Named after the stately Saguaro (pronounced “sa-WAH-roh”) cactus, which incidentally grows only in the Sonoran Desert, this National Park was established in 1994 and is located in southern Arizona near Tucson.
What is amazing about the Saguaro cactus is that it can actually grow to be the size of a tree, where, and live up to 250 years. The inside of the cactus consists of wooden ribs that resemble a tree trunk. Growing over the ribs is the green, fleshy skin that absorbs and stores water. During the summer monsoon season, the cacti absorb many gallons of water and use the stored water throughout the remainder of the year when precipitation is not common.
Scenic drives and short walks among towering cacti make this a dream of a park to visit. If you only see the highlights, carve out a half day. But to really immerse yourself in the Saguaro National Park’s beauty, allow 1-2 days, especially if you want to go backcountry camping.
A great time to come is from mid-May through early June when the gorgeous white waxy cactus flowers are in full bloom. However, any time of year is good, except perhaps at the height of summer when temperatures can get unbearably hot.
Tucson Mountain District
This is the western section, with a denser population of cacti. It is also the more popular section of the park, so expect to share the trails and roads with more visitors. Funny enough, these two sections are divided by the whole of the city of Tucson, and are about a 45-minute drive through the city between the two. Once you pay the entrance fee you can go between the two.
Bajada Loop Drive
An amazing 6-mile drive on graded dirt road. The road is well maintained, so even though it’s not paved, it is suitable for regular passenger cars. Hohokam Road and Golden Gate road make up this drive, and there are several notable viewpoints along the way. To drive it in a complete loop without backtracking, start from N Kinney Road onto Hokokam Road and take the loop counterclockwise. During the rainy season, be sure to check the weather, as flash floods can make the road impassable.
Experience Saguaro on Foot
Valley View Overlook Trail is located in the western section and is an easy introductory hike at less than a mile. Get up close and personal with the mighty Saguaro cactus, along with prickly pears and ironwood trees. The end of the trail features a great viewpoint of the park. Lookout for javelinas (small pig-like creatures), roadrunners, cholla cactus, and several other desert species.
Signal Hill Petroglyphs is a short 0.8-mile roundtrip jaunt to a lovely viewpoint, where along the way you can see ancient petroglyphs drawn by the Hohokam people over 800 years ago. Start the trail at the Signal Hill picnic area on Bajada Loop Drive.
For the more adventurous, a hike to Wassen Peak should be on your list. Rated as difficult, this 8-mile round trip hike is well worth it, with one of the best views of the park. Start on the Sendero Esperanza Trail, then hook on to the Hugh Norris Trail to the top of Wassen Peak at 4,687 feet elevation. This is an especially stunning place to catch the sunset.
Take in the Beauty of Saguaro on Two (or Four) Wheels
Whether you opt for an invigorating bike ride or feel more like a leisurely car ride, the west side of the park does not disappoint. The Bajada Loop Drive stretches 6 miles and while unpaved, it takes you through a dense population of cacti and offers endless photographic opportunities. This road is prone to flash floods during the monsoon season of July and August, so be sure to check the road conditions at the visitor’s center during this time of year.
Rincon Mountain District
Otherwise known as the eastern section, this area has a lower concentration of cacti. However, the Rincon Mountains more than make up for the sparse cacti in the way of a spectacular backdrop for photography. This is the only place visitors can camp inside the park, and offers many miles of backcountry trails, perfect if you want to leave the crowds behind.
Cactus Forest Drive
A scenic 8-mile loop, this drive is only one-way, and starts and ends are the visitor center. It is paved with plenty of pull-outs to stop and take in the beauty. Along this drive is the Desert Ecology Trail and the Javelina Rock Overlook.
Hiking in Saguaro East
Ranging from short and easy to multi-day backpacking hikes, there are hundreds of miles of trails to choose from. The most easily accessible of which is Mica View Trail. It is a 2-mile round trip hike that is fairly flat. Along with way, you’ll have close access to giants Saguaro cacti, with great views of the Rincon Mountains and Tucson.
The easy 1-mile Freeman Homestead Trail leads you to the site of an old homestead foundation, a grove of large saguaros, and a cool desert wash. Among the wildlife to be spotted is the Great Horned Owl who can often be seen in the cliffs above and is a good trail the whole family can get excited about.
Loma Verde Loop is 3.8 miles and moderate. From the trailhead, hike through a grove of mature mesquite trees, Then you’ll climb a bluff onto the bajada, a gravel plain at the base of a mountain. Eventually, you’ll reach an overlook of the cactus forest and Tanque Verde Ridge.
Rob Decker is a photographer, artist and craftsman who is passionate about preserving the nostalgic style of the WPA-era. Rob had the rare privilege of studying under renowned photographer Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob's creating WPA-style posters of our national parks. He's picking up where the masters from that time left off, building on what they began to create a whole new body of National Park poster art for today's generation. Every Limited Edition poster, Artist Proof and postcard he produces is printed in the USA on “Conservation” a 100% recycled, domestically produced stock with soy-based inks. And they are printed by one of the greenest printers in America, right here in Colorado.
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