We recently went in search of the icon of the Sonoran Desert — the saguaro. What better place than Saguaro National Park?
As my wife Linda and I drove past signs promoting a new development on the edge of Tucson, Ariz., we quickly realized this park was unlike the ones we toured last year — Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Arches National Park.
The park is split by Tucson, the nation’s 32nd largest city, with a regional population of nearly 1 million.
About half of the 91,000-acre park is on one side of the city; the other half is 30 miles away on the city’s other side.
Saguaro National Park is also a relatively small park. It’s about 12 percent of the size of Yosemite National Park, for example.
Saguaro’s eastern park features an eight-mile-long Works Progress Administration-era loop, Cactus Forest Drive. We caught it an hour before sunset, and though there were beautiful views, there were fewer of the sentinel cactuses than we expected.
A bicycle rider darted up from the nearby neighborhood for a spin before sunset while we parked at an overlook where we learned cattle grazing and freezing winters in recent decades thinned the saguaro forest. A black-and-white photo offered a view of the valley when President Herbert Hoover proclaimed it a National Monument on March 1, 1933.
As we looked out over the landscape we could hear owl hoots, coyote yips and, from the edge of the city still in view, car alarms and barking dogs.
To get the escape-to-nature-feel required hiking. The east side of the park has 130 miles of trails, including one to the top of 8,482-foot tall Rincon Peak.
The next day we explored the west side, Tucson Mountain District. This section has more miles of roadway, which at times hopscotch between park and suburb on suburban roads with cute names like Picture Rocks featuring saguaro cactuses in the front yards.
Some cactuses in the national park have been micro-chipped to deter cactus-nappers.
The lower elevation of the west side offers a denser cactus forest.
Both sides of the park have visitor’s centers.
The saguaro can grow up to 50 feet tall, weigh more than 16,000 pounds and live more than 150 years. They are the largest cactuses in the United States, but the green giants are surprisingly fragile in their early years. (See more photos of saguaro cactuses »)
Seeds that are the size of a pinhead often sprout under nurse trees like palo verde and mesquite, protected from frost and sun. The first 15 years may yield less than an inch of growth per year. The first branches or arms may sprout after 75 years. A flexible cylinder-shaped framework of woody ribs allows the accordion-like spongy flesh to expand in wet seasons protected by waxy skin and spines. When the giants fall due to old age or weather, bundles of woody ribs mark the spot, sometimes with a boot-shaped hollow that marks a former bird nest. The ribs were harvested by Native Americans for use in shade structures or as tools to harvest fruit from the cactuses.
If Saguaro National Park sounds too urban, consider visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the Mexican border near the center of the state. It offers a primitive and remote Sonoran Desert experience. As the name indicates, in addition to the Saguaro you will see the organ pipe cactus that flourishes only in the United States.
In addition to natural hazards, however, park literature warns visitors to avoid drug and human smugglers who prowl daily across the border. The visitor’s center is named for Ranger Kris Eggle, who was killed in 2002 while pursuing members of a drug cartel hit squad.
If you go
- Take essentials such as water, sunscreen, comfortable boots and a shady hat.
- The best landscape photographs are often made within an hour of sunrise or sunset.
- The hottest season is between May and September, with average highs in the 100s. A Tucson travel website claims it is the sunniest city in the United States.
- Backcountry use permits are required for camping.
- Almost everything in the desert has spines, thorns, stingers or fangs, so quality walking boots are best.
- Cholla cactus, sometimes called jumping cactus, will grab with the slightest touch. Use a comb or stick to remove — and carry tweezers.
- The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a must see zoo/natural history museum/botanical garden located just south of the park’s western half. Open daily; programs, hours and rates vary depending on the season. It’s a largely outdoor museum, so be prepared with hat, water, walking shoes and sunscreen. We spent a half-day and did not see it all. A highlight: the Raptor Free Flight program. It featured birds of prey flying so close that visitors were advised not to put their hands overhead to prevent injury to themselves and the birds.
- The Arizona State Museum on the nearby University of Arizona campus is the oldest and largest anthropology museum in the Southwest.
Other nearby points of interest