Saguaro N.P. Visitor Center

This is the first post in a series about National parks and monuments in the American Southwest. Moving to Arizona makes me realize that there’s a whole world to explore right here in America. We recently visited Saguaro National Park in Tucson and discovered a few amazing facts about the unique species of cactus called Saguaro.

It takes 70 years just to grow one arm!

They’re Really Old & It’s Illegal to Harm Them

The Saguaro cactus lives for up to two-hundred years, and some are even older. An interesting chart in the visitor’s center shows the life-cycle of the Saguaro. The Saguaro flowers at the age of thirty-five. Even then, it’s only as tall as an adult human. The Saguaro gets its first arm at the age of seventy. Damaging a Saguaro is illegal. In fact, “cactus plugging,” the act of shooting holes in a cactus, is illegal and can result in fines and/or jail time.

The Sonoran Desert is the Only Place to Find a Saguaro

The Sonoran desert is the only place in the world to find this giant cactus. The climate, geology, and soil conditions are just right here. The giant cactus starts life as a seed the size of a pinhead. The Saguaro eventually grows up to 70 feet tall. Also, it’s the largest cactus in the United States.

They’re Used For Medicine and Food

Even today, the Tohono O’odham people knock a fig-like fruit off the cactus to make a variety of jams, syrups, and wine. They also use the fruit of the Saguaro in religious ceremonies. Although the majority of the cacti are located in the two parks, you can find a few of them scattered around Tucson and the surrounding county.

They Can Hold 200 Gallons of Water

The trunk and branches of the Saguaro serve as reservoirs that hold up to two-hundred gallons of water. The roots collect water, and the body and arms stores the water for future use. The spines and waxy skin protect the cactus from losing water, and discourage animals from stealing this valuable desert resource.

Animals Aren’t Allowed on the Trails

Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that animals aren’t allowed on the hiking trails. My guess is that they don’t want animal waste interfering with the life-cycle of the cactus. However, there are many trails to explore, and one short hike does allow leashed pets. Below are the hikes listed in order of difficulty.

  • Desert Ecology Trail– 1/4 mile. Is this really a hike? It’s the only trail where pets on a leash are welcome. This trail is a great introduction to the park’s ecology.
  • Freeman Homestead Trail – 1 mile. Hike to the ruins of an early homestead.
  • The Mica View Loop – 2 miles. It’s at the beginning of the drive and is an easy paved hike. This is the hike I went on during my first visit to the park.
  • Cactus Forest Trail – An easy walk with no elevation change. Shared by horses and bicycles.
  • Loma Verde Loop – 3.8 miles. A more difficult hike about halfway along the cactus forest loop drive.
  • Deer valley Loop – 4 miles. An elevation change of 200 feet takes the hiker through a wash and a trail that’s been used since the early 1900’s.
  • Garwood Loop – 5.8 miles. I would recommend this hike only for the extremely fit, and even then, with extra water and emergency supplies. The climate is mild in February, but it’s still incredibly hot. This trail takes the hiker to a historic ranch from the 1930’s and a dried-up spring.

You Can Stay in Your Car and See the Park

If you go to Saguaro-East in the Rincon Mountains you will find a lovely eight mile loop called the “cactus forest drive.” You can stay in your car the entire time if you wish and just enjoy the view. The scenery is beautiful from the car or the trail. If you decide that hiking is your thing, several trails are easily accessible along the drive. After our short hike, we leisurely drove the 8-mile loop, stopping for photo opportunities along the way. Although the posted speed limit is 15 mph, lots of cars were in a big hurry. If you want to take your time, just pull over and let the speeders pass.

There Are Actually Two Parks

The Saguaro National Park that we explored is on the south-eastern side of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District is known as the “east” park, and Tucson Mountain District is “west” park. The east park also has a loop drive, although its only five miles, and fewer hiking trails. However, I’ve only visited the east park so I can’t say which park is better.

Park Safety

Heading to either of the parks requires a few safety considerations. It’s not like hiking back on the east coast. People get into serious trouble exploring the desert every year. Here are a few things to remember:

  • It’s against the law in Arizona to leave a pet unattended in a car.
  • Only camp in designated locations.
  • Stay on the designated trails.
  • Bring your own container to the water filling stations. Bottled water is not sold in the park.
  • Africanized honey “killer” bees are in the the park. Sometimes bees will “bump” you without stinging as a warning. If stung, the park service advises to move as far away as possible, scrape the stinger our with a credit card and call 911 or get to a doctor as soon as possible.
  • Watch out for snakes. Don’t put your hands or feet where you can’t see them.
  • Flash floods in the washes and lightning are common in the summer.

Getting There

Saguaro National Park is in the city limits of Tucson, Arizona off of I-10 and is open from 7 am until sunset year-round. You can walk or bike into the park 24 hours a day. Address: 3693 S. Old Spanish Rd. Tucson , AZ 85730.  Phone: (520) 733-5153. Admission: $15 per vehicle unless you have one of the various national park passes. Saguaro National Park Website Home    Live Webcam at Saguaro National Park