148

7. George Washington Memorial Parkway, Virginia: 7,391,260

8. Natchez Trace Parkway, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee: 6,784,853

9. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona and Nevada: 5,798,541

10. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah: 5,206,934

Others sites in Arizona:

13. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: 4,733,705

75. Saguaro National Park: 1,010,906

117. Petrified Forest National Park: 520,491

146. Montezuma Castle National Monument: 367,239

154. Canyon de Chelly National Monument: 333,349

190. Wupatki National Monument: 215,703

194. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: 186,601

209. Walnut Canyon National Monument: 152,548

214. Coronado National Memorial: 140,089

228. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument: 111,392

232. Tuzigoot National Monument: 102,936

250. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument: 81,519

262. Chiricahua National Monument: 62,582

276. Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site: 54,187

287. Navajo National Monument: 44,180

300. Tumacacori National Historic Park: 37,872

314. Tonto National Monument: 31,216

329. Pipe Spring National Monument: 24,016

370. Fort Bowie National Historic Site: 8,333

Worth Pondering…

A 40-foot saguaro strikes an invincible pose: bristling with defenses, assertively towering over every other living thing in the landscape, seemingly confident in its life span of 200 years or longer.

—Larry Cheek, Born Survivor