Saguaros are in Bloom: 8 Facts about Saguaro Blossoms

Spoiler: they smell like melon!

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!

The saguaro is one of 51 species of cactus that are native to Arizona but it is undoubtedly the most well known. You may have seen one in a Western movie set in Texas or New Mexico but chances are the filming actually took place in Arizona because the cactus can only be found in the lush Sonoran Desert of Arizona as well as the southern neighboring state of Sonora, Mexico and in some areas of southeastern California.

Saguaros are some of the most interesting species in the cactus family. Standing tall with arms raised in a perpetual state of hello, saguaros are the tallest cactus in the United States.

This iconic cactus has adapted mechanisms to not only survive but thrive in the Sonoran Desert where they are native. There’s a reason so many people are fascinated by this majestic desert plant.

Saguaros © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To survive periods of drought and harsh conditions, saguaros have developed a number of strategies including their ability to store water. Saguaros have accordion-like ribs and a stem succulent that allows them to store hundreds of gallons of water during rainfall. As more water gets stored, the skin of the saguaro starts to expand to make room for more storage. As a result, these cacti can be very heavy. At full capacity, a saguaro can weigh over a ton.

The saguaro cactus serves as a hotel for numerous desert wildlife species. Gila woodpeckers are typically the first animal to carve out nest holes in the saguaro. They wait several months before using it to allow the inner pulp of the saguaro to dry into a solid casing around the cavity. After these birds raise their young, the nest holes become a valuable shelter for several other animals, including elf owls, flycatchers, cactus wrens, and other species.  

Saguaros grow slowly. It might take them about 50-70 years to grow their first arm. Some have been documented of having up to 25 arms! However, there are others that never grow an arm—a mystery that remains to be unsolved.  

Each year in the late spring, white blossoms emerge in the desert, crowning the majestic saguaros that grow in the Sonoran Desert.

Considered one of the most beautiful flower species of the Sonoran Desert, this striking natural jewel was named Arizona’s state flower in 1931.

You might have noticed the beloved saguaros have been sporting new hairdos lately.

No, they’re not growing baby avocados at the crown of their heads. These bulbous green nubs are the buds that bloom into beautiful saguaro flowers this time of year.

Saguaro flowers are usually found near the tops of the stems and arms of the cactus.

Saguaro flowers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are a few things you might want to know about these white dazzlers.

1. Peak blooming is from early May to early June

There are countless saguaros blooming or getting ready to bloom!

2. They have a short lifespan 

The flower itself blooms for less than 24 hours opening at nighttime and remaining open through the following day, according to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

The whole saguaro, though, can produce many blooms throughout a season. 

3. They get a little help from their friends

The saguaro flower relies on a number of desert dwellers to help with the pollination process. At night, that’s the lesser long-nosed bat and the Mexican long-tongued bat.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, the bats reach deep into the blossoms for nectar, “covering their hairy heads with copious amounts of pollen that drop onto other flowers as the bats fly from cactus to cactus throughout the night.”

During daytime, the flowers are pollinated by bees and birds such as the white-winged dove.

Saguaro flowers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. They smell delightful

Saguaro flowers are often described as having a strong sweet melon-like scent. Bats and other wildlife can’t get enough. 

5. It’s the official state flower of Arizona

The brilliant saguaro bloom was designated Arizona’s state flower in 1931.

It joins the ranks of other Arizona state symbols including the cactus wren, turquoise, and the bola tie. 

6. They turn into fruit 

Once a saguaro flower has been pollinated, it matures into fruit that splits open when ripened revealing juicy red pulp. Each piece of fruit contains about 2,000 small black seeds.

Saguaro flowers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. The fruit is edible 

The Tohono O’odham have long harvested saguaro fruit. The National Park Service says, “The harvesting of saguaro fruit by the Tohono O’odham is a centuries-old practice of subsistence, religion, and reaffirmation of their relationship with their traditional environment.”

Many native plants including saguaros are protected by law. To harvest on private property, you’ll need permission from the landowner. If you’re on public land, go to the government entity involved to verify if you can harvest.

Saguaro fruit is typically harvested from mid-June through July. The fruit is also a source of food for many desert critters including birds, bats, tortoises, javelinas, and coyotes.

8. You can find blooms all over the desert

You’re apt to see saguaro blooms almost anywhere throughout the Sonoran Desert from random sidewalks and intersections to desert wonderlands like Saguaro National Park.

Saguaro flowers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Any time you take a hike or have an outdoor experience in the Sonoran Desert, there’s no doubt about it: you’re going to see a saguaro. While that may be the case here are some of my favorite spots with an abundance of cactus. While you’re taking your saguaro selfie, make sure to stay on the trail.

The Complete Guide to Saguaro National Park

Iconic giant cacti are the stars in this photo-ready Southwestern desert preserve. The 91,327 acres that comprise Saguaro National Park in southeast Arizona provide the perfect climate as well as protection for vast forests of saguaro cacti to thrive.

Check out this article…

Saguaro-speckled Desertscapes of Cave Creek Regional Park

The unspoiled Sonoran Desert vegetation of Cave Creek Regional Park invites visitors to become enveloped in a tranquil, largely undisturbed natural world.

Check out this article…

Catalina State Park: Celebrating its 40th Anniversary + Hiking Safely in 110-degree Heat

Catalina State Park in Tucson celebrated its 40th anniversary in May. The park serves as one of Tucson’s most popular hiking and camping destinations and is well-known for its trails and saguaro-studded scenery.

Check out this article…

A Hiker’s Paradise: White Tank Mountain Regional Park

A top notch location in the greater Phoenix area for a hike in the desert with thirty miles of trails that range anywhere from as short as a mile to several of them exceeding five miles or more.

Check out this article…

Ribbon of Green: Sabino Canyon Offers Desert Beauty

The saguaro-draped foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson offer numerous scenic ravines but two of the most scenic are Sabino Canyon and Bear Canyon, ten miles northeast of the city center. Both feature a stream that forms seasonal pools and waterfalls, steep-sided slopes bearing many saguaro, and other Sonoran Desert cacti and plants with rocky peaks rising high above.

