Despite its ubiquitousness with deserts and the American Southwest, the saguaro (sah-WAH-roh) cactus only grows in a few areas found scattered around the Sonoran Desert. One of the best places to find them is Saguaro National Park near Tucson.
Set aside in 1994, the park has an abundance of interesting things to do and sites to see. These include the cactus itself, but go far beyond it. In this post, I will give you the top 10 reasons to visit Saguaro National Park.
Tip: Pick up a copy of this guide for detailed maps and trail descriptions of the area.
1. Saguaros. The park is full of them.
It would be silly not to list saguaros as the number one reason to go. The park is chock full of them and it is an incredible sight. I am sure you have seen photos and might think that is sufficient. I am here to tell you it is not. You need to see these forests in person to get a feel for how special they are.
Like me, you might have heard it takes a long time for a saguaro to grow. When I found out it can take 75-100 years for a saguaro to grow its first arm, my mind was blown. Since then, I have gained a new appreciation for each and every saguaro I see.
Because Saguaro National Park receives more precipitation than most arid environments, it is lush as deserts go, and its trails are lined with thick cactus forests. Take a nature walk along one of the park’s 165 miles of trails. I guarantee you will be surprised by the amount of greenery you find.
If you are an animal lover in the slightest bit, you will be happy to know that Saguaro National Park has abundant wildlife. Although typical desert creatures are sure to be found, the park has some unique and uncommon species as well.
Take the javelina for instance, a medium-sized hoofed mammal that resembles a pig. Seeing one of these cute critters in person is an awesome experience. Stay attentive and you might also see a bobcat, coyote, vulture, roadrunner, or hummingbird.
Tip: Love hummingbirds? Learn how to make a DIY portable feeder.
You might not think about the possibility of seeing bears in the desert, but they do roam the park and campers ought to be vigilant. Venomous lizards known as gila monsters are also around, but tend to keep to themselves and pose little threat. However, please beware of bark scorpions, the most venomous scorpion in North America. If you are camping, it is a good idea to shake your sleeping bag before getting in it.
A couple animals associated with the tropics have a presence in the Sonoran Desert as well. Live cameras have spotted jaguars roaming southern Arizona’s mountains, though nobody has encountered one. The endangered thick-billed parrot can also be found, perched on a saguaro or palo verde tree, though they make easy prey for raptors.
Tip: Do not miss the opportunity to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Make sure to watch the “Raptor Free Flight”.
3. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Founded in 1952, this museum provides an outdoor experience of the Sonoran Desert’s flora, fauna, natural history, and landscape. It is a five minute drive from the museum to the west entrance of Saguaro National Park, which makes it convenient to see both when you visit.
For most of the year, it can get hot during the day so morning is the best time to go. Because many of the animals are nocturnal, they are more responsive then too. You will have the opportunity to see all sorts of interesting exhibits, learn from scientific experts, and meet lots of rescued animals from the surrounding desert.
4. Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking
Hiking is the most popular activity in Saguaro National Park and with good reason: The park is full of well-maintained trails with options for both short and long walks. Whether you decide to enter the eastern or western district, you are bound to find some great trails.
For backpackers, if you are looking for solitude, this is a great place to find it. Saguaro receives far fewer visitors than the Grand Canyon and does not allow car camping. If you want to camp here, strap on a pack and venture into the wilderness. Make sure to grab a permit, bring plenty of water, and practice Leave No Trace Principles.
Tip: Consider camping at Manning Camp. Located in a coniferous forest at 8,000 feet elevation, it is a great place to escape the heat.
During springtime, the Sonoran Desert’s annual wildflowers burst into bloom. Nearly 100 species have been identified in Saguaro National Park alone. That figure does not include its perennial flowers.
Throughout the entire year, you are likely to find blossoms if you look closely. The desert has an undeserved reputation for being devoid of color and life. The beauty provided by its wildflowers are a prime example of why this is idea is false.
From April through June, saguaros bloom and produce a gorgeous white flower, but make sure to see them before they close, around mid-afternoon.
Tip: Pick up a copy of this guide for info on wildflowers found in the Sonoran Desert.
6. Two Districts
Saguaro National Park is two parks for the price of one. It is comprised of two districts, situated on the east (Rincon Mountain District) and west (Tucson Mountain District) sides of Tucson. This means more bang for your buck and more saguaro-laden terrain to explore.
7. Cactus Forest Loop Drive
This is a popular one-way (mostly) road located within the eastern district of Saguaro National Park. Although it offers an excellent way to see the park by vehicle, it is also popular with cyclists and runners. It provides access to a number of trails, one of which permits mountain biking.
Cactus Forest Loop Drive is only 8 miles, but be sure to give yourself plenty of time to stop at all of the scenic views and pullouts.
8. Geology and the Gem Show
Because of their propensity for erosion, deserts tend to have a lot of exposed rock. The Sonoran Desert is no exception and as a result, it attracts geologists, mineralogists, and rock hounds from around the world.
During February, thousands of people converge in Tucson for its annual Gem and Mineral Shows. If you are around this time of year, it is a great chance to browse and buy handcrafted jewelry and gemstones from all over the globe.
Tip: Check out this guide for detailed info on the geology of Saguaro National Park.
Saguaro National Park is one of the best places for photographers to capture stunning images of the Sonoran Desert. To illustrate, all of the photos in this article were shot by me within park boundaries.
In my opinion, there is never a bad time of year to shoot. That being said, the most comfortable daytime temperatures (60° to 75°F range) occur during winter. The majority of wildflowers bloom in spring. The monsoon hits around mid to late summer and this is a great time to shoot moody sunsets and lightning storms.
10. Post-Adventure Food
If you are anything like me, after a long day of playing in nature the first thing your mind turns to is food. Lucky for us, next door to Saguaro National Park is Tucson. As it turns out, Tucson is a fabulous place to eat. Yes, being close to the border means great Mexican food and I suggest you start, but don’t stop there.
Here are a few of my favorite places to eat in Tucson:
- The Little One: Authentic (and I mean it) Mexican food and warm vibes. If you are lucky, the owner will come out and give you a hug.
- El Corral: Great joint for prime rib in a classic burnt adobe house turned cowboy steakhouse. Try the “tamale pie”.
- Prep and Pastry: Best breakfast spot in town and great coffee to boot. My go-to is the “A.M. Relleno”.