What do you imagine when you think of “the desert”? I’m guessing it’s a cactus, but not just any cactus – a saguaro (pronounced sah-waar-o). These are the cacti that have the arms and that coincidentally, are native only to the Sonoran Desert. That’s right, the first cactus that you think of doesn’t even grow in most deserts!
Luckily, Tucson is right in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, and the two locations of Saguaro National Park are devoted to protecting this emblem of the American west. Tucson is home to the largest Saguaros in the world, and you can visit them while supporting the National Parks, which I always approve of! So if you’re visiting Tucson, make sure to stop by the park to see these magnificent cacti in all their glory. Fun fact: Saguaros don’t start growing arms until they’re about 50 years old! Saguaro National Park is pretty unique in that it has two districts to visit. Both are worth a trip in my opinion, but if you have to choose, here are my tips!
When to go: The great thing about Tucson is that it usually doesn’t get too cold, and cacti don’t exactly loose their leaves in the winter, so Saguaro is great to visit any time of the year. I will say though that summer gets very hot, and my recommendation would be to go around April-May when it’s not too warm and you have a chance of seeing some cactus flowers
How long to stay: It depends what you want to do! If you’re planning on a long hike, that will obviously take a while, but if you just want to check the park out and maybe do a short trail, you could do either district in about half a day. To do both, I would recommend Rincon Mountain District in the morning to hike before it gets hot and have a picnic lunch then Tucson Mountain in the heat of the day to look at their indoor things and maybe do a loop drive of the park.
Tucson Mountain District/TMD (West District)
If you’re looking for a lot of Saguaros all together, this is where to go. The Tucson Mountain District has the amazing Cactus Forest. In my opinion, this is the one to visit if you’re short on time or don’t really want to walk. They have a great visitor center here including a cool orientation video that gives the Native American perspective on the Saguaro. In fact, if you really want some history, this is the place to visit; the Signal Hill Picnic Area also has a lot of petroglyphs. If you’ve never seen petroglyphs, this is a great stop, especially with kids who might prefer this district of the park with more to do. I visited the Tucson Mountain District with my family including my younger sister who was ten at the time. We didn’t stay long, but it was a great little trip to learn about desert ecology and history.
Rincon Mountain District (East District)
This is the Saguaro Park if you want to hike. The Saguaros are not as concentrated here, but you can see them in all stages of life as well as in conjugation with lots of other desert plants. If you aren’t up for hiking, the Cactus Loop Drive will give you some nice views of the area, but if you really want to get into the park and feel that distance from the city, I highly recommend the Mica View Loop. This is a short hike, only about 2 miles total, but it gets you into the Cactus Forest. I visited this district of the park and did the hike with a group of kids from Tucson. The hike is long enough that you get to see the park, but the kids (ages 10-14) weren’t tired enough to start complaining. There’s not as much about history here, but because the cacti aren’t all around, to me it feels a little wilder. I would recommend this district if you want to do more hiking than reading, though both are worth a visit if you can make it.
Bonus Tip: Wherever you go, don’t forget: This is Tucson. In other words, put on sunscreen and carry more water than you think you need, especially if you’re going hiking.