Check out this article…

Worth Pondering…

A 40-foot saguaro strikes an invincible pose: bristling with defenses, assertively towering over every other living thing in the landscape, seemingly confident in its life span of 200 years or longer.

—Larry Cheek, Born Survivor

Here’s what a million-plus visitors a year mean to Saguaro National Park

The cactus crush continued at Saguaro National Park in 2023

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

For the third time in the past five years, annual visitation topped 1 million at the park bracketing Tucson.

The 1,010,906 recreation visits logged by the National Park Service (NPS) last year were the third most in Saguaro’s 90-year history, first as a national monument, then a national park. Until 2019, the park had never seen more than 1 million visitors in a single year.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The impact is easy to see. Just drive out to the east end of Broadway or Speedway on a sunny day in spring and try to find a space in one of the trailhead parking lots.

There are cars parked on the street that go half a mile in both directions. You can definitely see the need for increased parking and increased opportunities for people to access the park.

Congestion is also increasingly common at Saguaro’s east and west visitor centers especially in March, typically the busiest month at the park.

Though it varies year-to-year, visitation has increased by almost 50 percent overall since 2013 when Saguaro saw fewer than 680,000 recreation visits. The current surge to 1 million visitors and beyond began in 2017 though it was briefly interrupted by the pandemic which sent the figure back down below 765,000 in 2020.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nationwide, 2023 ranked as the fourth busiest in Park Service history with 325,498,646 visitors at 394 sites managed by the agency from California to Florida and Alaska to Hawaii.

So far, though, Saguaro appears to have avoided many of the problems plaguing other popular parks close to urban areas. The sharp rise in visitor volume has not resulted in an increase in crime, vandalism, or even litter.

The community takes a lot of pride in the park and they’re not going to let things fall apart.

Recent feedback from the public seems to back that up.

As part of a larger visitor use study early last year, officials conducted a survey in the park to find out where people were coming from and what they were there to see and do. More than 1,500 visitors were interviewed at various locations and a sizable majority of them said they found Saguaro to be clean, safe, and not too crowded.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Friends

Even as attendance has exploded in recent years, Saguaro has seen its federal funding flatline preventing the park’s workforce from growing along with its visitation. According to a park’s spokesperson, Saguaro has roughly the same number of uniformed staff now as it did a decade ago.

That’s where the Friends of Saguaro National Park come in.

Since it was founded in 1996, Saguaro’s nonprofit fundraising partner has provided $12 million in support to the park. They are able to provide funding for things the park wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

For example, the park’s environmental education programs are entirely paid for by the Friends, according to Fred Stula, executive director of the nonprofit group.

Last year alone, the group and its donors supplied Saguaro with $671,000, its largest yearly contribution to date. And that figure did not include the hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours of work the Friends have provided for trail maintenance and other work.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then there is the group’s Next Generation Ranger Corps Internship Program which has placed more than 100 paid temporary workers at the park since 2015.

The goal of the program is to supply Saguaro with some much needed personnel while helping “diverse young people to get their foot in the door” at the park service and other federal agencies

(58 percent of interns are women and 76 percent come from Latino, Indigenous, or other historically underserved communities).

Nearly every graduate of the program has gone on to work in the environmental field including 38 who have landed jobs with federal agencies. Eighteen former interns are now on the permanent staff at Saguaro.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upgrades coming

The Park Service hopes to address some of its congestion issues starting next year with a major construction project at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center.

The work will more than double the current number of parking spaces and add spots large enough for buses and recreational vehicles. It should also improve visitor safety by rerouting the entrance road between Old Spanish Trail and the fee stations to separate it from the parking lot.

The project represents the first major upgrade to the visitor center parking lot since the early 1950s when fewer than 80,000 people a year visited what was then a national monument limited only to the Rincon Mountains.

President John F. Kennedy expanded the monument to include portions of the Tucson Mountains in 1961 and Congress elevated the land to national park status in 1994.

The final designs and cost estimates for the visitor center upgrade have not been released but according to park officials the work will be funded in part with the additional entrance fee revenue Saguaro has received as a result of its increased visitation.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No changes would be made to Cactus Forest Drive, the iconic, one-lane scenic loop through the Rincon foothills that dates back to the earliest days of the national monument in the 1930s and is considered “part of the historic character” of the park.

The Red Hills Visitor Center in the Tucson Mountains is far newer—and so is its parking lot—but it is also due for its first major renovation since it was built in the 1990s.

The Park Service just launched the design process for that project which will focus on a new layout and all new exhibits for the inside of the building.

Park officials have no immediate plans to expand the parking lots at Saguaro’s most popular hiking spots, namely the Broadway and Douglas Springs trailheads on the east side of the park and the King Canyon trailhead on the west side.

Best advice is come early in the day. By 9:30 or 10 a.m. parking at some locations can be hard to come by.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cactus and crowds

The three busiest years in the history of Saguaro National Park have all come since 2019. Here are the annual recreation visits for the past 10 years, according to the NPS:

  • 2023: 1,010,906
  • 2022: 908,194
  • 2021: 1,079,786
  • 2020: 762,226
  • 2019: 1,020,226
  • 2018: 957,405
  • 2017: 964,760
  • 2016: 820,426
  • 2015: 753,446
  • 2014: 673,572
  • 2013: 678,261
Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Packing the parks

Of the 21 NPS sites in Arizona only two are among the nation’s 10 busiest—and the Grand Canyon isn’t one of them. Here’s where park sites in Arizona ranked on the list of America’s most visited parks in 2023:

1. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia: 16,757,635 recreation visits

2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California: 14,953,882

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee: 13,297,647

4. Gateway National Recreation Area, New York and New Jersey: 8,705,329

5. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida and Mississippi: 8,277,857

6. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.: 8,099,148

7. George Washington Memorial Parkway, Virginia: 7,391,260

8. Natchez Trace Parkway, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee: 6,784,853

9. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona and Nevada: 5,798,541

10. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah: 5,206,934

Others sites in Arizona:

13. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: 4,733,705

75. Saguaro National Park: 1,010,906

117. Petrified Forest National Park: 520,491

146. Montezuma Castle National Monument: 367,239

154. Canyon de Chelly National Monument: 333,349

190. Wupatki National Monument: 215,703

194. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: 186,601

209. Walnut Canyon National Monument: 152,548

214. Coronado National Memorial: 140,089

228. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument: 111,392

232. Tuzigoot National Monument: 102,936

250. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument: 81,519

262. Chiricahua National Monument: 62,582

276. Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site: 54,187

287. Navajo National Monument: 44,180

300. Tumacacori National Historic Park: 37,872

314. Tonto National Monument: 31,216

329. Pipe Spring National Monument: 24,016

370. Fort Bowie National Historic Site: 8,333

Worth Pondering…

A 40-foot saguaro strikes an invincible pose: bristling with defenses, assertively towering over every other living thing in the landscape, seemingly confident in its life span of 200 years or longer.

