One of our main reasons for our recent visit to Tucson was to explore Saguaro National Park. And to get a other junior ranger badge of course! Reading the name saguaro, you might not know exactly what it is (or even how to say it!), but once you see the iconic cactus often associated with Arizona and specifically the Sonoran Desert it will click. Considering how iconic this cactus is, you might be surprised to learn that this is the only part of the world that these famous catctus grow. The national park itself houses over 2 million saguaros, making it the most dense population of saguaro anywhere.
Researching the park was a bit confusing because the park bookends the city of Tucson with an east and west section. It is the only national park in the US that is not connected fully. Driving between the two districts takes a little more than an hour, so it’s important to know which area you want to visit if you have limited time. While reading about the park in advance of our trip, we couldn’t figure out which section was best, so we decided to explore it all and share the results with you here.
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What is the Saguaro?
First things first, how do you actually say the name saguaro? For years I have read saguaro as sag- (like in sag-gy pants) – u – r-o. Nope. Not correct! It’s sa-wah-ro. If you need to hear it for yourself, go here! Now that you have corrected your mental missaying, what is the saguaro and why does it have an entire national park dedicated to preserving it?
Saguaro National Park is an important part of a larger network of ecosystems of the Desert Southwest. Preserving these areas provide natural laboratories for ecological baselines on the area’s biodiversity and how it is changing. Additionally, the park includes hundreds of archeological sites which help preserve Arizona’s historical and Native American cultural heritage.
Two Districts, One Park
Saguaro National Park has two distinct districts, the eastern Rincon Mountain District and the western Tucson Mountain District. The two sections of the park are approximately 30 miles apart, however with no cross highway through town, visitors must drive on surface streets through Tucson which can take well over an hour. It is doable to visit both parks in one day, but you should know what to expect at each before you head out.
Rincon Mountain – East Side
The Rincon Mountain Visitor Center (address for your GPS: 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail) on east side of the park seems to be the least visited of the two, but is worth checking out if you have the time. There is a small visitor center with beautiful displays of the animals you can see in the park as well as an informative 15 minute film on the plants and animals in the park. During our visit there was a guided auto tour with a park ranger that took us through the first few miles of the 8 mile loop road. participating in this was great as it gave us a better feel for the lay of the land and what to look out for during our explorations.
This section of the park does not have as many saguaros as the west section, but is interesting to explore by car and by foot. If it is hot, you can drive to different view points, get out and explore for a few minutes before continuing on the drive.
Things to Do
Cactus Forest Loop Drive
This 8 mile drive around the Rincon Mountain East park offers a good view of the accessible areas of the park. Most of the eastern portion of the park is not accessible by road, nor even visible from the road!
Desert Ecology Trail
This 1/4 mile (round trip) trail is an easy stroll through the desert. Signs along the way provide information on the residents of this Sonoran Desert “neighborhood.” This trail is wheelchair and stroller accessible.
A 1 mile trail to the site of an old homestead, a grove of large saguaros and a cool desert wash provide a different view of Saguaro National Park. Interpretive signs along the way give more insight into the meaning of this “home in the desert.” These signs also feature special exploration activities for kids which is always an added bonus.
Cactus Forest Trail
One of the longer ‘easy’ trails at 2.5 miles provides an easy walk to the lime kilns historic site. Starting from the north trailhead, it is a 2 mile round trip walk; from the south trailhead 3 miles round trip. This section of trail is designated for bicycle use as well, so be cautious of riders coming through.
Tucson Mountain – West Side
The west side (address for your GPS:2700 N. Kinney Rd) of the park is the most visited of the two and for good reason. It contains the most condensed area of saguaros in one place. This makes it pretty spectacular to visit, see and explore. On this side of the park there is also a loop drive with several hikes around as well.
Start your visit at the Red Hills Visitor Center, exploring the photos of the park, animal display and watching the 15 minute film on the native inhabitants of this area of Arizona, the Tohono O’odham. This moving short film will give you new perspectives while viewing the saguro.
In addition to the film, there are also often ranger programs here. We were able to participate in one focused on the reptiles of the park which was quite informative and helped us identify all of the lizards we saw along our hikes.
Things to Do
Junior Ranger Program
The Junior Ranger program is a must if you or your kids like to collect park ranger badges! This booklet is pretty simple and can mostly be completed at the visitor center itself. Make sure to pick it up! This park also has the No So Junior Ranger Program, which is a good supplement to the regular Junior Ranger booklet. This program is meant for people of all ages who want to get a little more out of their visit. There are activities that push visitors to discover new things through their adventures on and off trail.
Scenic Bajada Loop Drive
A f5 mile drive partially on dirt roads takes visitors through a section of dense saguaro forest. The road is fine for small rental cars, however I probably would not attempt it during or immediately following heavy rains. Pay close attention to the turn offs as it is not well signposted and you can easily make a wrong turn and find yourself deep into the middle of nowhere (I say from experience!).
Signal Hill is a short hike leading to a collection of rocks with petroglyphs carved on them at the top of the hill. The hike itself is only .5 miles, however it is rocky and uneven in places and contains rock steps leading up to the top. There are also signs warning visitors of rattlesnakes in the area, so pay attention!
Cactus Garden Trail
The Cactus Garden Trail is a short paved trail located in front of the Red Hills Visitor Center. Interpretive signs will introduce visitors to some of the common plants in the Tucson Mountain District.
Desert Discovery Nature Trail
The Desert Discovery Trail is a great trail to viewing the sunset. It is a self guided nature trail located off of Kinney Road, about 1 mile north of the Red Hills Visitor Center. Exhibits discuss the native plants, animals and ecology of the Sonoran Desert. The trail is paved, making it great for strollers and wheelchairs. There are also a few shady areas with benches to rest if you go during the heat of the day.
Which Park Should You Visit?
Deciding which park to visit is left up to you, as they are both interesting to see. However, if you have a limited amount of time, I would suggest the western side of the park as it provides a bit more bang for your buck. There appear to be more activities at the visitor center, more options for short trails as well as a larger population of saguaro cacti in an accessible viewing area. Additionally if you can time it around sunset you just might capture the awe inspiring classic sunset saguaro photo!
If You Have Only 2 Hours
Visit the Red Hills Visitor Center to watch the film, complete your Junior Ranger Booklet and get a feel for the park. Take a Stroll on the Desert Discovery Trail before taking a drive the Bajada Loop Drive, stopping at Signal Hill for a small hike for great views over the landscape.
If You Have A Full Day
Do all of the above, but add in a visit to the East side park as well as include ranger led activities at one or both parks to get further insight into the parks.
Have you been to Saguaro National Park? What were your favorites?
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