The Sonoran Desert stretches like a dry blanket over southern California, southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico. It is only here that you will find the large saguaro cacti - perhaps the most iconic symbol of the American Southwest and the "Wild West".
I Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson you will find a large, protected and thriving area with impressive saguaro cacti. Here are some of the largest known living cacti and there are plenty of both hiking trails and roadways.
Old and slow growing cacti
The saguaro cactus is Arizona's state flower and the largest cactus in the United States. There is probably no more classic American cowboy background than a cactus with big arms reaching up to the sky. Saguaros grow slowly and can be very old, some of the largest specimens alive today are estimated to be over 200 years old. But slow growing also means that the large specimens of the cactus are becoming fewer and fewer.
The largest known saguaro cactus was whole 23,8 meter high when it snapped in a storm in 1986.WIKIPEDIA
In the Sonoran Desert, winters are cool and summers are hot. The summer months in Arizona can be extremely hot, with daytime temperatures exceeding 40 degrees. The winters can offer 20 degrees during the day, but down to 0 degrees at night. It even happens that the Sonoran desert gets snow, although it usually melts away quickly when the sun comes out. During the winter half-year and the summer monsoon, it rains a lot, which gives great contrasts between drought and rain. A challenging climate not only for plants, but also for animals.
As we visited the park during the month of July, the activities we could do were limited. With clear blue skies, 43 degree heat and scorching sun, you don't head out into the desert and hike. Fortunately, you can discover large parts of the park by car.
Cactus Forest Loop Drive
Saguaro National Park is divided into two areas east and west of the city of Tucson. We only visited the eastern part – Rincon Mountain District.
A good place to start your visit to Saguaro is in the Rincon visitor center. Here you get information about all current warnings in the park and whether any areas are temporarily closed. It is not uncommon for areas to be closed at short notice due to flooding or administrative work.
The road starts from the Rincon visitor center Cactus Forest Loop Drive, a one-way road that takes you to some of the major attractions in the park. A very good way to see and learn a lot even on hot days. The road is 12,9 km long and closes to car traffic at sunset. Along this road many of the hiking trails start and there are plenty of parking options if you want to stop and walk shorter distances.
A saguaro cactus can be up to 200 years old and weigh several tons.
Climate change and illegal cacti
Looking at 1930s photos of Saguaro National Park, the landscape looks very different. Back then, the park was covered with large saguaro cacti and as far as you could see, large spiky arms were sticking up into the sky. Today, the cacti are much sparser. The reason is mainly three. The sprawling cities, the demand for large cacti for gardens and climate change. But what is it about climate change that affects a cactus in a desert?
If you look more closely at the photos from almost 100 years ago, there were many more small trees in the park. The trees and bushes serve a very important purpose, to protect the small cacti until they are large enough to fend for themselves in the harsh environment. Because a saguaro cactus doesn't grow fast. In the first ten years, the cactus grows to only about 5 centimeters. A tiny little plant in a big desert. If the shade of the trees disappears, so does the chance for the baby cacti to survive.
It is illegal to move, damage, dig up or cut down a saguaro cactus in Arizona. But it is not illegal to sell them.NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
The animals in the desert
The saguaro cactus is not only a stately cactus, but it is vital to many of Arizona's animals. Snakes, woodpeckers, bats, pigeons and owls both live and eat the cactus and its fruits. We only saw birds at the cacti when we visited the park during the day. It was probably a little too hot even for the animals this day.
In addition to providing shelter for the animals, the cactus is also the desert's water reservoir. When it rains, the cacti collect water, so much in fact that they can swell to double their size when it rains a lot.
A saguaro cactus does not flower until it is 35 years old. Then it blooms once a year, for less than 24 hours.
Popular hiking trails
If you visit the national park during the slightly cooler months, there are several interesting hiking trails to explore in the eastern part of the national park. We only walked shorter distances on the Mica View and Loma Verde Loop, but definitely got more flavor.
- Mica View – Cactus Forest Loop - 3 km
- Loma Verde Loop - 6 km
- Tanque Verde Ridge Trail - 14 km easy way to the top of the mountain and a mile-long view.
How do I get to Saguaro National Park?
Saguaro National Park is located outside of Tucson in Arizona. The best time to visit the park is during the spring, when the desert blooms and the temperatures are pleasant.
Entry to the park is valid for seven days for both the east and west sides. A car (with passenger) costs $20, a single adult/bike $10. Have you America the Beautiful National Park Pass admission is free.
Where should I live somewhere?
I recommend you stay a few nights at Tanque Verde Ranch and take the chance to live ranch life and ride out into the desert landscape and experience saguaros up close. It's not cheap, but it's an experience!
Where can I read more?
Look into my Arizona page for more inspiration, or read more about the national park here:
- National Park Service official national park site.
- Map of the hiking trails in eastern Saguaro NP.
- Visit Arizona's site about Saguaro National Park
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Have you been here? What did you think of the destination?
Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.