Where Are America’s Best Kept Secrets? Think the Southwest Deserts!

As the most popular national parks get more crowded, where do you go to escape?

In this post, we’ll explore two such parks in Arizona.

The attraction: Joshua Tree National Park, California (2.9 million visits)
The alternative: Saguaro National Park, Arizona (960,000 visits)

Location: 15 miles from Tucson, Arizona
Best places to stay: Lazy Days KOA, Rincon County East RV Resort, or Desert Trails RV Park
Best hike: From the El Camino del Cerro trailhead to the top of Wasson Peak via the Sweetwater trail—best done in cooler weather

Saguaro National Park’s two districts offer more than 165 miles of hiking trails. A hike at Saguaro National Park can be a stroll on a short interpretive nature trail or a day-long wilderness trek. Both districts of Saguaro National Park offer a variety of hiking trails.

Tucson is home to the nation’s largest cacti. The giant saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the United States, are protected by Saguaro National Park, to the east and west of Tucson. Here you have a chance to see these enormous cacti, silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunrise or sunset.

Saguaro National Park has two districts separated by the city of Tucson. The Tucson Mountain District on the west, and the Rincon Mountain District to the east, are approximately 30 miles (45-60 minutes) apart. While similar in terms of plants and animals, the intricate details make both areas praiseworthy.

Although Saguaro National Park is open every day of the year except Christmas, the busiest time is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the mid-70s. Starting in late February and March, the park begins to get a variety of cactus and wildflower blooms. In late April, the iconic Saguaro begins to bloom. Come June, the fruits are beginning to ripen. In August, the lush Sonoran desert starts its Monsoon season, so watch out for those flash floods.

Another alternative: Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona (224,548 visits)

Location: 60 miles south of Gila Bend, Arizona on SR-85

Best place to stay: Twin Peaks Campground, the main campground at Organ Pipe National Monument

Best hike: Estes Canyon (3 miles round trip)Estes Canyon is a moderate trail and is great for birding. Trail crosses several washes and is relatively flat until the switchback climb to the Bull Pasture trail.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves the northern-most natural habitat of the Organ Pipe Cactus, as well as amazing examples of desert plants, animals, geology, and human history. Be ready to enjoy the trails and scenic drives, the star-lit nights, and the sun-filled days. Keep yourself safe by knowing what to expect from a desert wilderness.

The easiest way to see the splendor of this park is to take a scenic drive. Many hiking trails are accessed using these scenic drives.

Ajo Mountain Drive is the most popular scenic drive in the monument. It is a 21 mile, mostly gravel road usually passable by normal passenger car. RVs over 24 feet are prohibited, due to the twisting and dipping nature of the road. The Ajo Mountain Road Guidebook is available in the Kris Eggle Visitor Center. January through March a free three hour ranger guided van tour is available. Space is limited and interested visitors may sign up at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center for a seat on the van.

Puerto Blanco Drive is the other popular road in the park. The 37 mile drive provides access to the Pinkley Peak Picnic Area, Red Tanks trail head, Senita Basin, and Quitobaquito Springs. The Puerto Blanco Drive was completely reopened in 2014. Be advised that many travel books and websites do not reflect this change. High clearance vehicles are recommended beyond Pinkley Peak.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is open every day of the year. The Kris Eggle Visitor Center is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. On Thanksgiving and Christmas the visitor center is closed but the park remains open.

The state of Arizona is on Mountain Standard Time. It does not observe Daylight Savings Time.

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor

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