Note: We strongly recommend stopping by the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center for a paper map of the area if you don’t already have one. This region of the park has an elaborate system of trails, and while they are often well-marked, a map will help you keep your way and not accidentally wander down a wash.
Note: Although this is a relatively mild trail and hiking can be done year-round here, if you’re hiking in the summer months in any desert, it is best to get your hike in during the early morning or evening hours. Mid-day temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees here, and the low humidity can dry the sweat from your body before you realize how much water you’re losing.
The Mica View Loop offers up tremendous views of the Rincon and Santa Catalina Mountains as well as a great introduction to the Saguaro Cactus Forest that dominates the foothills of the Rincon Mountains in the Eastern section of Saguaro National Park.
This relatively flat route begins at the Mica View Picnic Area at the end of a well-graded dirt road that is passable for passenger cars. From the parking area (restrooms nearby), head north on the Mica View Trail to begin your hike.
Almost immediately, you are thrown into the wild, strange landscape of the ‘cactus forest.’ When I told a friend who’d visited before that I was hiking here, he looked at me with wide eyes and said, “that place challenged my idea of what a forest is.”
Here, you can see exactly what he was talking about — and that it might also challenge what your idea of what a desert is, too. The Sonoran is one of the wettest deserts in North America, with two separate rainy seasons (winter and summer) and rainfall totals that can reach up to 16 inches (for comparison, the Mojave only gets about 5 inches per year!). As a result, this desert is strikingly much more green than many of the other deserts around the West — and plants that might only grow in washes and arroyos in other places can blanket the entire ground in the Sonoran.
Palo verde and mesquite trees can cast some legitimate shade here … and then, of course, there are the saguaro — towering cacti that can reach heights of 70 feet, these giants take an exceedingly long time to grow and can often be over 150 years old. It can take more than 75 years for them to grow their first ‘arm’ — although not all saguaros grow arms at all, even some of the old-timers.
On the Mica View Trail, you’ll have the opportunity to see some of the younger saguaros taking root near ‘nurse trees’ – usually palo verde, ironwood, or mesquite trees.
Head north from the trailhead on the 0.7 mile Mica View Trail and keep your eyes out for the wildlife that congregates around these desert giants — especially during their blooming season from April through June.
Several species of birds use the saguaro for homes — Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers will nest inside the bodies of saguaro cactus, while other birds will nest in protected corners of the saguaro’s arms. If those birds have moved on, others like hawks, ravens, and owls will adopt those nests as well.
The surprisingly lush desert is also home to the usual suspects like cholla, prickly pears, and the ever-present creosote bush.
The pavement eventually ends and you’ll be hiking on a relatively even and well-maintained single track trail. At 0.7 mile, you’ll reach the Broadway Trailhead at the north end of the loop, where it intersects with the Shantz and Cactus Forest Trails. Keep to the right to head back south on the Cactus Forest Trail, where you’ll now have great views of the Rincon Mountains. You’re also looking at several distinct desert ecosystems along that elevation profile — and up top where all that dense green is, you can find some Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines!
Side note: if you are interested in the plant life in this region, the Saguaro National Park has an incredibly-detailed variety of guides on the flora here. Check it out!
0.7 mile south from the Broadway Trailhead, you’ll reach a junction with the Javelina Wash and Cholla Trails. You can take the Javelina Wash or if you want to stay off loose sandy terrain, just stick to the Cactus Forest Trail until you see a short connector heading west toward Mica View.
Return to the trailhead — have a snack and drink some water, then continue your drive along the Cactus Forest Loop Drive!
The trail is well marked and traveled, although the network in this part of the park does spiderweb a bit. Junctions are marked but a map is a necessity here.
All camping in Saguaro is on hike-in backcountry sites in the Saguaro Wilderness area of the National Park.
The trailhead as described here is 2.8 miles from the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center. Drive on Cactus Forest Drive (one-way) for 2.1 miles, then turn left onto a dirt road toward the Mica View Picnic Area. Alternately, this route can be accessed from the north via the Broadway Trailhead on Broadway Boulevard.