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Saguaro National Park Arizona
Arizona / USA

Saguaro National Park – Giant cacti in the Arizona desert

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The Sonoran Desert stretches like a dry blanket over southern California, southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico. It is only in this area that you will find the great saguaro cacti – perhaps the most iconic symbol of the southwestern United States and the “Wild West”.

In Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson you will find a large, protected and prosperous area with impressive saguaros. Here are some of the largest known living cacti and there are plenty of both hiking trails and roads.

Tall and stately Saguaro in the desert

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 movie backdrop than a cactus with large arms. Saguaros grow slowly and can grow very old, some of the largest specimens living 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.

American flag and big saguaro

The largest known saguaro cactus was 23.8 meters high when it was broken in a storm in 1986.

WIKIPEDIA
Saguaro cacti in sunset

CLIMATE

In the Sonoran Desert, winters are cool and summers are hot. The summer months in Arizona can be extremely hot, with temperatures above 40 degrees during the day. 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 when the sun gets up. During the winter months and the summer monsoon, it rains a lot, which gives big contrasts between drought and rain. A challenging climate not only for plants, but also for animals.

When we visited the park in July, the activities we could do were a bit limited. With clear blue skies, 43 degrees and a scorching sun, you do not go out into the desert and hike. Fortunately, you can discover large parts of the park by car.

It blooms in the desert

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 – the 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 if some areas are temporarily closed. It is not uncommon for areas to be closed off at short notice due to floods or maintenance work.

From the Rincon visitor center there is the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, a one-way road that takes you to some of the park’s biggest attractions. 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 begin and there are lots of parking options if you want to stop and walk shorter distances.

Road in Saguaro National Park

A saguaro cactus can be up to 200 years old and weigh several tons.

Tall and stately Saguaro in the desert

CLIMATE CHANGE AND ILLEGAL CACTI

When you look at pictures from the 1930s of Saguaro National Park, the landscape looks very different. Then the park was covered with an abundance of large saguaro cacti. Today the cacti are much sparser. The reasons are mainly three. The cities that are expanding, the demand for large cacti for gardens and climate change. But what is it about climate change that is affecting a cactus in a desert?

If you look more closely at the pictures from almost 100 years ago, there were many more small trees in the park. The trees and shrubs serve a very important purpose, to protect the small cacti until they become large enough to support themselves in the barren environment. For a saguaro cactus does not grow fast. For 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 possibility for the baby cacti to survive.

Desert landscape in Saguaro

It is illegal to move, damage, dig up or chop down a saguaro cactus in Arizona. But it is not illegal to sell them.

NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
Prickly cactus with fruits

THE ANIMALS IN THE DESERT

The saguaro 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 by 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 protection for the animals, the cactus is also the desert water reservoir. When it rains, the cactus collects water, in fact so much that they can swell to double their size when it rains a lot.

Cactus blooming at the top

A saguaro cactus does not bloom until it is 35 years old. Then it blooms once a year, for less than 24 hours.

Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona
Saguaru with many arms

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 national park. We only walked shorter distances on the Mica View and Loma Verde Loop, but definitely got more taste.

  • Mica View – Cactus Forest Loop – 3 km
  • Loma Verde Loop – 6 km
  • Tanque Verde Ridge Trail – 14 km easy road to the top of the mountain and a mile-wide view.
Tags and cacti
Cactus fruits on a cactus

HOW DO I GET TO SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK?

Saguaro National Park is located outside of Tucson, Arizona. The best time to visit the park is in the spring, when the desert is in bloom and the temperatures are comfortable.

The entrance fee to the park is valid for seven days for both the east and west side. A car (with passengers) costs $ 20, a single adult / bike $ 10. If you have America the Beautiful National Park Pass , admission is free.

Map

WHERE SHOULD I STAY?

I recommend that you stay a few nights at Tanque Verde Ranch and take the opportunity to experience ranch life and ride out into the desert landscape and experience saguaros up close. It’s not cheap, but it’s an experience!

Large cactus with cactus balls

WHERE CAN I READ MORE?

Read more about the national park here:

Visitor center in Saguaro National Park

About Author

Travel photographer from Sweden with more than 50 countries and 20 years of travel in her luggage. Travels all around the world together with her husband, daughter and a Nikon D800. Favourite destinations? Beautiful landscapes, big cities and design hotels.