The National Park Service turns 100 this year. President Woodrow Wilson signed an act creating the National Park Service on August 25, 1916, but the first national park—Yellowstone—was actually instated in 1872.
Twenty-two national parks, monuments, historic sites and other areas affiliated with the National Park Service system are in the state of Arizona, with five of them in Southern Arizona: Saguaro National Park, Tumacácori National Historical Park, Chiricahua National Monument, Fort Bowie National Historic Site and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Visitors enjoy free entrance to all parks (in Arizona and the rest of the United States) on three remaining occasions in 2016:
- National Park Week, April 16-24
- National Park Service Birthday, August 25-28
- Veterans Day, November 11
Free year-round passes are available to active military, citizens with a permanent disability and fourth-grade students (thanks to the Every Kid in a Park program).
So, if you ask us, there’s no better time to visit.
Hop in the car and follow our guide to Southern Arizona’s national parks during your next adventure in Tucson.
Saguaro National Park
The city of Tucson is sandwiched to the east and west by a 91,000-acre national park. The Rincon Mountain District is to the east and Tucson Mountain District is to the west. The park is home to one of the state’s most iconic identifiers—the saguaro cactus.
Among the many miles of scenic drives, and trails fit for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding be sure to pencil in time to check out petroglyphs along the Signal Hill Trail and hike the short Valley View Overlook Trail in the Tucson Mountain District, and drive or bike the Cactus Forest Loop in the Rincon Mountain District.
A weekly pass to enter Saguaro National Park is $10 for a vehicle and $5 for an individual on foot or bicycle; the park is open daily, 9 am-5 pm.
Get there: To access the Rincon Mountain District from Tucson, head east on Speedway Boulevard, turn right on Freeman Road, and left on Old Spanish Trail to the park entrance. To access the Tucson Mountain District from Tucson, head west on Speedway Boulevard/Gates Pass Road, and right on Kinney Road to the park entrance.
Tumacácori National Historical Park
Make it a quick stop or a half-day experience—Tumacácori’s history dates back to the 1600s and there are plenty of ways to learn about its past. Explore three Spanish colonial mission sites, founded by missionary Father Eusebio Kino, by watching a short video played inside the visitor center and museum, hiking part of the Anza Trail, or joining one of the seasonal guided tour groups.
The entrance fee is $5 per person and the park is open daily, 9 am-5 pm.
Get there: From Tucson, take Interstate 19 to exit 29; approximately 50 minutes.
Chiricahua National Monument
An eight-mile scenic drive takes visitors through a “wonderland of rocks,” and 17 miles of hiking trails get adventure seekers up-close-and-personal to the natural spires. The rock forest features geological formations towering hundreds of feet high and balancing acts that look as if a gust of wind could topple them—don’t worry, it won’t.
Entrance to the park is free, and the visitor center is open daily, 8:30 am-4:30 pm, with access to geology, natural history, archaeology and cultural history exhibits. Check weather conditions for travel along the Bonita Canyon Scenic Drive, if planning to travel this route.
Get there: From Tucson, take Interstate 10 east to exit 336, continue on Arizona State Highway 186 east, and turn left on Arizona State Highway 181; approximately two hours.
Fort Bowie National Historic Site
A conflict between the United States Army and the Chiricahua Apaches is commemorated at Fort Bowie National Historic Site. Historical documentation is found in the form of ruins and artifacts along a three-mile, round-trip hike. Begin at the trailhead on Apache Pass Road and meander along the “moderate” trail to the visitor center and Second Fort Ruins. Wheelchair access to the visitor center is available if needed.
Entrance to the park is free and the visitor center is open daily, 8 am-4 pm.
Get there: From Tucson, take Interstate 10 east to exit 362, head south on Apache Pass Road to Old Fort Bowie Road to the trailhead (the last mile is unpaved); approximately two hours. Fort Bowie is only 11 miles off of Highway 186 on the way back from Chiricahua National Monument—plan a full-day itinerary and visit both!
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is home to thousands of years of desert flora and, throughout 400 years, the land saw the likes of Hohokam communities, European expeditioners, California Gold Rush seekers, miners and ranchers. It was established as a national monument in 1937 and as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976, after the remaining cattle were removed from the park.
Hiking trails range from less than a mile to eight miles in length and depart from several points within the park. Dirt roads are open to cars and cyclists, including the popular 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive. Several of the roads through the park (Puerto Blanco Drive past Pinkley Peak, Bates Well Road, Pozo Nuevo Road and Camino de Dos Republicas) are best driven in high-clearance 4x4 vehicles.
Entrance fees are $12 for vehicles and $4 for individuals without a vehicle; both are valid for seven days and are paid at the visitor center. Camping fees vary $5-16 per night. The Kris Eggle Visitor Center is open daily, 8 am-5 pm; check road conditions as some may occasionally close due to monsoon weather.
Get there: From Tucson take Arizona Highway 86 west to Arizona Highway 85 south; approximately 2.5 hours.