—Larry Cheek, Born Survivor

The Complete Guide to Saguaro National Park

Iconic giant cacti are the stars in this photo-ready Southwestern desert preserve

A 40-foot saguaro strikes an invincible pose: bristling with defenses, assertively towering over every other living thing in the landscape, seemingly confident in its life span of 200 years or longer.

—Larry Cheek, Born Survivor

A sea of towering columnar saguaro cacti stretches out before you like a brigade of soldiers guarding the desert landscape. Formidable with their spiny armor, it’s hard to imagine America’s largest cactus is the species that needs safeguarding.

Found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, this enduring symbol of the Southwest which requires just the right amount of heat and moisture to survive faces threats such as invasive species. The 91,327 acres that comprise Saguaro National Park in southeast Arizona provide the perfect climate as well as protection for vast forests of saguaro (pronounced Sa-WAH-ro) cacti to thrive.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These desert monarchs can grow upwards of 60 feet tall, weigh more than two tons, and live for two centuries. But while they’re certainly the park’s stars they’re far from the only reason it attracts more than a million visitors annually. For one thing, there are 24 other cactus species ranging from the fuzzy-looking teddy bear cholla to the pancake-shaped Engelmann’s prickly pear.

Despite the harsh desert environment an abundance of flora and fauna flourish here including such native species as the roadrunner, horned lizard, kangaroo rat, and the prehistoric-looking Gila monster. At the park’s higher elevations topping out at 8,666 feet, you’ll find oak woodland and pine forests that are home to black bears and the elusive coati which resembles a raccoon.

Saguaro National Park’s two distinct districts—the western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District—are separated by the city of Tucson. The western district is lower in elevation, has denser patches of saguaro, and is known for its iconic Southwest landscape. The eastern section larger and more mountainous contains six biotic zones and 6,000 plant species and it’s second in biodiversity to the Amazon rainforest.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

President Herbert Hoover established the area as a national monument in 1933 and during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) laid the groundwork for tourism by building walking paths and installing picnic benches and visitor shelters. It wasn’t until 1994 that the area earned national park status.

Today the park’s proximity to Tucson combined with recently installed handicap-friendly amenities ranging from paved walking paths to picnic tables with overhanging ends for wheelchair access makes it one of the nation’s most accessible national parks.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip ​

Approximately 30 miles apart, Saguaro National Park’s eastern and western districts hug Tucson, Arizona’s second-largest city with a population of 541,482. From downtown, you can drive to either park entrance in 20 minutes. The western district gets twice as many visitors as the eastern district thanks in large part to its proximity to the bucket-list Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (see below).

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

Each district has its own visitor’s center open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Both offer accessibility features including designated parking spaces, accessible restrooms and drinking fountains, paved paths, and captioned orientation programs. Both also have bookstores, information centers, and water-filling stations.

The National Park Service recommends drinking at least one gallon of water per day and during hot summer months at least one quart per hour when hiking. Be sure to have a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a pack with clothing layers since it can get cold at higher elevations. Neither visitor center has Wi-Fi and cellphone service is spotty throughout the park.

The Red Hills Visitor Center (also called the West District Visitor Center) hosts a daily educational program on the Native American perspective on the saguaro that’s well worth the time.

The Rincon Mountain Visitor Center (the East District Visitor Center) serves as the starting point for the scenic Cactus Forest Loop Drive, an 8-mile, cacti-lined road that you can drive or bike. To reach the hiking trails from the visitor center you must drive into the park on the Loop Drive. The first trailhead with parking is about 2 miles along the drive and begins at the Mica View Picnic Area.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bajada Loop Drive is the best way to explore the western district’s foothills providing plenty of photo ops at pullouts and picnic areas plus access to trailheads. Although the 6-mile loop is unpaved you certainly don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle. It begins at Hohokam Road, a mile and a half west of the visitor center.

Since the park has no concessions pack a picnic lunch. Six picnic areas are accessible by vehicle—two in Saguaro East and four in Saguaro West—and each has a charcoal grill, a wheelchair-accessible pit toilet, and paved ground surfaces.

Saguaro is open daily except for Christmas Day. Annual visitation would almost certainly be higher if the summer months weren’t unbearably hot with triple-digit daytime temperatures. If you do visit in the summer, plan activities for early morning or the end of the day. This may be the desert but June 15 through September 30 is monsoon season so expect severe afternoon thunderstorms and even flash floods.

Cool temperatures ranging from the high 50s to the mid-70s make November to March prime time to visit.

And in spring—specifically the last two weeks of April through the first week of June—the park is a photographer’s paradise with cacti sprouting vivid blooms in hues of white, fuchsia, and canary yellow. June is a favorite time in the park. The flowers are usually at their peak. It’s an amazing sight to see but this isn’t the time of month to hike. Take in the blooms on a scenic drive.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat ​

You won’t find any lodging options in Saguaro National Park or even camping options in the park’s western section. To experience the desert, reserve one of the eastern district’s six designated backcountry campsites ($8 a night) which can be accessed only on foot and require a base level of fitness to reach. Limited facilities include vault toilets. Water is unreliable, so you should pack your entire water supply for your trip, carry a filter, and check current water reports at the visitor center (520-733-5153).

