Terra Galleria Photography

Saguaro National Park: five days and $314


This March, I visited Saguaro National Park in less than five days, inclusive of travel from home. A fairly extensive National Park photography trip doesn’t need to be lengthy nor expensive! To illustrate this point, in this post, rather than describing the locations visited, I will detail my itinerary, logistics, and costs, which totalled $314 all-inclusive of transportation, food, and lodging costs.

During the week before the trip, a front was creating overcast conditions that I tried to avoid. On March 17, satisfied with the forecast that I monitored closely, I booked a flight into Tucson using 25K American Airlines miles. You can earn 50K miles just by signing up for an AA Advantage credit card and spending $3,000 in the first three months. Miles often let you book a flight at the late minute, so you are in control of conditions.

Day 1: travel & Mica View

Mid-day on March 19, I flew from SFO to Tucson. Total airfare cost: $136 (award processing, 1 checked bag RT @ $25 each way). Traveling “light”, I packed my gear in two bags. Two cameras, six lenses, and electronics fit into an F-stop Gear Satori backpack. I hauled the rest in a wheeled Eagle Creek duffel bag that I kept under 50lbs. It included camping gear, two tripods, and the Phantom 2 quadcopter in a Think Tank bag. The Satori fits into the overhead bins of regular planes but is too large for regional planes. I slipped out the ICU (“internal carrying unit”) and its fragile contents, which easily fit into the overhead bin before gate-checking the shell.

As I did not anticipate difficult weather nor rough roads, I rented a compact car (Hotwire) for $110. I would end up using only one tank of gas: $22. I had a bit of extra time before my planned evening shot in the park. I spent it buying snacks at a gas station ($9) and taking aerial pictures of the striking military airplane graveyards south of Tucson.

In the late afternoon, I hiked the Mica View Trail (2 miles RT) in the Rincon Mountain (East) Unit of Saguaro National Park. Since it was cloudy, I did not hang out for night photography.

Instead, I went to a grocery store to stocked up on food for the rest of the trip. I spent $30 on a loaf of garlic bread, a loaf of orange bread, bananas, cans of vegetables, chips, Gatorade bottles (they double as excellent water bottles), and energy/snack bars, all foods that do not require a cooler. The weather was warm enough not to warrant bringing a stove, which makes locating suitable cartridges time-consuming. However, feeling a bit chilly, I bought pizza and breadsticks ($8) that I ate while driving. Recent rains had created flooded sections on the unpaved road to the trailhead, which was quite unsettling in the darkness of night. However, I made it to the Miller Creek Trailhead where I slept under the stars next to the car ($0) on National Forest lands, which are not restricted like NPS lands.

Day 2: Rincon Peak day hike

The NPS site says “for those with a taste for adventure, as well as a couple of extra days, we recommend a trip into the Rincon Mountains Saguaro Wilderness Area”. A single day gave me a good taste of that area.

Rincon Peak (8482′ elevation) is the second-highest peak in the range, about 200 feet lower than the tallest peak, Mica Mountain, but the view from the top was said to be much better. Along the trail, I discovered an aspect of the park that most visitors miss. On average, less than one person/day visits Rincon Peak. The window for this hike is limited by snow in winter and heat in summer.

The varied environments included chaparral, riparian areas with flowing streams and both deciduous and coniferous trees, sub-alpine forests, culminating at a peak with 360 degrees views. Starting the 16-mile RT hike (4500+ feet elevation gain) trail at 9:30 am, I took a nice nap mid-day at the Happy Valley Campsite under the shade of pine trees, and finished around 11pm. Given the late hour and the convenience, I slept again at the trailhead.

Day 3: Cactus Forest Loop Drive

The Rincon Mountain (East) Unit opens at 7am, which is too late for sunrise. I rested and arrived in the morning for a day of driving and short hikes. My favorite was the 1st mile of the Tanque Verde Trail where I photographed at sunset.

The East Unit’s main gate closes at sunset. Afterward, I drove to an unsigned, foot-only entrance along Broadway Boulevard, from which I was able to re-enter the park along Mica View trail for the night photographs I missed two days before. I then drove to the Tucson Mountain (West) Unit, grabbing a veggie burger ($7) along the way before sleeping on public lands ($0).

Day 4: Tucson Mountains hike and Signal Hill

To be positioned high on the Tucson Mountain slopes at first light, I started hiking the King Canyon Trail in the dark at 5:30. I caught the pre-dawn light mid-way the Sendero Esperanza Trail. The Sonoran desert can be incredibly lush and beautiful under the right conditions!

Arriving at Wasson Peak through the Hugh Norris Trail, I hung out until the afternoon to wait for the light to improve. Killing some time was needed since total hiking distance was just 9 miles, 2000 feet elevation gain.

By the time I reached the section of the King Canyon Trail I had crossed at night, the late afternoon light was nice. After a brief stop at the Visitor Center to check out the light for the series The Window (not optimal), I proceeded to Signal Hill. I arrived early enough to capture the sunset light there, before setting up an all-night time-lapse.

Day 5: Scenic Bajada Loop Drive

I hiked the Valley View Overlook trail (1 mile RT) at sunrise and continued to explore the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive by car.

I wrapped the trip at the Visitor Center. For the first time in the series, I was able to superimpose almost exactly the reflexion of a natural feature (the Saguaro cactus) and its depiction inside the visitor center.

At the Tucson airport, I re-packed my bags in the shade of the rental car terminal and caught a mid-afternoon flight, arriving at home in San Jose past dinner time.

My trips to the national parks are not vacations! In less than five days, I had explored the two units of Saguaro National Park in more depth than most visitors would ever do, not only driving the scenic roads, doing several short hikes but also reaching two of the main summits in the park, all at minimal expense. Do you also find that National Parks trips can be done with little time and money resources ?

See images of Saguaro National Park


  1. Bret Edge says:

    Fantastic post, QT. For better or worse I pride myself on being able to travel like a “dirtbag”. As you’ve illustrated, National Park trips needn’t be an expensive affair. For those who don’t enjoy sleeping under the stars, there are almost always inexpensive hotels nearby and money can be saved on food by using a cooler and camp stove. At any rate, loved the post and images, especially those of wildflowers surrounding the gorgeous saguaros.

    • QT Luong says:

      Thanks Bret. Cooler and stoves are a bit of a luxury for me. Carrying your own food is a must for photographers who prefer to stay in the field at the best times of the day instead of looking for restaurants!

  2. Rachel Cohen says:

    Wonderful post Tuan! What a detailed account and beautiful images! I can see lots of tips in your post that I need to take advantage of! I do stay inexpensively near National Parks, but haven’t done the amount of camping and hiking that you do! You’re really in great shape! I guess all that running really pays off! 🙂 Thanks for writing such an informative post! I really enjoyed it! 🙂

    • QT Luong says:

      Thanks Rachel! I enjoy exploring far and wild places, in the footsteps of Galen Rowell, however, I am still very far from his level of fitness! I thought that entering a marathon would give me some motivation to do more regular workouts.

  3. Sherrie Jackson says:

    I once had 20 hours to do what I could in Yosemite. At the time I was in NoCal for work so my flight and rental car were paid for; I only had to spend on gas, entrance fee, food, and unheated tent cabin. When I go back I think I’ll road-trip (from Missouri) and get a heated tent cabin. I think I can make it a good five day trip for under $500. 🙂

  4. Russ Bishop says:

    Great write-up and images QT! You certainly maximized your return on this trip, and showed (as Bret mentioned) that you don’t have to break the bank when visiting and photographing the national parks.

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