Phoenix — By Lisa Davis on February 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm
Filed under: nature, park, top-feature

A Memorable Visit to the Saguaro National Park

The majestic saguaro cacti at sunset

The Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona is one of the Southwest’s crown jewels, mostly because of the thousands of gigantic saguaro cacti that dot its sandy landscape.

In fact, the cacti almost have a celebrity status among the thousands of people who visit the park each year. Part of that has to do with the cacti’s enormous size, which for me is the main reason I make an annual pilgrimmage to the park. I also enjoy going there to get out of the city and clear my head. The park has a serene quality to it. Often you can feel like you are the only one in the park (which isn’t surprising considering the park is 90,000 acres) and you can literally hear nothing, which for me is a welcomed treat since most days in Chicago where I live all I hear are sirens and horns honking.

I am also a nature lover and a photographer and it is pure bliss for me to spend a day or two at the park snapping photos, mostly of the 50-foot tall, 10-ton saguaro cacti. What captivates me about these plants is their towering presence. And, I will admit, I have been one of those people who has sent holiday cards to family and friends with me standing next to a saguaro cactus. I can’t help myself. Think about it: How often does a plant stand taller than you? (Tip: Saguaro National Park also has “Ghost Cacti” named for those plants that live almost 200 years before turning into hollow, wooded forms.)

About the Saguaro National Park

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The Saguaro National Park  (3693 South Old Spanish Trail Tucson, Arizona; map) is located inside the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona and consists of more than 90,000 acres of land divided into two districts, which are about an hour’s drive apart:

  • Eastern Rincon Mountain District (about 20 miles from downtown Tucson) with an elevation of more than 7,500 feet and my preferred section for heart-pounding hikes that burn calories and also lead you up to soaring heights where you can grab a seat on a rock and enjoy the views down into the park, or take a quick noon-time nap before descending back down the hilly terrain to your car.
  • Western Tucson Mountain District (about 15 miles from downtown Tucson), which at a lower elevation has a more desert-like ambience and is where I spend a lot of time taking photos of the saguaro cacti and other plant and wildlife that call the park home.

Both districts have a visitor center with information about not only the famous towering saguaro cacti, but also on the hundreds of other plants and animals that live in this majestic desert environment. The districts also have scenic drives, trails and picnic areas.

Wildlife

When I first visited the Saguaro National Park I found it to be a nature lovers paradise with more than 50 varieties of cacti, including the saguaro cacti for which it is named, as well as:

  • Some 500 plant species.
  • Various types of wildlife, including 200 bird species such as the cactus wren and the Gambel’s quail that looks like a partridge, and the Mexican spotted owl and peregrine falcons.
  • Other animals you might encounter in the park include jackrabbits, coyotes, desert tortoises in the lower elevations, black bears, kangaroo rats, cactus mice, and diamondback rattlesnakes.

Activities

Because of its massive size, the Saguaro National Park has countless activities. Some of my favorites include hiking, birdwatching, and scouting for endangered species like the Mexican spotted owl.

Hiking:

Because of the park’s massive size (It has about 128 miles of hiking trails that wind through it.), you won’t be short on options for hikes. Some of my recommended hiking trails include:

  • Cactus Forest Trail: I like this trail because it is an easy walking trail with plenty of cacti to admire, which as I mentioned earlier, are the main draw for me to visit the Saguaro National Park. Access is near the east end of Broadway Boulevard, just east of Freeman Road.
  • Douglas Spring Trail: I choose this hike when I want more of a workout and maybe need to burn off a burrito or two that I enjoyed the previous evening while dining in Tucson. This hike winds up, down and through the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. Access is near the east end of Speedway Boulevard.
  • Tanque Verde Ridge Trail: This is another hike I do when I have a lot of time and also want to get my heart pumping. I also choose this hike for its photo opportunities. The trail has some of the park’s most panoramic views of its wilderness areas, including saguaro and prickly pear cacti and pinyon, juniper, and oak trees, which you can especially see as you climb up into the foothills. Access is near the Javelina Picnic Area off Cactus Forest Drive.

I am also an avid biker, so in addition to hiking I either bring my road or mountain bike so I can get some miles in on my bike and see the park from a different perspective than panting up and down its hills and mountainous terrain. Biking allows me to see a greater area of flat and slightly hilly country, and of course, get out my camera at every possible opportunity.

Most often I use my road bike when I am in the eastern district as that district has a paved bike trail. If I am in the western district, then I bring my mountain bike, which has bigger tires to handle the gravel bike path that cuts through the western area.

Driving:

On some trips I have done to the Saguaro National Park, I have spent most of the day in the car and save the hiking and biking for another visit. It might sound odd to stay in your car while in a national park but because each of the park’s two districts has a loop drive, spending time in the car and stopping to take photos is a nice, leisurely way to experience the park. Two of my favorite loop drives include the eight-mile long Cactus Forest Drive in the eastern district and the Bajada Loop Drive in the western district, which is a six-mile gravel loop. While drives in both districts are photo-worthy, I prefer the western Tucson Mountain District for its sunsets, while the eastern Rincon Mountain District is most beautiful in the morning, especially at sunrise.

One way to go about a trip to the park is to get there early to see the sunrise in the eastern district, and then spend the day either biking or hiking, or driving one of loops mentioned above, and then end your day in the western district to watch the sunset. And since you are near Tucson, roughly 20 miles away, you could easily go to the park to watch the sun rise in the morning, and then do some hiking and walking or biking, and then drive into Tucson for lunch and pick up a picnic to enjoy later while watching the sunset in the western district. Speaking of picnics, some of my favorite spots for an outdoor meal in the park among the saguaro cacti include the Mica View and Javelina picnic areas in the Eastern Rincon Mountain District and the Sus and Signal Hill picnic areas in the Western Tucson Mountain District.

Good to Know: Both of the park’s districts have visitor centers that include exhibits on the saguaro cacti (including cacti gardens), as well as information on the hundreds of other flora that live in this beautiful desert environment. You can also take a guided walk led by visitor center staff.

Drive Times to the Saguaro National Park

  • The Saguaro National Park is about 140 miles from Phoenix (roughly a two and a half hour drive).
  • From Tucson, the park is about 20 (roughly a 40-minute drive).

Admission to the Saguaro National Park

  • Admission for the Eastern Rincon Mountain District is $6/private car; $3/individual; and $20/7-day pass.
  • Admission for the Western Tucson Mountain District is free.

Hours of Operation

Both of the Saguaro National Park’s districts are open daily from 7:00 am to sunset. Visitor centers are open daily from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. Both Visitor Centers are closed on Christmas Day.

Photo credit: National Park Service

Tags: nature, park, top-feature


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