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