Saguaro National Park

Saguaro (pronounced suh-war-o) National Park is a landscape unlike any other we’ve seen. A literal cactus forest divided into two units – the Rincon Mountain District (east) and the Tucson Mountain District (west) – and it is approximately 30 miles between the two. We visited the east unit on a day when a cold front was blowing in and it was very windy. On the next day when we visited the west unit, we woke up to snow which thankfully disappeared quickly as the day warmed up. Both units were great, but if we had to choose only one, we would probably choose the west unit.

View of the Rincon Mountains from the east unit.

We are excited to share this park with you and hope you enjoy learning about it through our words and lenses.

Where is it?

Saguaro National Park is located in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona. The east unit is located at 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, Arizona. The west unit is located at 2700 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona.

Along Cactus Forest Drive (scenic drive) at the east unit.

The park features:

  • Visitor centers at each unit with exhibits, park films, and cactus gardens
  • Bookstores at each unit’s visitor center
  • Hiking trails at each unit
  • Bicycling trails at each unit
  • Horseback riding allowed on trails at the east unit
  • Backcountry camping with permit
  • Picnic areas at each unit
  • Scenic drives at each unit
  • Ranger-led programs
  • Entry fee covers both units

Access the park’s website here.

The two saguaros in the center look like they’re high fiving each other. This view is from the Bajada Loop Drive (scenic drive) at the west unit.

The Sonoran Desert

File:Sonoran Desert map.svg - Wikimedia Commons
Map credit: Cephas, Wikimedia Commons.

Spanning 120,000 square miles, the Sonoran Desert covers parts of Arizona and California as well as parts of Mexico. Neighbors include the Chihuahuan Desert to the East, the Mojave Desert to the north, and the Great Basin Desert to the northwest, with each desert possessing different distinguishing factors and its own diverse ecosystems.  

The Sonoran Desert’s subtropical climate is characterized by its mild winters and hot summers. It is the hottest desert in North America. Rainfall varies from 3-16 inches per year, though some higher elevation areas receive more rain along with snow in the winter. The desert’s monsoon season usually runs from July through September.

Saguaros only grow in the Sonoran Desert.

This desert is home to over 2,000 species of plants. Organ pipe cactus is another species that only grows in the Sonoran Desert and can be found at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the southwest corner of Arizona.

Desert Cacti

While the saguaros are the stars of the show at Saguaro National Park, we enjoyed learning about some of the other cactus varieties that make their home in the Sonoran Desert.

Teddy bear cholla

Our newest cactus discovery was the teddy bear cholla (pronounced choy-uh). We have a lot a cholla around where we live, but not this species. Even though the teddy bear cholla looks soft and cuddly, it is not!

Fishhook barrel cactus

If we had visited the park in September rather than in March, we probably would have seen the fishhook barrel cactus in bloom. The interesting thing about this cactus is that it leans toward its greatest source of light. By doing this, the larger plants can topple over and uproot themselves.

Chain fruit cholla

We never knew that there were so many species of cholla. We also saw staghorn cholla and pencil cholla. The one above is called a chain fruit cholla because it produces grapelike clusters of edible fruit. It is sometimes known as the jumping cholla due to its short, jointed stems that can easily drop from the plant and attach to people or animals that may be passing by.

Desert Trees

Palo verde tree

Palo Verde means green stick in Spanish. Identifiable by their green bark, these interesting trees are found throughout the Sonoran Desert. Three things that make this tree so unique:

  • It only has leaves/blooms during the spring, dropping them as temperatures climb in order to prevent water loss.
  • It lives on virtually no water for prolonged periods of time.
  • It survives by photosynthesis through its bark.
Creosote bush

We were first introduced to creosote bushes at Big Bend National Park, and it’s likely that we only paid attention to them then because they smell so good – especially after a rain. Nevertheless, the unique thing about creosote bushes in the Sonoran Desert is that they, along with palo verde trees, mesquite trees, and other cacti species, are nurse plants for the saguaro. That means that baby saguaros grow underneath these nurse plants using their shade and nutrients to help the saguaro mature. As the saguaro grows, it takes all of the nurse plant’s nutrients and water which eventually kills the nurse.

The Saguaro

Perfect saguaro?

While we walked trails and drove through Saguaro National Park, we spent a lot of time looking for a perfect saguaro. The fact is, there are few that epitomize what we thought a saguaro should look like. First of all, many of them have holes where desert dwelling birds have built homes. (But with no trees, what’s a bird to do?) Secondly, some saguaros have been affected by cold weather or old age, and they’re just not pretty anymore – at least they didn’t look pretty to us. Fortunately, we found a few perfect ones to share. Here are some interesting facts about saguaros:

  • Without knowing when it was planted there is no way to tell the age of a saguaro.
  • Saguaros grow about one inch in its first 5 – 10 years.
  • A saguaro may reach 6 feet tall by the time it is 35 – 60 years old and will flower for the first time around 55 years old.
  • At 50 – 75 years old the saguaro will start to grow arms and may reach a height of 8 – 20 feet tall.
  • While they are considered mature at 125 years old, saguaros can live between 150 – 200 years, and some may live up to 250 years.
  • Pleats on the body of the saguaro allow them to expand to retain water, and the number of pleats matches number of wooden ribs on the inside of the plant.
  • A fully grown saguaro can weigh up to 4 tons.
  • Saguaros bloom for only 24 hours then the blossoms grow into fruit which is edible.
  • Saguaro blossoms are the state flower of Arizona.
Snow tipped saguaros – west unit.

Crested Saguaros

Rare crested saguaro

Crested, or cristate, saguaros are rare, and while some biologists believe that the crests are caused by genetic or hormonal reasons, others think there is a physical cause, such as a lightning strike or cold snap, for the fan-like formations. The fact is that nobody really knows for sure what causes the mutations. When we found out about them, we added them to our mission to find a perfect one, but the one pictured was the only one we found in either unit. According to a ranger, only 25 crested saguaros have been found among the 2 million saguaros living in the park. The Crested Saguaro Society has catalogued about 3,300 of these unusual cacti throughout the Sonoran Desert region. Information about their finds is kept in a secret database so that vandals and poachers cannot locate the unique specimens.

It’s Not All About Cactus

Arizona and its surrounding states have been home to indigenous people for thousands of years. Clues to their existence have been left behind in cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites, implements, pottery, and rock art. Rock art can be painted (pictographs) or carved into the rock (petroglyphs). Saguaro National Park has a fine collection of about 200 petroglyphs at a site called Signal Hill.

Some of Signal Hill’s petroglyphs

Hohokam (pronounced hoho-kahm) people, who lived in the area between 450 AD and 1450 AD created Saguaro National Park’s petroglyphs. How do we know this? Some of the same designs are seen in their pottery. Nobody really knows what the symbols mean, though there are speculations.

According to park information, some researchers believe that the petroglyphs are religious symbols. Others believe they may commemorate an event, mark a solstice, or even tell a story. We like to think that the ancient people were recording what they saw – similar to today’s photographs. Regardless of what they mean, it is fun to view them and try to make our own interpretations.

We are going to close the post with a few more shots from around the park.

East unit trail view of pretty saguaros and other plants.
West unit view from Signal Hill.
Even though it was technically still winter, we saw wildflowers. Desert marigold, perhaps? Unfortunately, we missed a desert super bloom by about two weeks.

Thank you so much for exploring Saguaro National Park with us! If you love national parks or need more road trip ideas, check out these other great parks:

Grand Canyon National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park


Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.