Manning Camp, the home of former Tucson mayor Levin Manning that sits atop the Rincon Mountains is a tough uphill day hike but worth the effort. To do this hike in a day takes a solid eight hours but you go from seeing saguaro forest and Gila monster lizards to aspen groves and owls in one day. It’s a unique ecosystem up there.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can take the Douglas Spring Trail or the Arizona Trail both of which have campgrounds along the way if you prefer to break the trek up into two days. The original Manning cabin built in 1905 now hosts trail crews and researchers, and from April through September a ranger is stationed here. The six tent sites are nestled in a conifer forest at nearly 8,000 feet and temperatures rarely exceed 85 degrees—a welcome relief from the valley floor’s sweltering heat. A waterfall fed from a large pond makes this one of the rare sites with a reliable water source.

The amenity-rich Gilbert Ray Campground sits just outside the west entrance to the park close to the Brown Mountain Loop trail. It features 130 RV sites ($20 per night) and five designated tent sites ($10 per night) plus picnic tables and modern restrooms with handicap accessibility.

RV parks ranging from luxury resorts to the basic are less than a 30-minute drive away in Tucson.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do ​

Hike

With 192 miles of marked hiking trails, Saguaro National Park offers treks for visitors of all abilities. No matter your fitness level, be sure to plan your hikes to avoid the midday desert heat and pack plenty of water. And remember, those photogenic cacti are covered in spines so keep to the trail to avoid getting pricked.

For an easy stroll that doubles as an intro to the desert ecosystem walk the quarter-mile Desert Ecology Trail along the Cactus Forest Drive in the East District or the half-mile Desert Discovery Trail off of Kinney Road in the West. Both paved trails include resting benches and interpretive exhibits on the park’s plants and animals.

The 0.7-mile Mica View Trail in the east which begins at the Mica Picnic Area parking lot was recently flattened and hardened to meet ADA standards and support wheelchairs. On this hike, you’ll likely glimpse Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers in their saguaro nest holes and you’ll take in views of Tanque Verde Peak and Mica Mountain.

If you want to challenge yourself, try the eastern district’s Tanque Verde Ridge Trail by the Javelina Picnic Area off of the Cactus Loop Drive. The strenuous 18-mile hike gains 4,750 feet of elevation and passes through all six of the area’s biotic zones.

On the west side, access the King Canyon trailhead outside of the park off of Kinney Road and zigzag up to the summit of 4,687-foot Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountain Range. Approximately 7 miles round trip with 1,939 feet of elevation gain, this moderate hike passes rock walls carved with ancient petroglyphs and an old stone miner’s hut.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike

In this, one of the country’s most bike-friendly national parks, take your pick of four excellent scenic loops for road cyclists and mountain bikers. The popular and aptly named Cactus Forest Loop next to the East District Visitor Center runs for eight miles on a paved, rolling road that you’ll share with vehicles. On the park’s west side, the six-mile Bajada Loop Drive off of Kinney Road, a gravel path passes a giant forest of saguaros.

Watch the sunset

The desert sunset may rival the saguaros as the park’s most Instagrammed natural wonder. As dusk falls, the setting sun turns a brilliant red that paints the sky in pinks and oranges worthy of a Monet painting. On the easy-to-access Desert Discovery Trail off of Kinney Road in the West District, catch sunset views through a forest of saguaros. On the east side, the Cactus Forest Loop Drive remains open until 8 p.m. giving you plenty of time to pull off and savor sunset at the Javelina Rocks Overlook near the loop’s end.

Learn

Rangers typically lead four to six different daily talks and interpretive tours that explore topics including desert survival, the lifespan of a saguaro, and misunderstood predators such as the mountain lion. Both park visitor centers have cactus gardens with interpretive signs you can explore on your own or with a ranger. Also, both districts co-host monthly stargazing nights with a local astronomy group. Participants must sign up in advance.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

View petroglyphs

Most of Saguaro National Park’s rock art dates back to the prehistoric Hohokam culture. Abstract designs including spirals and squiggly lines as well as drawings of animals, humans, and astrological objects have been etched onto the surface of sandstone and other rocks throughout the park.

The best place to view the petroglyphs is along the Signal Hill Trail which starts at the Signal Hill picnic area off of Hohokam Road in the West District. Starting at the Signal Hill Picnic area, the 0.3-mile trail gently climbs to a hill with more than 200 petroglyphs believed to have been created between 550 and 1,550 years ago.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns​

Tucson is flanked on either side by Saguaro’s western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District making it an ideal base for day trips. A dream destination for fit foodies, Tucson owns bragging rights to being one of America’s most bike-friendly cities as well as having America’s first and only UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation.

On the Loop, a network of 131 miles of paved bicycle paths you can access Saguaro National Park as well as a plethora of other parks, shops, and restaurants on two wheels. Transit Cycles and Bicycle Ranch are the city’s go-to bike shops.

For a hearty breakfast before hitting the park, head to Prep & Pastry’s east side location on Grant Avenue and order the oven-roasted sweet potato hash and breakfast sandwich with avocado. After working up an appetite biking or hiking in the park reward yourself with a prickly pear mojito and a braised lamb tostada at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails run by James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder.

Head to Penca, an upscale Mexican eatery in the heart of downtown for the best happy hour in town: two tacos for $5 and $5 sangria.

Two not-to-miss open-air shopping centers anchor downtown’s hip Mercado District on the west end of the city’s modern streetcar line: Mercado San Agustín and the MSA Annex. At the latter, a collection of 10 indie businesses housed in repurposed shipping containers pick up nostalgic Saguaro National Park-inspired gear at Why I Love Where I Live and home goods crafted by local artisans at Mesa.

The burgeoning town of Marana, an alternate gateway to the West District is located about 15 miles north of the visitor center. Don’t miss the pork carnitas at La Olla Mexican Café and stop by Catalina Brewing Co. to try craft ales brewed with local ingredients such as prickly pear fruit and mesquite flour.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route ​

Located down the road from the West District Visitor Center, the Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum ranks as the state’s second-most-visited attraction behind the world-famous Grand Canyon. Part natural history museum, part desert botanical garden, and part zoo, this 98-acre, indoor-outdoor attraction showcases more than 55,000 plants from 1,200 native species along 2 miles of gravel and paved trails.

