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Saguaro National Park: Walking in the Land of Giant Cacti

Sal Santiago writes about travel, minimalism, art, philosophy, and living an alternative lifestyle.

Scenery along the Desert Discovery Nature Trail.

Scenery along the Desert Discovery Nature Trail.

There's something so mysterious, strange, and enchanting about the desert landscape in Southern Arizona. The state has many beautiful natural features to visit and various habitats and life zones. In the northern part of the state where I currently live, there is the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. Once you head a few hours south, the giant cacti begin rising out of the desert. Over hills and across valleys, they're mixed in with red rock canyons and create an ambiance that is otherworldly. I get the sense that I am in another realm or have traveled to another planet.

Some people have told me how they've only ever seen giant saguaros in the movies. It is true, they are very rare and only found in a few places on the planet. We are lucky to have them here in the southwestern Sonoran Desert of Arizona (and in some parts of California) and they are found as well in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico.

If you ever get the chance, it is a must-visit place, and I recommend adding Saguaro National Park to your bucket list. The best time to plan a trip is between October and early April. The desert heat is intense, especially in the summertime, and something that might surprise you if you haven't experienced it before.

Desert landscape in Saguaro National Park

Desert landscape in Saguaro National Park

On my visit to the park in early April, the mercury had already risen to the mid-90s. Always bring more water than you think you'll need, a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, and perhaps a pull-over made of lightweight material. This might come in handy if you are planning to hike during the hottest hours of midday, between 11 am to about 4 pm or so. The best times are in the early morning and later in the evening. Not only will it be cooler and more comfortable, but you are also likely to spot more birds and wildlife during those hours. My time at the park was limited, so I picked a few short hikes and a drive along the scenic Bajada Loop Drive.

walking-in-the-land-of-giant-cactus

The park covers a vast area and is not very crowded. Only a few other people were out on the trails. The sky is a deep blue in Southern Arizona, with only a few thin clouds dotting it here and there. All around you and off into the distance is a rolling landscape of hills and valleys. Silhouettes of the hills reflect on the horizon.

It is amazing to see the Saguaros up close for the first time as you walk along the dirt trails. They're beautiful but somewhat strange, appearing almost cartoonish at times. Perhaps there is a lasting effect on my imagination from having grown up watching all those Road Runner cartoons. Many of the Saguaros are towering, reaching heights of 10-52 feet (3-16 m). Up close, you can see that many of them have holes, most likely created by woodpeckers, and used as nests by other birds and burrowing animals. In the springtime, the white flowers will bloom; a source of food for birds. It is also the way the Saguaro spreads its seeds. Pollinators such as bees, hummingbirds, and bats, will spread the pollen to various locations. In summer, the red fruit ripens, another a source of food for animals and historically, for the Native Americans of the Southwest.

walking-in-the-land-of-giant-cactus

The desert can be deceiving. It seems such a quiet place, but it's also very lively. It's filled with birds and other animals that have adapted to this unique habitat. The chatter and song of different birds pierce the air, making pronouncements and sending news to the other desert creatures.

This is a vast park that you could easily spend several days exploring. I plan to return to hike on some of the longer trails during the winter season when it is cooler. On this trip, I hiked the short Desert Discovery Nature Trail (.5 miles) and walked the short Cactus Garden Trail near the visitor center. Here I recorded a virtual walking tour for my YouTube channel High Plains Walker. Please view if you're interested in getting a sense of what it is like to walk through a landscape filled with Saguaros.

Even though I only had a few short hours to spend in the park, the landscape left a lasting impression. It is a magical place. I would love to keep exploring when time and opportunity permit. Even if you have just a day, you can see a lot and it will be worth it, whether you plan to hike or simply take the scenic drives through the area.

I love to hike in this park, feel and hear the crunch of the dirt and rocks underfoot, take in the deep desert silence and calm, and marvel at the strange beauty of the sea of massive cacti. Hopefully, this magical landscape and the giant saguaros will continue to be protected and will flourish for eons to come.

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Saguaros tower over the desert landscape

Saguaros tower over the desert landscape

Interesting Facts About Saguaros

They have a lifespan that can exceed 150 years, sometimes up to 200 years. Some Saguaros never grow arms. Others might grow their first arm between 75-100 years of age. They can grow up to about 50 arms. Saguaros can reach between 10-52 feet (3-16 m) in height.

They can store rainwater, and will visibly expand during this process. Storing water allows the saguaro to survive long periods of intense heat, and drought. They can weigh between 3,200 and 4,800 lb (1,500 and 2,200 kg). Their roots can spread out around 100 feet (30m) in diameter, but only about 3 ft 3inches (1 m) deep in the soil.

The ribs form a kind of inner skeleton and are similar to hardwoods, and are used as building materials by Native Americans.

It is considered a keystone species, providing food and habitat for a large variety of birds and animals.

The main pollinators are honey bees, bats, and white-winged doves. Other pollinators include several types of hummingbirds, orioles, woodpeckers, finches, and flickers. Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers dig holes and build nests in the flesh of the Saguaro. These nests are later used by elf owls, purple martins, house finches, and wrens.

The Tohono O'odham use a long stick to harvest the fruits, which are made into syrup, jam, and wine. Native Americans of the Southwest also made bread from the Saguaro seeds.

Information About the Park

Saguaro National Park is a 92,000 acre park established to preserve the Sonoran desert landscape, flora and fauna, and to protect and preserve the Saguaro cactus. It is separated into two parts the Tucson Mountain District 10 miles to the east of Tucson, and the Rincon Mountain District, 10 miles to the west of the city.

The park has 165 miles (266 km) of trails. Bicycling and horseback riding are permitted on several trails throughout the park.

The area was once under sea. Volcanic activity formed the mountains.

There are an estimated 1.8 million Saguaros in the park, and 24 other species of cactus as well.

Saguaro Conservation

Harming or vandalizing a Saguaro is against the law in Arizona, and a class-four felony, punishable by up to a maximum sentence of 3 years and 9 months sentence.

The white and yellow Saguaro flower is the state flower of Arizona. Treat these unique plants with the respect they deserve.

Climate

Saguaro National Park has a hot semi-arid climate.

Wildlife

Mammals that call the park home are cougars, coyotes, bobcats, white-tailed deer, mule deer, javelinas, gray foxes, black-tailed jackrabbits, desert cottontails, ring-tailed cats, white-nosed coatis, ground squirrels, and packrats.

One endangered mammal, the lesser long-nosed bat, lives part of the year in the park and part of the year in Mexico.

The park has 107 bird species, among them the great horned owls, cactus wrens, ravens, kestrels, turkey vultures, roadrunners, woodpeckers, hawks, quails, and hummingbirds. The Mexican spotted owl, a threatened species, also calls the park home.

The park's 36 reptile species include desert tortoises, diamondback rattlesnakes, coral snakes, Gila monsters, and several species of lizard. Three amphibian species inhabit the park: the canyon tree frog, the lowland leopard frog, and Couch's spadefoot.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park

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