Saguaro National Park, AZ

Saguaro National Park Showcases The Symbol Of The Southwest

Showcasing and protecting its namesake cactus, symbol of the American Southwest, Saguaro National Park it is one of the best-known National Parks in Arizona besides the Grand Canyon. It is also the most representative of the state, since the Sonoran Desert of Arizona is the only place the giant saguaro lives.

While you can see relatively large forests of saguaro in and around Phoenix, you’ll find the highest concentration here. According to the latest saguaro census, conducted in 2020, the park is home to over two million giant saguaros. Yes, people – volunteers – count the saguaros in the park. Of course, they can’t count every single one, but it is a good estimate. Counting them every decade (since 1990) gives us a better understanding of how they grow.

The Giant Saguaro

An extremely slow growing cactus, the giant saguaro can reach the height of 70 feet and live up to 200 years. However, it may take about ten years for it to reach two inches in height. When it’s that tiny, it is extremely vulnerable. It may be crushed, knocked over or toppled by any desert animal. It is also less drought-resistant when young, so it has a low survival rate in the first decade of its life. Once established though, it can survive almost anything.

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You are most likely to notice a saguaro when it’s at least 35 years old, when it may reach the height of a person. The ones with arms you always think of when you visualize a saguaro, are at east 50 years old, or even past 70, since that’s the age they start growing arms. By then, they are generally about nine to ten feet high. As tall as they get, they still have shallow roots forming a large network within a few inches of the soil surface.

Saguaros are like giant sponges, soaking up water during rain

During torrential rain the desert often experiences, giant saguaros soak up all the water they can, which may be as much as 200 gallons. No wonder after torrential rainfall, some of the tallest ones might topple over. Most don’t, however, since they stretch like an accordion, as their pleats, the area between the thorns, widens. In this way, they can store enough water to last them a full year, if needed.

As they use up the water, their pleats shrink and the rows of thorns get closer to each other. So you can tell by the width of a saguaro how wet or dry the year is in the Sonoran desert.

Saguaro ribs
Saguaro ribs tell us how much water they store: the wider the gap between the thorns, the more water the saguaro has

The arms of the saguaro have the same purpose: to add more surface for water storage. And, growing more or less symmetrical on the sides, the arms help balance the saguaro, especially when heavy. Filled with water, a saguaro might weigh up to seven tons.

Sensitive to cold temperatures, saguaros can still survive even snow on rare occasion. Those growing in zones where it may get colder have more spines, especially at the growing tip where they are most sensitive. The spines act as insulators against the cold.

The saguaro cactus bloom is the state flower of Arizona

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Saguaros bloom in late spring, early summer, generally from late April to early June. But unless you see them in the morning, you won’t see its huge, gorgeous, white flower. A night-bloomer, the saguaro flowers open at dusk and by late morning the next day they start to wilt and are die by late afternoon. However, one giant saguaro can produce about 100 flowers in one season, that’s why we see them for so long.

Since thy bloom at night, bats, especially the lesser long-nosed bats are the saguaro flowers’ best friends, helping them with pollination. They are not the only pollinators, though. Before the blossoms close, early daytime visitors, bees, birds, butterflies, pick up any remaining nectar.

Like flowers of most plants, the saguaro bloom turns into fruit that splits open when ripe, usually between mid-June – early July. Besides providing nutrients for wildlife, the bright red pulp of the saguaro fruit is edible for us, too.

It still is a culinary staple of the Tohono O’odham as it has been for their ancestors, the Hohokam, for centuries. They use a long pole made of saguaro ribs to knock down the fruit, and a bucket to store it. The fruit is edible raw, but it’s even better after it’s been boiled and strained, resulting in a sweet syrup used for jellies and candies.

This gorgeous, sweet-smelling saguaro bloom is the state flower of Arizona since 1931.

Home to many different types of birds

The saguaro hosts different bird species of the desert that build their nest either by poking holes in its ribs or building a nest in the crook of its arms.

The gilded flicker and Gila woodpecker excavate nest cavities inside the saguaro’s pulpy flesh. When a woodpecker abandons their nests, the cavity remains, and other birds like elf owls, screech owls, purple martins, finches and sparrows might move in.

Larger birds build nests of sticks among the arms of larger saguaros. Usually hawks build these nests, but after they abandon them great horned owls might move in.

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Besides homes, the saguaro provides food for many desert animals, and not only birds. The fruit provides food for birds, bats, insects, reptiles, and small mammals. In drier areas, during drought, jackrabbits, mule deer and bighorn sheep might also nibble on young saguaros, which the saguaro may or may not survive.

Protected In Saguaro National Park

Because its slow growth and vulnerability, you’d think saguaros need protection. However, they have no problems living in the wild without human interference. Up until the mid-19th century, the saguaros in the area were safe, just part of the environment.

