If you’ve never been to Saguaro National Park you might wonder why anyone would want to hang out around a bunch of prickly cactus plants. But if you go, you’ll find that these giant cacti have a unique and seducing beauty that is mysteriously felt as well as observed.
|Tucson Mountains provide the backdrop for saguaro forests|
in Arizona's Saguaro National Park.
The giant saguaro (pronounced sa-war-o) is a universal symbol of the American west. Because these majestic plants are found only in a small portion of the United States, they are protected by Saguaro National Park, located in two sections east and west of Tucson, Arizona.
|Sprawling arms give the cacti|
a haunting appearance.
Gently sloping hills below the Tucson Mountains create the ideal habitat for saguaros, which grow in stands so dense they are called “forests.” The cacti grow very slowly at first, just an inch or so during the first six to eight years. Young plants have the best chance of survival when they are sheltered by “nurse trees” like mesquite, ironwood, or palo verde.
The branches, or arms, which seem to reach out to visitors, may not sprout for 70 years. But, when standing next to a saguaro, there’s a calming peace, as though the cactus is offering protection in an inhospitable environment.
A saguaro may reach up to 75 feet tall—at about 150 years old. By this time it is extremely heavy, not only from the weight of the branches, which sometimes break off, but also from water that is collected through shallow roots extending far out from the trunk.
Upon landing in Tucson, Larry and I first made our way to Saguaro National Park East in the Rincon Mountain District. At the Visitor Center we watched a film about the Sonoran Desert and the importance of water in this arid space. We have found that national park films offer beautiful photography and an easy to understand summary of whatever area we have come to explore.
|Even the most wicked looking cactus|
sprouts beautiful circular blooms.
Then we began to drive the Cactus Forest Loop, which might take 45 minutes if you didn’t stop at all. But there is too much to see along the way and numerous paths to explore. We spent several hours along the scenic eight-mile loop as it passes through a saguaro forest.
Naturally, we stopped often to take pictures at overlooks and to walk on paths such as the short Desert Ecology Trail. Longer hikes into the back country let people experience more remote desert areas but also require a good measure of caution.
At Javeliina Rocks, another notable spot, I climbed large boulders, some too hot to touch on that early September afternoon. And Larry found out that sharp spines stick easily to clothing if you veer too close to low-growing plants. Advice is to not step anywhere without looking (even if your eyes are on an intriguing cactus above your head) or touch anything if you’re not absolutely sure what it is.
Even the drive on Kinney Road to Saguaro National Park West was filled with forests of majestic saguaros pretty enough to stop and invite us to wander among the tall, armed specimens. This day, we started early in the morning to avoid the heat of the previous day. So we waited until after our sightseeing drive to stop at the Visitor Center and view another film.
|Saguaro forests line the highway near Tucson, Arizona.|
The west part of the park also included a drive that we found to be even more spectacular than the east section. The six-mile Bajada Loop Drive can be extended on Hohokam Road and Golden Gate Road to create a five-mile extension in the Tucson Mountain District.
|Entrance to the east section of the park|
Again, we stopped often, mesmerized by the thick stands of beautiful mature saguaros, such as those seen on the Desert Discovery Trail and Valley View Overlook Trail. We marveled at the amazing forests of cacti set against a backdrop of cooling mountains.
At Signal Hill, a short trail took us to see dozens of petroglyphs—drawings etched into rock that date back many centuries. Along the trails we learned names of several other varieties of cacti in the park such as ocotillo, pencil cholla, teddy bear cholla, and bristlecone.
|Petroglyphs tell stories from ancient civilizations.|
Visit both sections
It’s possible to visit both east and west parts of this divided national park in one day, but allow about an hour to drive between them and several hours to appreciate the features of each section. If you want a longer visit, there are more than 175 miles of trails for hiking, bicycle riding, or horse-back riding—just beware of the heat and prickly plants—and venomous snakes!
|You must be careful when walking trails|
in Saguaro National Park!
Although the area is desert, it is far from desolate. Cream-colored flowers appear on the cacti in early summer. White-winged doves, bats, honeybees, and moths feed on the nectar and pollinate. Many animals feed on the deep-red fruit that ripens in July. Birds find not just food in saguaros but homes as well, making nests in holes in the trunk or large limbs or perching on tall branches.
In 1976 Congress designated over 70 percent of the park as wilderness area, preserving the diverse natural conditions for future generations.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier