For many visiting Arizona, the Saguaro National Park is a must see attraction. Standing silent vigil over Arizona’s Sonora Desert, this monolithic saguaro cactus seems to capture the spirit of the Southwest-strong. Weathering relentless sandstorms unblinkingly, silent and tall in the saddle. It’s the kind of strength that many of the settlers who came to the Southwest also shared. Tirelessly working the heat to scratch a living from the arid desert.
Some saguaro cacti live for more than 150 years. Thus making it possible for marauding Apache bands to ride underneath the same huge arms you see today. Growing as tall as 50 feet and weighing up to 8 tons. Swelling with each rain to hoard the rarest of all desert commodities-water -the monumental desert dwellers are a sight to behold. This complete guide to Saguaro National Park will give you all the tips & tricks for what to do while you are in Tucson, Arizona.
The History of Saguaro National Park
The Saguaro National Park is found on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. This park has one of the largest saguaro cactus concentrations in North America. More than 3 million people a year visit the site annually. However, because of it’s vast expanse that makes crowds a rarity.
East of the city, 67,000 acres are encompassed in the Rincon Mountain Unit of the park. To the west, 24,000 acres are found in the Tucson Mountain Unit. Both units feature scenic drives through this unusual saguaro forest, interpretive exhibits, hiking trails, and visitors centers.
In 1976 the cactus’ critical habitat was protected in the Rincon Mountain Unit when 57,930 acres were designated the Saguaro Wilderness Area. Today, some of the most untouched regions of the true Sonora Desert are still found there and in the adjoining Rincon Mountain Wilderness Area. An area which encompasses an additional 38,590 acres.
Since 1933 Saguaro National Park has protected southern Arizona’s silent giants, or as others might call it, prickly menace. That’s probably what the hang-gliding enthusiast thought just before meeting his maker as he sailed into one. Or perhaps the lawbreaker who died after shot-gunning another until it fell on him. Saguaros are spectacular sights but they are protected in Arizona. This means you should only enjoy them from a distance, unless you are a Native American who is allowed to make jelly from its summertime fruit as it ripens. If you arrive in the spring when the limbs are covered in rich white flowers the pictures you take will be as spectacular as the memories.
What to Do in Saguaro National Park
There are more than 165 miles of hiking trails in both areas of the park. They range from long hikes that reach six different established campgrounds in the Rincons to shorter strolls on interpretive trails in the west.
Of course, saguaros aren’t all you’ll see. Cholla, prickly pear, and barrel cactus are abundant throughout the park. Palo verde and mesquite trees are also in the park. Add javelina, mountain lions, mule deer, hawks, packrats, and coyotes as well. All this making this little-known national park is such a popular attraction.
Visit the Visitor Center
The visitor centers in both branches (East & West) of Saguaro National Park are great places to learn about this gentle giant. Gila woodpeckers hammer out nest holes in the cactus stems, and these later become homes for cactus wrens, elf owls, and other creatures.
In the spring, saguaros grow large white flowers on their tips that are pollinated by bats, birds, and insects. Later they produce fruits that Native American families harvest to make jellies, sweets, and even ceremonial wine.
Many other cactus species grow in Saguaro National Park, including teddy bear cholla, prickly pear, hedgehog, and barrel cactus. There are ocotillo, yucca, palo verde, mesquite trees, creosote bushes, and other desert-loving plants. Javelinas, coyotes, kangaroo rats, prairie dogs, Gila monsters, Gambel’s quail, and Harris hawks are among the rich variety of wildlife that calls the park home.
Go on Epic Hikes
Wasson Peak Hike
With an elevation of 4,687 feet, Wasson Peak is the highest point in the Tucson Mountains. It provides an excellent view of Tuscon and several of it’s surrounding mountains.
Signal Hill Trail
This is a fairly short and easy trail located West of Tuscon in the Tuscon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park. Signal Hill was a place where Native Americans carved Petroglyphs into the rocks. It is a very popular trail that even has a picnic area to eat lunch at while enjoying the views.
Mica View Trail to Cactus Forest Trail
This is a 2 mile hike that is perfect if you are in Tuscon for a short visit and want to check out Saguaro National Park on a time crunch.
If you are hiking in the evening, be sure to take a flashlight and wait for the sun to set. You will get to see it go down over Tucson. Bring a snack, find a lofty west-facing perch and wait for dusk. Expect to hear the serenade of plenty of coyotes as the light goes away. The area is home to a huge population of them. Looking for more? Take a look at the best trails in Saguaro National Park according to AllTrails.
Take an E-Bike Tour
The Saguaro National Park East E-Bike Tour is one of the most popular tours in Tuscon. It has been recommended by 95% of people on TripAdvisor, and it sells out quick! You will take a Pedego Electric Bike on a paved route through Saguaro National Park. The knowledgeable tour guides offer great insight into the desert landscape and give you lots of information while riding through the park.
Rock Climb on Mt. Lemmon
Rock Climbing and Canyoning trips are a great way to add excitement to your Saguaro National Park adventure. This excursion will teach you how to rock climb and rappel down a waterfall. The trips range from 4-5 hours, so a perfect half-day adventure. This experience is recommended by 100% of the travelers who participated in the adventure on TripAdvisor.
Best Times to Visit Tuscon
With summer temperatures regularly soaring above 100 degrees F., the Sonoran Desert is one of the hottest places in North America. The best time to visit Saguaro National Park is from October through April. Then, daytime temperatures are much more pleasant, especially for hiking, generally ranging from the 60s to 80s.
Although this dessert is one of the driest places on the continent, it does have seasonal rains. The summer “monsoon” season can bring heavy downpours and thunderstorms in July-August. December-March Arizona can see lighter rains.
Spring is a lovely time to visit Saguaro National Park. Especially after a rainy winter when colorful wildflowers spring up among the cacti. In April, prickly pears grow bright red and yellow flowers. The palo verde trees are draped with canopies of yellow blossoms. Saguaro cactus flowers appear in mid to late May, with the fruits ripening in June and July.
But spring also brings out the rattlesnakes and other desert creepy crawlies. Take greater care when out on the trails. Rattlesnakes hibernate in the winter and are less likely to be seen. Never step blindly into underbrush or put hands on rocks or into crevices without looking first.
Tips for Visiting Saguaro National Park
No matter what time of year, if planning to hike it’s a good idea to start early in the day to avoid the midday heat and, in summer, afternoon thunderstorms. Wear good, solid footwear – thorns and cactus spines can easily go right through flip-flops, and open-toed sandals are asking for trouble. Wear a hat, sunglasses, and a high-factor sunscreen. Take plenty of water and drink frequently to avoid dehydration.
Final Thoughts on Visiting the Saguaro National Park
Keep in mind that the Saguaro is a protected cactus. While beautiful, do not try to take on home, or damage any that you see. Use a few simple precautions when in the park.
Walking among the gentle giants of Saguaro National Park is one of the best things to do in Tucson.