View native animals such as coyotes, raptors, hummingbirds, ocelots, and piglike javelinas in re-created habitats. Learn about the area’s geology in the Earth Sciences Center and view nature-inspired exhibits throughout the year at two on-site art galleries.

Geology fans detour to 2,400-acre Colossal Cave Mountain Park, a 15-minute drive southeast of Tucson in the community of Vail to explore its extensive underground cave network. One of North America’s largest dry caves it took more than two years to map the 2 miles of passageways open to visitors.

Guided tours, which range from 40 minutes to 3.5 hours, require a decent fitness level, as you’ll be descending 350-plus stairs, scrambling down ladders, and crossing rock bridges to view stalactites and stalagmites sculpted throughout millions of years.

Back above ground, you can mount a horse at the park’s La Posta Quemada Ranch for a guided trail ride.

If you’re a fan of art and history, visit the village of Tubac, 40 miles south of Tucson. Established in 1752 as a Spanish presidio, Tubac has emerged as a destination for artists with top-notch galleries and studios. For tasteful souvenirs, this is your one-stop shop for turquoise and silver jewelry, Navajo blankets, and mesquite furnishings. 

Tumacacori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historical Park, less than a 10-minute drive from the village explores the region’s Spanish colonial past. The expansive grounds include a museum, the ruins of three Spanish mission communities, and the state’s second-oldest church.

Saguaro National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Fact box

Location: Southeast Arizona

Size: 91,327 acres

Trails: 192 miles

Elevation: 2,180 to 8,666 feet 

Main attraction: The iconic saguaro cactus

Entry fee: $25 for a 7-day vehicle pass including all passengers; $20 for an annual Senior Pass (62+)

Best way to see the park: On foot or by bike along the Bajada Loop Drive or the Cactus Forest Loop

When to go: Winter and spring

Worth Pondering…

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

The Unique (and Surprisingly Wet) Biodiversity of the Sonoran Desert

In Arizona, the country’s most diverse desert teems with kaleidoscopic spring flowers, charming desert tortoises, and the famous saguaro cactus

The Sonoran Desert is something of an anomaly; it gets a surprising amount of rain each year, usually between 10 and 12 inches in its wettest areas. The Desert’s roughly 100,000 square miles stretch from the southern reaches of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to the heart of Arizona where its biodiversity flourishes. The Sonoran Desert is thought to be the most biologically diverse in North America with over 2,000 species of plant and over 550 species of animal.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Much of this biodiversity comes from that rain which falls more heavily in Arizona than it does in the drier southern and western regions making it the best place to experience the region’s abundance. The seasons of the Sonoran desert include two rainy seasons: wet summer (July to mid-September) and winter (December to February). December rains bring an always-changing permutation of spring flowers and summer rains bring lush fall vegetation. The expansive, verdant plant life also supports the wide array of animals that live in the desert from desert tortoises to the ever-popular roadrunner (yes, like the one in Looney Tunes).

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Notably, the Sonoran desert is the only place where the saguaro cactus grows natively. Tree-like, they grow up to 40 feet tall with arms that reach up to the sky like a friend waving to you. Imagine a clip-art cactus in three dimensions: you’re likely picturing a saguaro.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaro has tremendous cultural value and it’s fascinating biologically. It’s the tallest plant in the Sonoran and can live for upwards of 200 years though it grows at a glacial pace: a one-inch-tall cactus might be ten years old one that has reached a foot tall might be hitting the ripe age of 20. It begins reproducing at 50 or 70 years old and has long been an important food plant to the Tohono O’odham people who have lived in the area for thousands of years; its bright-fuschia fruit is incredibly nutritious.

>> Related article: Snowbirding in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert

Saguaro cactus in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaro and its other cactus brethren like the fuzzy, coral-shaped cholla cactus and the stout Southwestern Barrel have their own seasons. They begin to bloom in late April and early May when birds begin to nest in the saguaros’ sky-high flowers. (Other birds perch on its arms year-round; woodpeckers often peck holes into its flesh.) The fruit ripens in July when their buds pop for nearby birds to graze on. The fruit not gobbled up by birds or harvested by local humans falls to the ground becoming food for those humble animals that cannot fly like tortoises, deer, foxes, and the pig-like javelina.

A landscape of saguaros is just so stunning.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Saguaro also develops important relationships with other plants. Take the Palo Verde, Mesquite, and Ironwood trees which serve as nurse trees to the saguaro while it grows. When the saguaro is still tiny, it can’t store very much water and it’s very susceptible to drought. The trees protect them from the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter. There’s a lot going on underground in the desert—it’s hot above ground and so a lot of the action is in the roots. When it rains, plants compete over who can soak up the limited water available to their roots.

Desert tortoise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Animals also spend a lot of time below ground often retreating to burrows or caves during the hottest part of the days and the coldest part of the nights. Just about every animal goes underground in one way or another. Desert tortoises, for example, are only active a small part of their lives—most of the time they’re tucked underground in deep burrows where humidity and temperature are more constant.

>> Related article: What Are You Waiting For? Get Outdoors in the Sonoran Desert NOW!

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like cacti, Desert Tortoises are experts at storing water—so much so that they’ve earned the nickname of walking saguaros. When they hear the rains come, they emerge from their burrows and find flat stretches of rock where they can hoover the rain directly through their noses. Once rehydrated, they expel waste they’ve been carrying around since the last rain and the cycle begins again.

Sonoran Desert in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Locals also anticipate the rains as well as the changing seasons of the desert and the benchmarks they promise: cactus flowers in spring, rains to break the scalding summer heat, and wildflowers coloring the landscape like a confetti bomb. Unlike the rest of the country, the Sonoran desert has five, not four, annual seasons: spring, hot summer, wet summer, fall, and winter. Each has its charms, and its natural wonders, to explore.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter (November to January)

Winter in Arizona’s desert is quiet and temperate during the days with much colder nights. Many animals make themselves scarce during this time. Even if they’re not technically hibernating, they go dormant. You’re unlikely to see lizards, snakes, and tortoises in the winter months; mammals that are more nocturnal during summer months are more day-active in the winter changing their habits to take advantage of the most pleasant times of day.

