Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Exploring the desert and cacti is so awesome and surreal that you’ll feel like you’re on another planet

Stand tall.
Reach for the sky.
Be patient through dry spells.
Conserve your resources.
Think long-term.
Wait for your time to bloom.
Stay sharp!

—Advice from a Saguaro

Saguaro in Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaros are everywhere—thousands of 30-foot-tall green pillars with nubby arms. No matter where I looked, my brain couldn’t help but turn the centuries-old saguaros into a veritable freak show of desert cartoons. There was a sassy lady with her prickly arms at her hips, an emerald strongman showing off his biceps, and a towering mint skyscraper full of carefully carved bird apartments.

Saguaro in Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The giant saguaro (pronounced “sah-wah-roh”) is the universal symbol of the American West. A trip to the Sonoran Desert is not complete without examining one of these famous desert plants. These huge green columnar cacti have fascinated nearly every person who has seen one. To the local Tohono O’Odham people, the saguaro cacti are even more important. These giant cacti are not plants to the Tohono O’Odham but a different type of humanity and are viewed as respected members of the Tohono O’Odham Tribe.

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

Saguaro in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaro cactus is the largest cactus in the United States and will normally reach heights of 40 feet tall. The tallest saguaro cactus ever measured towered over 78 feet into the air. The saguaro cactus grows like a column at a very slow rate with all growth occurring at the tip, or top of the cactus. It can take 10 years for a saguaro cactus to reach 1 inch in height.

Saguaro in Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 70 years of age, a saguaro cactus can reach 6½ feet tall and will finally start to produce its first flowers. By 95-100 years in age, a saguaro cactus can reach a height of 15-16 feet and could start to produce its first arm. By 200 years old, the saguaro cactus has reached its full height reaching upwards of 45 feet tall. Some saguaros have been seen with dozens of arms while others produce none.

Saguaros at Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 sunset.

Saguaro in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cactus Forest Loop Drive in Saguaro’s eastern Rincon Mountain District is an eight-mile paved roadway full of breathtaking views and easy pullouts to nab that perfect sunset shot. Be sure to stop at the .25-mile accessible, interpretive Desert Ecology Trail on the northern rim of the drive.

Related Article: Pristine Sonoran Desert Camping

Saguaro at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near the park’s west entrance is a great side trip for families and animal lovers looking to learn more about the flora and fauna of the region. The Museum’s 98 acres host 230 animal species—including prairie dogs, coyotes, and a mountain lion—and 1,200 local plant species (totaling 56,000 individual plants).

Saguaro at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking through the museum’s trails, visitors get acquainted with desert life.  Enjoy live animal presentations that showcase a variety of desert animals and be sure not to miss Raptor Free Flight where native birds of prey fly so close you can feel the brush of feathers!

Saguaro at Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Feel the magic of nature as you ride a comfortable shuttle through the wonders of Sabino Canyon. Ringed by four mountain ranges with magical names—the Santa Catalina to the north, the Santa Rita to the south, the Rincon to the east, and the Tucson to the west—the city of Tucson is surrounded by trails. Each one winds through the rugged and sometimes otherworldly landscape of the Sonoran Desert, where saguaro cacti stand like sentinels in the sand and ancient canyons await exploration.

Saguaro at White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Neighboring the Coronado National Forest, Catalina State Park is located at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers a variety of hiking trails available for on-foot travelers, bicyclists, and horse riders alike. One of the special features of Catalina State Park is the amazing population of saguaros. There are about a half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants. Along with hundreds of scattered individuals, these stands account for an estimated saguaro population of close to 5,000 plants.

Related Article: Saguaro-speckled Desertscapes of Cave Creek Regional Park

Saguaros at North Mountain Park near Casa Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert. This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Twenty-six species of cactus live here including the giant saguaro and the park’s namesake. This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild.

Saguaros at Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sometimes our journeys begin and end in the same way or with the same emotion. I felt that in the vast Sonoran Desert craning my neck skyward to marvel at the enormous cacti. They are bizarre and cartoonish, yes, but they are also beautiful. Timeless. Centuries-old totems of desert wisdom.

Read Next: Beauty of the Desert: Arizona in Bloom

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