However, this changed when Arizona became part of the US, and more people started settling here. Mining of copper and gold (the remains of Loma Verde Mine is still visible in the Rincon Mountain District) , and cattle grazing threatened the slow-growing saguaro. If this wasn’t enough to endanger them, people came up with new ideas. Since they liked the unique cactus, some started digging them up to bring the,m into their yards.

In the 1920s, members of the University of Arizona’s Natural History Society felt the need to establish an area where the giant saguaro would be protected. It took years, until finally, in 1933, President Herbert Hoover established Saguaro National Monument in what is not the Rincon Mountain district. After years of extensions, the park gained a National Park status in 1994.

About Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Separated by the city of Tucson in Southern Arizona, Saguaro National Park is in the center of the Sonoran desert. Known as the greenest desert in the world, the Sonoran desert is not only home to the giant saguaro, but also to a plethora of other cacti, along with desert shrubs, trees, and plenty of wildlife. Along with the park’s namesake cactus, they are all protected within the park.

You’ll find Tucson and Saguaro National Park about 100 miles south of Phoenix, and about 60 miles north of the Mexican border.

Its two districts, on the east and west of Tucson, are about an hour’s drive apart. While featuring a similar environment, several details make the two districts unique.

The Tucson Mountain District, also known as Saguaro West, is home to the largest concentration of saguaros, forming a gorgeous saguaro forest. Though home to plenty of saguaros, too, the highlight of the Rincon Mountain District or Saguaro East is a sky island, home to bears, cougars, and coatimundis, among other wildlife.

Saguaro East – Rincon Mountain District

Closer to the city and the larger of the two, the eastern district features the Rincon Mountains, putting it at a higher elevation than its western counterpart. It has more hiking trails, and features some of the largest and oldest saguaros in the park, though Saguaro West beats it by numbers.

The older and more rustic of the two, the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center offers an introduction to the Sonoran Desert. Its highlight is outdoors, featuring the interpreting Desert Ecology Trail. Showcasing major plants of the Sonoran Desert, the plaques along the trail offer their names and descriptions. Inside, a short, 15-minute program calledVoices of the Desertplays through the day, offering a Native American perspective of the Sonoran Desert.

Past the Visitor Center starts the paved, 8-mile, one-way Cactus Forest Loop Drive. Offering gorgeous views of the Rincon Mountains and some of the largest saguaros in the park, the road also features several trailheads. Hiking trails of all lengths and difficulty levels start along this road.

One of the easiest trails is the one-mile-long Freeman Homestead Trail, taking you to an old homestead foundation. However, the main draw of the trail is a grove of some of the largest and oldest saguaros, and a desert wash featuring denser desert plants.

Saguaro West – Tucson Mountain District

Featuring a denser saguaro forest, the west side features the six-mile unpaved scenic Bajada Loop. Farther from Tucson, the drive to this side is scenic. Besides a larger number of saguaros, this side also features ancient petroglyphs.

On this side of the park, the Red Hills Visitor Center is the one to offer an opportunity to learn about the park and start your visit. The patio offers spectacular views of the Red Hills and a nearby saguaro forest. The indoor exhibits offer an opportunity to learn about the unique geology of the Tucson Mountains. This is also the place to get recommendations on the best trails and features of this side of the park.

Past the Visitor Center, you’ll drive on the unpaved Bajada Loop. A gravel road, it is fit for all types of cars, no need for a four-wheel-drive. Along the road, you’ll find plenty of great photo opportunities, stops with picnic areas and several trailheads.

Petroglyphs in Saguaro West

One highlight of this side is the half-mile, easy Signal Hill Trail. Besides the expansive views of this unique desert environment filled with saguaros, it also leads to ancient petroglyphs. One of the most scenic, shade picnic area in the park, the Ez-Kim-in-Zin picnic area offers a perfect opportunity for a much, while enjoying the surroundings.

How to Visit Saguaro National Park

Either side of the park is easy access from Tucson, though the east side is closer. You can visit both in a day, unless you plan on doing some back country hiking. If you only have a few hours, you can drive the scenic loops on either side, and stop for a short walk along the way.

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Which Side to Visit

For the most spectacular views, denser saguaro forest, and shorter hikes, choose the Tucson Mountain District on the west. Keep in mind though that it is farther from Tucson and the scenic loop is not paved. It’s gravel, however, fit for any car, so other than the dust, it is not a problem.

But if you want to hike longer distances, even backpack through the desert wilderness, or camp under the stars surrounded by saguaros, you should choose the east side, the Rincon Mountain District.

When to Visit Saguaro National Park

Since it is in the Sonoran Desert, the best time to visit Saguaro National Park is winter. Besides more normal temperatures, the vegetation’s at its greenest.

However, if you want to see a saguaro in bloom, you need to put up with some desert heat, since you need to visit between May and June. Some years they may bloom by late April, but generally to make sure you see them, you should plan a mid-May visit.

And the best way to experience this is to camp in the park, under the stars, and watch for them early in the morning.

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