Saguaro National Park is an absolute hidden gem. It very well may be the most underrated national park in America.
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Spur of the moment
A friend once advised that you can’t plan a good time. It must happen organically.
As a traveler, I believe planning is important. However, a little spontaneity can be fun.
On our recent travels to Arizona, Julie and I did not plan to go to Saguaro National Park. It was not even on our radar. In fact, I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of the place.
The morning of our last day, we spontaneously decided to venture south. We were so close that we could not resist the temptation to hit our third and final national park in Arizona. This impulsive decision led to one of our best adventures.
I will share information about saguaros and why I think they are worth your time. Then, I will tell you more about the park itself and give you itinerary suggestions. Let’s start with the cacti.
FACTS ABOUT SAGUARO CACTUS
What in the world is a saguaro?
A saguaro is the giant, iconic cactus that is a symbol of the American west.
Saguaros are often depicted as tall, prickly plants with two arms. They are often humanized in cartoons.
There are many types of cacti, but the saguaro is the largest in the United States.
How to pronounce saguaro (Silence is golden)
The reason most people go to Saguaro National Park is to see the famous cacti. These unique plants are the star of the show.
Ironically, most tourists mispronounce their name. I plead guilty to this offense.
A fellow traveler politely corrected me as I repeatedly said the name with a hard “g.” The look on his face was priceless as it clearly pained him.
Apparently, the “g” is silent. The correct pronunciation is sah-wahr-oh.
You can learn from my ignorance and shine as an educated tourist when you visit. What can I say except you’re welcome…
Where to see saguaro cactus (Where are you saguaro?)
Over here! Saguaros can only be found in the Sonoran Desert. Actually, they do not even grow in all parts of this desert.
Water levels and temperatures must be just right. A slight increase in elevation can mean colder weather and frost which is not conducive to their survival.
Nearly every picture I have ever seen of Arizona or the southwest includes a saguaro cactus. I was shocked to find that they are not a common sight throughout the southwest.
Go to Saguaro National Park and you will see plenty of these modern day marvels.
Giant cacti (Jolly green giants)
We had seen some saguaro cacti on our trip but had no idea what was in store for us. Upon entering Saguaro National Park, we were happily greeted by more cacti than I thought could possibly exist on the planet.
This magical land of jolly green giants contains approximately 2 million saguaros. It is literally a cactus forest.
I was amazed to find out that our new friends can exceed 60 feet in height. Julie and I spent the day looking skyward, our faces frozen in awe.
How fast do saguaro cactus grow? (One inch at a time)
As humans, we take life one step at a time or one day at a time. Saguaros tackle the harsh desert conditions one inch at a time.
They grow very slowly at first. In fact, at 10 years they may only reach a height of an inch or two. It can take 50 or 70 years or more before they sprout an arm. Talk about an exercise in patience!
Saguaros typically achieve full height, 40 to 50 feet, around 150 years. They have a tap root that can be two feet underground, but most of the roots are only 4 to 6 inches deep.
Anything but monotonous
Look closer and you start to realize that each cactus has his own personality. They truly look like cartoons coming to life before your eyes.
I can’t really explain it but you get a sense of different personalities based on size, number of arms, location and direction of arms, etc. Each one is special.
Maybe the heat and loneliness of the desert warped our minds, but these guys became our friends. We thoroughly enjoyed our time together and can’t wait for our next visit.
Prickly and spectacular
Can something be both prickly and spectacular? It turns out, it can.
Yes, saguaros contain sharp, prickly needles that hurt immensely upon contact with your skin. However, there is much more to see here.
Why should you go see the saguaro cacti?
- Rare treasure – grow only in Sonoran Desert
- Sheer numbers – nearly 2 million of them
- Stand with giants – some are over 40 feet tall
- Respect your elders – can live beyond 150 years
- Infectious personalities – you will laugh
Saguaros are survivors. Anything that can survive in this hot, dry, harsh environment deserves our attention. Please do yourself a favor and visit. You will be glad you did.
Now let’s focus on the drive to the park and the park itself.
SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Saguaro National Park West (Go west, young man)
Saguaro National Park consists of two separate areas:
- Saguaro West – Tucson Mountain District
- Saguaro East – Rincon Mountain District
Since we made a spur of the moment decision and would not arrive until noon, we had a choice to make.
Saguaro East has a lower concentration of cacti. We came to see the legendary giants. Plus, Julie is obsessed with sunsets. Our choice was easy. Go west!
We hope to return one day to visit Saguaro East. I understand the loop drive and mountain views are fantastic.
If any of you have been to Saguaro East, I would love to get your thoughts on this area.
Flagstaff to Tucson
As I mentioned in our Grand Canyon blog post, we stayed in Flagstaff for the week. The drive to Tucson is close to four hours.
From Flagstaff, take Interstate 17 South to Interstate 10 East. You may encounter thick traffic around Phoenix. After that, things should open up. A Google map is attached at the end of this post so you can obtain specific directions.
Everything south of Phoenix was new territory for us. The area consists of sprawling, flat landscapes of sandy soil eventually leading to mountains on the distant horizon in all directions. The vistas are picturesque and make for a delightful drive.
Red Hills Visitor Center (Over the hill)
Once inside the park, be sure to stop at Red Hills Visitor Center. General information, park maps and hiking guides are available. There are restroom facilities and a bookstore here.
During our time, rangers were available to answer questions and provide guidance.
There is a patio area with majestic views of the Red Hills. The Cactus Garden Trail is a short paved path just outside the visitor center.