>> Related article: Pristine Sonoran Desert Camping

Winter is also a wet season though erratically so. The winter rains are less predictable as they are tied to long-term weather patterns coming off the Pacific Ocean.

Sonoran Desert in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring (February to Mid-April)

Warmer days arrive in spring as does the possibility of floral abundance. I continue to be surprised by the variability in the spring blooms of Arizona. In the North, spring comes and the seeds germinate—it’s pretty predictable— while in the desert germination is a combination of temperature and precipitation. Some seeds, for example, will only germinate when there’s a rain event in the fall where it’s not as cold as winter. The years when there’s explosive, beautiful flower blooms in the spring are quite often the result of fall rain. If significant rains don’t fall until winter, the spring flowers will likely be different from those that bloom after fall rains. And if the winter and spring are both wet, flowers about in March.

Sonoran Desert in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dry summer (Mid April to Mid July)

By mid April, winter visitors are leaving because it’s starting to get pretty warm. Temperatures in June and July can easily reach 100 degrees. It’s a dry heat—the region’s driest months—but it can still be incredibly overwhelming during the day with relief coming at night. Certain plants like the desert zinnia will go dormant during dry periods, the way that snakes will go dormant in the winter. It is important to avoid hiking during the day in these months.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wet summer (July to Mid September)

In the dry summer everybody looks forward to the summer rains. They often arrive very dramatically in July—the clouds will begin to build up and eventually explode into energetic thunderstorms where a lot of rain can fall in short periods of time. While it also increases the humidity during the hot months the afternoon cloud buildup keeps the days a little cooler and the rain makes the days more pleasant.

>> Related article: Arizona Lakes: 6 Sonoran Desert Oases

Animals will come out for a drink and certain plants come back from the dead. The ocotillo, for example, will grow leaves when it rains; when the rain stops, the leaves will shrivel up and fall off.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall (September to October)

Fall can be incredibly green or drab depending on the level of rain that falls at its beginning. This year has been quite wet and the desert is pleasantly verdant. It’s an easy season with pleasant shoulder-season temperatures that visitors and animals alike enjoy for outdoor activities.

Worth Pondering…

When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully

When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze

When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high

When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying

“Welcome to our home.”

—Jeanette Chico, When It Rains

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

Saguaro National Park: Two Parks in One

Saguaro National Park protects America’s largest cacti species, the saguaro, and features hiking trails for every level

The giant saguaro is the universal symbol of the American Southwest. These majestic plants found only in a small portion of the United States are protected by Saguaro National Park. Here you have a chance to see these enormous cacti silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunset.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

America’s largest cactus, the saguaro’s imposing stature, and uplifted arms give it a regal presence. Perhaps that’s why this burly giant whose only bits of exuberance are seasonal blossoms and fig-like fruits at the tip of its limbs has been dubbed the “desert monarch.”

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park is composed of two distinct districts: The Rincon Mountain District and the Tucson Mountain District. The Tucson Mountain District lies on the west side of Tucson, Arizona, while the Rincon Mountain District lies on the east side of town. Both districts were formed to protect and exhibit forests of their namesake plant: the saguaro cactus.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While you can enter the Tucson Mountain District on other roads, it’s best to go in from Speedway Boulevard over the dramatic Gates’ Pass which is part of the Tucson Mountains. Like its counterpart on the east side of town, it offers a variety of trails that range from a leisurely meander around the visitor’s center to full-day treks. The west park is near two other attractions, as well: The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a regional showcase for native plants and animals, and Old Tucson, the one-time movie set where the street scenes of many old westerns were filmed.

Related: Mind Blowing National Monuments in the Southwest

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s east district is about 20 miles away on the opposite side of the city where it wraps itself around the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. It’s also about 500 feet higher in elevation, larger, and boasts both numerous hiking options and a paved 8-mile driving loop.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start your visit at the visitor center of either one of the Saguaro National Park two districts. Here, you can view museum exhibits, informational slide shows, cactus gardens, and shop at the bookstore and gift shop. The visitor centers are also the starting point for numerous hiking trails and scenic drives. Guided walks led by visitor center staff are also available—giving you the best close-up experience with some of the most notable areas of the park.

Related: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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, a variety of cactus and wildflowers begin to bloom. 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 be aware of possible flash floods.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many activities to partake in at Saguaro National Park no matter the season. There is a multitude of short hikes to choose from or for the adventurous hiker, wilderness hikes, and backcountry camping.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro is offering a number of ranger-guided hikes during February. Two hikes are described below. Contact the park for updates on the day of the program. If you reserve a spot but then cannot make the scheduled hike, call to cancel your reservations by 9 a.m. the day of the hike. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

February 14, 4 p.m. Sunset Hike Hike: 4 hours, 3-½ miles roundtrip 

This hike gains 700 feet with most of the elevation change in switchbacks near the ridgeline where hikers will watch the sunset before descending under the moonlight. This hike is restricted to ages 10 and older. Reservations are required. 

Related: Saguaro National Park: 11 Planning Tips

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

February 15, 4:15 p.m. Trailing Shadows Hike: 3 hours, 2-½ miles roundtrip 

This walk bridges sunset into moonlight letting hikers experience the desert in both the glow of twilight and the light of the waxing moon. The hike is considered easy to moderate, with an elevation gain of roughly 200 feet. The trail begins and ends on a small stretch of dirt road, proceeding to traverse in and out of a winding dry river bed along with fields of mighty Saguaros. This hike is restricted to ages 8 and older. Reservations are required.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro supports other activities as well. Bicycling around the east district’s Cactus Forest Loop Drive is a popular road bike route as is mountain biking on the Hope Camp Trail and Cactus Forest Trail.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

The best place to view the sunset on the east side is either the Tanque Verde Ridge trail (.5 mile hike) or the Javelina Rocks pull-out. The driving loop does not close until 8:00 p.m. so you have plenty of time to leave the loop after sunset.

Related: Reach for the Sky: Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the west side, Gates Pass (the end of Speedway Blvd to the west) is the ideal spot for a sunset. There is a parking lot at the top of the winding road with Tucson Mountain Park but this closes just after sunset.

