Saguaro (pronounced “suh-wah-roh”) National Park located near Tucson Arizona is one of a kind national park. It is the home to the largest, iconic, and tallest cactus in the world, the Saguaro Cactus. I am a fan of cactus and for a long time, I yearned to visit the national park which is divided into two districts. The Saguaro West is located in the Tucson Mountain district which is best if you have a shorter day, and the Saguaro East is in the Rincon Mountain District which provides the best view of the Saguaro.
A Word About the Saguaro Cactus
Saguaro grows very slowly, and it takes about eight years to grow its first inch. When you see the first arm or the branch, the saguaro is about 70 years old. Most people may not live to see the 1st arm of it. When they reach 40 -50 feet tall, the tree is about 150 years of age. And the tallest trees can grow up to 70 feet and can live more than 200 years. It absorbs water through the shallow roots scattered from the trunk. The waxy coating protects the evaporation, and the spines protect the tree from animals and shading from the harsh wind. In early summer, the white blossoms appear, and, many birds and animals feed on the nectar. Some pollinate the saguaro as they enjoy the mouthwatering nectar. The national park is considered one of the most biologically diverse parks in North America because of the number of species and plants it contains.
Many birds such as the Gila woodpecker and gilded flickers not only find food in the saguaro cactus but also live in the holes they carved with their special beaks in the trunk of the plant. Saguaro usually dies of old age but other conditions such as wildfires, weather conditions, and animal threats can destroy the plants.
8-mile Cactus Forest Loop drive
We decided to visit the Saguaro East 8-mile Cactus Forest Loop drive which already excited me to do. It is a 30-minute drive on a one-way paved road with many lookouts to enjoy the beautiful sceneries provided by the majestic cacti. The Sonoran Desert where Saguaro thrives is an amazing place, in the summer, the sun relentlessly bakes the dusty reddish ground, but these cacti seem to enjoy the harsh conditions. The tallest trees can be seen from far away, most of the trees have arms which means that one is older than all of us combined. Some of the trees have holes in them which indicates that they have been used by some of the desert animals as their homes. The thorns look vicious, but you can feel it by simply touching them. Most of the plants grow with other plants near them. It is said that the smaller saguaro need protection from the sun as they grow and plants like Palo Verde or Desert Museum, ironwood, and ocotillo provide the ideal protection they need. My kids were thrilled about the thorns and wanted to take pictures as they pretended to hug them. We all did the funny thing, and we had a blast.
Even though the national park is mainly protecting the Saguaro, there are so many varieties of cacti to be seen. The Barrel cactus, fishhook, hedgehog, staghorn, and the Bear cactus to name a few. Some of the dead Saguaro can be seen along the way and if you get a chance, touch, and feel the Woodley skeletons. It is extremely solid and heavy that you can barely move. Visibly, they seem to be not solid but those are heavy cacti.
Hike the Mica Trail
If you decide to hike, take a small hike, try the Mica View Trail, about two miles, drive up on a dirt path, and get lost in the world of cacti. You are transported to another dimension. Bring a hat and some water because it is hot. There are some picnic tables and some composting toilets if you need to use them. On your hike, some trees may provide you a temporary shade most of the hike is open-air and hot. You would enjoy so many cacti and you may feel like you live inside of a western movie. The wildlife is abundant, you may see some of it if you are lucky. We have seen Road runners, Lizards, woodpeckers, and animals on our way. Once you’ve done the loop, get in your car and drive up the loop. It is important to be careful while driving because there are so many cyclists who use the loop to trail, and you do not want to give them a push, so they won’t land on a cactus, especially on a bear cactus. We had to slow down and let them pass so many times.
Every scenic overlook is uniquely spectacular. Of course, you are seeing Saguaro and they are everywhere. The way they scatter and the way they branch out seem different from one cactus to another. The different sizes and shapes indicate everyone how old they are. Even the oldest person would feel younger compared to those giants’ saguaro. There are also trails and longer hikes into the remote backcountry we didn’t try because they are hard to reach and needed to be planned either by foot or horseback riding.
Once the loop ends, you are at the gate of the park’s gift shop. Enjoy a cool drink and get a souvenir to remember your visit to the park. Remember, Saguaro National Park is in the desert, so, it is hot in the summer prepare accordingly by bringing plenty of water, some snacks, hats, good shoes, and some sunscreens for the fragile ones.
The cost is $25 per vehicle. I would recommend buying the National Park pass for $80 and you will get a big use out of it. Check out the weather and conditions here.