There are many different desert plants to see here. This is just a precursor of things to come and a fantastic way to start your journey.
Desert Discovery Nature Trail (Discover yourself)
Desert Discovery Nature Trail is an easy, paved half-mile loop. It is a short 1 mile drive from Red Hills Visitor Center. I recommend this as your second stop.
It is a great way to see many large cacti and learn more about the desert ecosystem. There are informational signs along the path and a few covered bench seats as well.
You can easily have a picnic lunch or snack here. We actually did this while enjoying the company of the surrounding giant saguaros.
Pro Tip: This is a great spot for sunsets. Be sure to arrive early, as there are only a few parking spaces.
Desert Ironwood (Iron Groot)
What do you get if you combine the abilities of Iron Man and Groot? Iron Groot.
The Sonoran Desert’s version of this is Ironwood Trees. These trees possess the power of drought tolerance and can live more than 800 years. They are essentially trees with the durability of iron.
These sidekicks provide protection from extreme temperatures and allow easy seed dispersal. Ironwood trees are the unsung heroes of the Sonoran Desert. Without them, we likely would not have many saguaros.
Bajada Loop Drive (It’s plain hokum)
Be sure to make the 5 to 6 mile scenic Bajada Loop Drive. It offers fantastic views of the cacti and mountains.
This is a dirt road but is well-maintained. We were in a SUV, but saw many small cars handle the conditions without any issues.
Pro Tip: Go counterclockwise on Bajada Loop Drive. Otherwise, you will need to do a bit of backtracking due to part of Hohokam Road being one way only.
Valley View Overlook Trail (Valley girl)
Julie is a valley girl. She loved the .8 mile round trip hike on the Valley View Overlook Trail.
It is a short, easy walk. You will be right next to towering saguaros, many of which we found to be quite unique.
The trailhead is well-marked and is just off Hohokam Road on the Bajada Loop Drive.
The end of this hike offers one of the best views in the park. You will be rewarded for your efforts.
Signal Hill Tucson (Turn signal)
Signal Hill offers a half-mile round trip hike that is uphill with a nice view. You will find a large pile of rock art with cacti and mountains in the background.
These petroglyphs were etched onto stone over 800 years ago by the Hohokam people. It is incredible to see that these writings remain preserved.
There is an ominous sign warning you about rattlesnakes in the area. There is no need to put your signal on and turn around.
Just tread carefully and keep a watchful eye. Put your snake fears aside, Indiana Jones, and you will enjoy this walk and the gratifying view.
Sunsets in Arizona
The most commonly used nickname for Arizona is The Grand Canyon State. A secondary moniker is The Sunset State.
This reputation is well-earned in Saguaro National Park. I strongly encourage you to stay for sunset while visiting this park.
There are abundant opportunities for classic pictures of sunbeams reaching out from the horizon behind the silhouette of giant saguaros.
Julie and I could not stop taking pictures. The spectacular horizon left us breathless and teary eyed as we were overcome by the beauty of this place.
We use a DJI Pocket 2 to shoot video of our adventures, including sunsets. The quality is outstanding!
It is a compact camera that is easier to hold than a phone. The camera is simple to use. It can also take pictures. Video on the move looks smooth due to the automatic stabilizer.
When we travel, people constantly ask about this unique camera. I must say, it is fantastic!
Pro Tip: Bring a flashlight and be prepared to leave shortly after sunset. You can hear the desert come to life with various animal sounds as the sun fades from view. You do not want to get lost in the dark. At best, you will stumble into a cactus. At worst, you could become prey to the desert wildlife.
Saguaro National Park in winter
Is winter a good time to visit Saguaro National Park? It is a great time to visit!
We were there in early December, 2021. The temperature was in the low 70s. We were very comfortable.
I am sure even the short hikes can be quite taxing in the summer desert heat. We did not feel worn out by the hikes whatsoever. Julie and I quickly admit we are not in fighting shape.
As the sun set, the air noticeably cooled off in a hurry. You may need a jacket if you stay for those iconic sunset views. Spoiler alert – it is worth it!
You can find more information about weather at the park here.
The great wide open
This rugged land of cacti and mountainous hills is vast. The sky seems to go on forever. The sunsets are gorgeous.
As nightfall sets in, millions of bright white stars spark to life in the black sky as if God turned on a switch. Yet, another beauty exposed in this dry, harsh world.
Do Saguaro’s wonders ever cease? The future truly feels wide open!
Most underrated national park?
When it comes to America’s national parks, I never hear people talk about Saguaro. This place was such a pleasant and unexpected surprise. We found so much beauty in this harsh and unforgiving ecosystem.
Between the jolly green giants, rugged landscapes with mountains on the horizon and beautiful sunset, we were mesmerized.
Our obvious conclusion is that Saguaro National Park is an absolute treasure. It could possibly be America’s most underrated national park. We can’t wait to go back.
We hope you feel inspired to plan a trip to Saguaro. Be sure to check out the Saguaro National Park website for current information and updates as you plan your adventure.
Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey
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About the author
Scott McConkey is a nationally syndicated travel writer and the founder of Miles with McConkey, where he provides vacationers and travel enthusiasts with trip ideas, travel guides, and inspiration. His travel articles have been seen in The Associated Press wire, ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, NBC, MSN, and many more. He and his wife, Julie, left the corporate world after nearly 30 years for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year has evolved into a second act. She creates visual content while he utilizes the written word. Their goal is to create content inspiring others to travel more and live their best lives now.