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

Saguaro National Park: 11 Planning Tips

Some planning tips for visiting Saguaro National Park

To make the most of your visit to Saguaro National Park, we’ve compiled these 10 tips, in no particular order. The park is open 24 hours a day via walking or bicycling and 7 a.m. to sunset in the Tucson Mountain District (West) and 7 a.m. to sunset in the Rincon Mountain District, 364 days a year (closed Christmas Day).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Plan Ahead: Since the park is open year-round and located in a desert it’s important to consider weather conditions. While daytime temperatures in the winter range from the low-50s to the high-70s, summertime temperatures rise to the mid-80s to low-100s. The busiest times in the park are November through March.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Two parks in One: Saguaro National Park is composed of two distinct districts: The Rincon Mountain District and the Tucson Mountain District. The Tucson Mountain District lies on the west side of Tucson, Arizona, while the Rincon Mountain District lies on the east side of town. Both districts were formed to protect and exhibit forests of their namesake plant: the saguaro cactus.

Related: Reach for the Sky: Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Drink Up: The Sonoran Desert climate is dry whatever season and it’s important to stay hydrated. Be sure to bring along plenty of water when Saguaro. Park rangers suggest one quart of water per hour of hiking during hot weather. Water refilling stations are found at both visitor centers. Also, bring along some sports drinks and salty snacks with you to replenish your electrolytes.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Go for a Hike: With more than 165 miles of hiking trails in the park’s two districts, there are ample opportunities for hiking. Numerous hiking trailheads are located along the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive in the Rincon Mountain District and throughout the Tucson Mountain District. Stop at a visitor center and map out your hike before setting off on the trails.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Go for a Drive: In the Rincon Mountain District the eight-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive features several trailheads, pullouts, and incredible views along the way. The unpaved, graded dirt/gravel Scenic Bajada Loop Drive takes you into the Tucson Mountain District’s foothills with scenic pullouts, picnic areas, and trailheads along its six-mile loop.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go for a Ride: The same loop drives that are great for driving are also terrific for biking. In addition, two trails in the Rincon Mountain District are open to bicycles—the new 2.8-mile Hope Camp Trail and the 2.5-mile Cactus Forest Trail. All trails in the Tucson Mountain District are off-limits for bicycling.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Mount Up: Horseback riding is possible within Saguaro National Park and if you don’t have your own horse, there are a few local outfitters who can take you to experience the park from the saddle. A guided ride will also help make sure that you stay on the trails where horses are permitted.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Watch for Wildlife: The varied landscapes of Saguaro National Park provide ideal homes to numerous species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. Watch for roadrunners (beep beep!), cactus wrens, Gila woodpeckers, desert tortoise, horned lizards, Gila monsters, kangaroo rats, coyotes, collared peccaries, and much more.

Related: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Ancient Artwork: Ancient petroglyphs are found throughout the American Southwest including Saguaro National Park. Take a walk along the Signal Hill Trail in the Tucson Mountain District and you’ll find a hill covered with dozens of petroglyphs that date 800 years. And of course, look but don’t touch to help preserve these ancient pieces of art.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Live the Nightlife: When the sun goes down, the park’s nightlife comes alive. The park rangers offer numerous evening programs to experience it all. Reservations advised.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Spend a Day at the Museum: Just outside the park (Tucson Mountain District), the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a terrific place to learn all about the area. A regional showcase for native plants and animals, the museum’s 98 acres includes a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium—and 85 percent of the experience is outside. The park’s hours vary seasonally.

Read Next: Now is the Time to Explore Southern Arizona’s Gorgeous State Parks

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

And this winter, you can have it mostly to yourself

It’s almost cliché to say the Sonoran Desert looks like the background of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. But hiking through forests of towering saguaro feels nothing short of cartoonish. These green giants with arms pointed in all directions look like they’re about to break into a musical number at any second.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no symbol more emblematic of the American Southwest than the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)—standing tall with arms reaching out from the trunk toward the sky. The saguaro (pronounced sah-WHAH-ro) is rare, found only in southern Arizona and western Sonora, Mexico. And if you want to spend the day with these goofy, prickly characters, Saguaro is one of the easiest national parks to visit.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaro is the largest cactus in North America. They may look like loving characters from a child’s storybook but these are some serious tree-like cacti. Saguaros are covered with protective spines, white flowers in the late spring, and red fruit in summer. They can weigh up to nearly 5,000 pounds and live up to 200 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I’ve spent a lot of time looking for “the perfect specimen” and determined that there is a saguaro for everyone. Maybe you like the perfect-looking two-armed saguaro or the saguaro with many wrangled arms reaching out in all directions. These arms generally bend upward and can number over 25 although some never grow arms. Their differences make them fun to photograph, characterize, and admire. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long overshadowed by Arizona’s marquee national park, the Grand Canyon, Saguaro is a 92,000-acre desert wonderland. And if you go anytime other than summer you’ll find it hits that perfect national park threesome of ideal weather, unusual landscape, and minimal crowds. 

