When I ask you to think of a cactus, what comes to mind? For some, succulents. For others, maybe a prickly pear margarita. But to most, what comes to mind is the iconic Saguaro.
King of the cacti, the saguaro (sa-hWa-ro, the G is silent) invokes images of the desert southwest like no other. The typical two-arm image of one can be found everywhere, including your local Taco Time. However, they are only found in small areas of the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, AZ, and they can have way more than just two arms! Their uniqueness and sheer numbers in that desert merited a National Park created in 1994. And now, I was finally going to visit it!
I booked the quickest of trips of to Tucson. While it was on my list of parks to see regardless, the sun and vitamin D wooed me, as did the fact that I don’t think there’s a ‘true’ National Park closer to a major airport by the mile than Saguaro. The park itself is actually in two districts, the Tucson Mountain district to the west, and the Rincon Mountain district to the east. Each is about 20-30 minutes from Tucson.
Regardless if your itinerary is short or long, I’d highly recommend acclimating yourself to the area with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This museum, located just outside of the National Park’s west area, boasts the flora and fauna of the area, and was a wonderful introduction to what to look for inside the National Park. Admittedly, I wish the very first exhibit wasn’t the snakes and spiders of the Sonora, but good to know which were venomous and which weren’t. I initially balked at the $25 admission price, but the museum has so much inside the museum, including the Desert Loop Trail, a 0.4 mile accessible hike through coyote and javelina enclosures (the animals are separated from you, but it didn’t feel like it!) and a huge Cactus garden that to me were easily worth the price of admission.
Inside the Park
Now that I knew what the park was all about, it was time to head a little further on the road the museum was on to inside the West park. The drive from Tucson to here was jaw-dropping, with tons of pullouts to take in the ever-changing scenery. A quick stop at the Red Hills visitor center for water, my NPS cancellation, and a trail map and off I went!
The visitor center had some information on the park and Saguaros, but I felt informed enough from my trip to the museum. I was super short on time this day, so I chose a few short and sweet hikes. Keep in mind for both park districts the only water available is at the visitor’s centers and to bring more than you think you need–in summer months they recommend consuming 1 liter per every hour in the sun (and if hiking in peak heat, finishing your hike before 10am). With the weather in the high 60s-high 70s, I went with my 3L bladder and an extra 0.7L in the car.
The first hike I picked in the West was the Valley View trail. To get to the trailhead, you do need to go on a dirt road that becomes a one-way. Like most roads in the parks, pullouts for pictures are aplenty. All hikes I did in the park that involve intersecting trails are well-marked with etched black signs pointing direction with mileage. It’s a good thing too, as I cannot imagine how hard it would be to try to gather your bearings if lost–there are an unfathomable amount of Saguaros and prickly pear to the point it’s dizzying. On the trails, I was torn between keeping my eyes down to look for rattlesnakes, and to gaze in wonder at the sheer amount of cacti around me. I’m surprised my neck wasn’t sore from the constant movement!
The Valley View trail is a short (1.8 miles RT) out-and-back that as far as hikes go, seems simple enough. But once I was on the trail alone, I have to admit my fear ran rampant. Sure, the odds of me seeing a cougar or black bear, AND having it attack me when I was (as the crow flies) maybe two miles from the visitor’s center seemed low, but I have a history of terribly bad luck! Despite the stunning mountain vistas around me, I sped-walked and hurried back to my car. *Phew*!
For my next trail, I chose something lower-stress and higher traffic, the 0.4 mile Desert Discovery Loop. This paved trail is very close to the Visitor Center and had many people enjoying the interpretive signs describing the Sonoran Desert. Between this and the museum I feel like I can adequately enough describe a Saguaro! These giants take decades to reach full size. They start off looking fairly phallic, taking 30 years to reach six feet in height. They don’t grow their iconic arms until around age 75. They do flower, but only for about one day a year, typically a little later in spring. Saguaros that appear to have been vandalized actually are just drilled by woodpeckers building nests inside. However, this can cause rot and eventual collapse.
This trail was great because it offered a close view of Saguaros and the Chollas (choy-as) that can stick to you like burrs–but from a safe enough distance that kids and pets (yes, this trail allows leashed dogs) can get up close safely as well. Arizona has a high senior citizen population with many lucky folks living the snowbird life, so it was wonderful to see this trail, and many others, that are wheelchair or walker friendly. I loved my two trails, but if I had more time I would have done the 4.3 mile Cactus Wren/Signal Hill/Manville loop, which includes ancient petroglyphs as well as a stunning desert view.
Distance: The Tucson Mountain district has over 40 miles of trails. Both districts offered wonderful pamphlets breaking the trails into ‘easy’ ‘moderate’ and ‘more challenging.’ Talk to a ranger if concerned about your abilities and time constraints. The two trails described here were 1.8 and 0.4 miles round-trip.
Elevation: Will vary based on trail. Keep in mind the park itself is at higher elevation than Seattle!
Parking: $25 fee to enter for a week, or an America the Beautiful Interagency pass will cover you.
Bathrooms: Visitor Centers have flushing bathrooms, as well as the Ez-Kim-In-Zin and Signal Hill trailheads.
Best Beer Bet: The closest breweries are in Tucson, which offers many options. I chose two, Borderlands and Puebla Vida, which both came highly recommended by hop-heads.