Saguaro Na­tional Park

The South­west’s best am­bas­sador wel­comes hik­ers, cy­clists and na­ture lovers to this desert par­adise.

Country - - SPECIAL SECTION - STORY AND PHO­TOS BY RON & JA­NINE NIEBRUGGE

Saguaro cac­tuses stand out in the Sono­ran Desert of Ari­zona. Tall with their tree­like arms turned up to the sky (you could say they look like spiky green can­de­labras), they’re an icon of the Amer­i­can South­west and the star at­trac­tion at Saguaro Na­tional Park.

Let’s start by learn­ing how to pro­nounce this tricky word “saguaro.” Re­mem­ber that the “g” is silent: sa-WAH-row. Saguaros can live for up to 200 years, and the only place in the world where they grow is the Sono­ran Desert. While growth rates may vary de­pend­ing on pre­cise lo­ca­tion and weather, it takes about 35 years for the saguaros to pro­duce their first sig­na­ture flow­ers (the saguaro bloom), 50 to 100 years to grow their first arms and about 150 years to reach full height—up to 50 feet.

Split into east and west dis­tricts by the city of Tuc­son, Saguaro Na­tional Park pre­serves and pro­tects this vi­tal part of the desert. Though both dis­tricts fea­ture vis­i­tor cen­ters, pic­nic ar­eas and plenty of op­por­tun­ties for hik­ing and cy­cling, the ter­rain dif­fers some­what, so vis­it­ing both is a must.

With area el­e­va­tions rang­ing from 2,180 to 8,666 feet, the plants and wildlife vary widely through­out the park. Desert new­com­ers will find the land­scape to be sur­pris­ingly lush.

The real trea­sure of the west dis­trict, which sits amid the Tuc­son Moun­tains, is the sheer vol­ume of saguaros. The for­est here is dense and as­tound­ing. Be­gin with a stop at the Red Hills Vis­i­tor Cen­ter and be sure to take in the stun­ning view from the pic­ture win­dow.

To truly ap­pre­ci­ate the park, take the time to hike a trail or two (or three). Both dis­tricts have ac­ces­si­ble trails, so there’s some­thing for ev­ery­one here. For ex­am­ple, the west’s half-mile Desert Dis­cov­ery Trail is paved and dot­ted with signs about the nat­u­ral fea­tures of the Sono­ran Desert. Val­ley View Over­look is another short, fairly easy trail with a stun­ning view of the Avra Val­ley and be­yond. From here one can see how de­vel­op­ment has crept up to the park’s bound­ary over the years.

The Sig­nal Hill Trail is a must-do for hik­ers and pho­tog­ra­phers. It fea­tures iconic desert sun­sets as well as pet­ro­glyphs etched by the Ho­hokam, an an­cient, highly ad­vanced Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture whose dis­ap­pear­ance in the 15th cen­tury re­mains some­thing of a mys­tery.

If you’d rather ex­plore the area on wheels, take the five-mile Scenic Ba­jada Loop Drive by

bi­cy­cle, motorbike or car. The road winds through a thick saguaro stand and has plenty of spots to pull over and take a photo.

The saguaros are not as dense in the east dis­trict. Rather, the draw here is a cac­tus for­est, home to an abun­dance of desert plants in­clud­ing teddy bear (or jump­ing) cholla, bar­rel and prickly pear. Nu­mer­ous trails on this side of the park wind through the desert ter­rain. Keep your eyes open for young saguaros grow­ing un­der a “nurse tree” (usu­ally a palo verde or mesquite).

Another fea­ture of the east dis­trict is the Rin­con Moun­tain range. These sky is­lands are iso­lated and sur­rounded by a low­land cli­mate that varies rad­i­cally, with for­est at the top and desert at the bot­tom. In fact, the east dis­trict en­com­passes five dif­fer­ent biomes.

The east dis­trict has its own vis­i­tor cen­ter, and we sug­gest start­ing there. Take a look at the wa­ter fea­ture out back and see if any an­i­mals stop by for a drink. Then, drive along Cac­tus For­est Drive in the foothills of the Rin­cons. There are many trails and over­looks along this one-way loop road. Desert Ecol­ogy Trail, for ex­am­ple, is paved and wheelchair-ac­ces­si­ble. For some­thing a lit­tle longer, the Loma Verde Loop is a solid choice.

Our fa­vorite time to visit Saguaro Na­tional Park is in the spring, from mid-March through May. The weather is per­fect at this time of year and the cac­tuses and wild­flow­ers bring the desert to life. In May the saguaros bloom, pro­duc­ing the lovely white blos­som that is Ari­zona’s of­fi­cial flower.

At a min­i­mum, al­low one full day for each sec­tion of the park. Al­ways bring wa­ter and sunscreen, even in the win­ter or on a cool or cloudy day. And re­mem­ber to bring a comb for re­mov­ing any cac­tus spines that may at­tach to your socks, shoes or body. A lit­tle rus­tle of wind will send a cholla spine into the air.

Ex­plore Saguaro Na­tional Park and en­counter a gor­geous land­scape teem­ing with life and the col­or­ful spirit of the South­west.

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