Prime time in southern Arizona is spring or fall when daytime highs rarely get over a dry 90 degrees and the mornings are pleasantly cool. Winter is also fantastic if you want to hike during the day—morning and night can be chilly but nothing a light jacket can’t fix.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll find few parks as accessible from major cities as Saguaro which sits less than half an hour from Tucson. It’s separated into two sections, each of which can be easily tackled in a day: East (also called the Rincon Mountain District) and West (aka the Tucson Mountain District). In between are I-10 and the city of Tucson so getting here by interstate is pretty straightforward.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the two sides of the park bare the same name and share likeness in desert landscape, there are subtle differences. The Tucson Mountain District is home to dense saguaro forests that rise from the hillside. Here you will find low-desert grasslands, shrubs, and densely populated saguaro forests. The Rincon Mountain District is the area of parkland originally preserved by Herbert Hoover when he dedicated it as a monument in 1933. It is the jumping off point to the backcountry. Here you will find high-elevation conifer forests in addition to saguaros and desert mainstays such as Teddybear cholla cactus and desert wildflowers.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the mountainous desert topography might look intimidating, Saguaro National Park is one of the easier national parks to hike. The crown jewel for hikers is the trek to Wasson Peak (4,687-feet) in the more-mountainous western section. There are several options for reaching the top of Wasson Peak. High Norris Trailhead is favored by many experienced hikers. The entire hike is about eight miles long. For something easier on the west side, take the 0.8-mile Valley View Trail which as the name suggests also boasts phenomenal views of the valley on a much shorter walk.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A popular hike on the east side is the 1-mile Freeman Homestead Trail. Wander down this path to the site of an old homestead foundation, a grove of large saguaros, and a cool desert wash. Great horned owls can often be seen in the cliff above this wash. A more strenuous hike is the combined Garwood, Carrillo, and Wildhorse trails accessed from the Douglas Spring trail head. You’ll enter the kind of cactus forest that inspired the creation of this park in 1933. Little Wildhorse Tank is one of the only perennial areas of water in the park.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you prefer to see national parks from the air-conditioned comfort of your car, Saguaro makes that easy too. The most popular scenic drive is the Cactus Forest Loop in the east. The paved, one-way, 8-mile paved road with pull offs that overlook the valley offers the best scenery of any route in the park. On the west side, take the Bajada Loop Road which is 6 miles and partially unpaved.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Backcountry camping is available by permit. There are about 20 campsites TOTAL, all of which are only accessible through backcountry hiking. There are no accommodations for RV camping in Saguaro. So unless you’re looking to rough it in the desert you’ll need a RV park for overnight camping and they are numerous in this snowbird hotspot.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is puzzling that Saguaro doesn’t get more love. But its relative obscurity is also a great strength—it’s a national park where you can still feel like you’re lost in nature without delving into the backcountry. Its unusual landscape and ideal weather combine to create the experience many look for during a winter getaway. And as a bonus, you just might feel like you’re walking around the cartoon set of a childhood memory.

This is a go-back park. I can’t wait to go back!

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 91,445 acres

Established: October 14, 1994

Location: Southeast Arizona on both the west—and east side of Tucson

How the park got its name: Saguaro National Park is named after the Saguaro cactus that rises from the desert floor.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: The Saguaro cactus is the undisputed champion of the American southwest so it is only fitting that it should stand as the most iconic site in the park. They grow slowly, spouting their arms at around 75 years of age. They live long for a cactus, up to 200 years. They stand large—as high as 80 feet tall and weighing up to nearly 5,000 pounds. There are 1.6 million Saguaro cactus decorating the desert flat, ridges, and skyline—1.6 million reasons to visit this beautiful park near Tucson. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know? 

The state flower of Arizona is the saguaro cactus bloom.

The saguaro cactus bares fibrous fruit that looks like small red flowers. It is said to be crunchy and taste sweet. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tohono O’odham Nation of American Indians lived in the region for thousands of years. Tohono O’odham translates to “Desert People.”

More than 1,162 species of plants can be found in the park.

Worth Pondering…

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

Reach for the Sky: Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is more than just 6-ton gigantic cacti (though it has those, too)

Yearning to see towering, giant saguaros in their native environment? Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor near Tucson, Arizona.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unique to the Sonoran Desert the park’s giant saguaro has a slow growth cycle and long lifespan. The cactus grows between 1 and 1.5 inches in the first eight years, flowers begin production at 35 years of age and branches, or arms, normally appear at 50 to 70 years of age. An adult saguaro is considered to be about 125 years of age and may weigh 6 tons or more and be as tall as 50 feet. A saguaro’s lifespan can be up to 250 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the saguaro is merely the headliner for a roster of desert vegetation to be seen as you hike or drive through the park. You’ll also spot spiny ocotillo, huge clumps of prickly pear, and the tiny hedgehog and stubby barrel cactus, as well as spiky mesquite and palo verde trees.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First designated as Saguaro National Monument in 1933, the area received national park status in 1994. It is also the ancestral home of the Tohono O’odham people who today continue to play a role in the park’s culture visiting every year in the early summer to pick saguaro fruit.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many, the giant saguaro cactus silhouetted by the setting sun is the universal symbol of the American Southwest. And yet, these majestic plants are only found in a small portion of the U.S. Saguaro National Park protects some of the most impressive forests of these sub-tropical giants. Saguaro is actually two parks separated by a metropolis of 1 million residents: the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District. In 2018, the park drew 1,229,594 recreational visitors.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park is located within a desert but contrary to what you might expect there is an abundance of life. Plants here are adapted to drought, so during long dry periods they are able to go dormant conserving their water. At these times many plants appear lifeless but shortly after a rainfall they’re able to come to life sprouting new green leaves. Within just 48 hours after a rainfall, the ocotillo plant is able to change from what appeared to be a handful of dead sticks into a cheerful shrub with tall green branches, covered in new leaves.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to a broad expanse of desert, Saguaro National Park features mountainous regions. These varied landscapes provide ideal habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna. Current research indicates there are approximately 400 species in the Tucson Mountain District and approximately 1,200 species in the Rincon Mountain District.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tucson Mountain District ranges from an elevation of 2,180 feet to 4,687 feet and contains two biotic communities—desert scrub and desert grassland. Average annual precipitation is approximately 10.27 inches. Common wildlife include Gambel’s quail, cactus wren, greater roadrunner, Gila woodpeckers, desert tortoise, and coyote.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park ranges from an elevation of 2,670 feet to 8,666 feet and contains six biotic communities. The biotic communities (starting from the lowest elevation) include desert scrub, desert grassland, oak woodland, pine-oak woodland, pine forest, and mixed conifer forest. Average annual precipitation is approximately 12.30 inches.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rincon Mountains peak at a considerably higher elevation than the Tucson Mountains, therefore there are more biotic communities and increased plant and wildlife diversity. Because of the higher elevation in the Rincons, animals like the black bear, Mexican spotted owl, Arizona mountain king snake, and white-tailed deer live in this district.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While each season has its draw, spring, when the desert blooms with yellow, orange, and purple wildflowers, is hands-down its most beautiful and busiest time of year. Fall is similarly temperate and winter offers the chance to see the water flowing in the washes. Arizona’s merciless heat makes summer significantly less popular.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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