Photo: Large saguaro cactuses

The saguaro cactus is more than just a symbol of the American West—it provides shelter, nesting areas, and food for many animals. Arizona's Saguaro National Park draws hardy hikers and horseback riders.

Photograph by Justin Guariglia

Location: Arizona

Established: October 14, 1994

Size: 91,445 acres

Symbol of the American Southwest and North America's largest cactus, the saguaro's imposing stature and uplifted arms give it a regal presence. Perhaps that's why this burly giant, whose only bits of exuberance are seasonal blossoms and fig-like fruits at the tip of its limbs, has been dubbed the "desert monarch."

Carnegiea gigantean is the trademark of the Sonoran Desert, whose basins and ranges rumple 120,000 square miles of northwestern Mexico, southern Arizona, and southeastern California. Saguaro National Park is composed of two sections. The westerly Tucson Mountain District embraces about 24,000 acres of the hotter, drier, less vegetated "low" Sonoran ecosystem, which occurs at an elevation around 3,000 feet. Thirty miles east, on the other side of Tucson's urban sprawl, is the 67,000-acre Rincon Mountain District, which occupies loftier ground and has a cooler, slightly wetter "high desert" environment. Most of it is inaccessible except by foot or on horseback. Here the terrain inclines from saguaro forests into nearly pristine woodlands of oak and pine. Hikers pressing on to higher elevations find Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and solitude.

The Sonoran Desert's extreme temperatures, perennial drought, frequent lightning, banshee winds, and voracious predators keep the saguaro forever at the limit of its endurance. Odds against survival rival a lottery: Though the cactus annually produces tens of thousands of pinhead-size seeds—some 40 million over a life that may last two centuries—few ever even sprout. Even fewer seedlings achieve the grandeur of towering 50 feet and weighing up to 16,000 pounds.

Though the saguaro may be the park's centerpiece, after wet winters the spring wildflower display can be breathtaking. The brilliant gold of the Mexican poppy is often the first-noticed bloom, while penstemons, lupines, desert marigolds, brittlebushes, and globe mallows contribute their lively colors of red, lilac, blue, and yellow. Many trees, shrubs, and cactuses also bloom, including creosote bushes, paloverdes, ocotillos, chollas, and hedgehogs. Saguaros bloom in late spring.

How to Get There

Saguaro West: From Tucson take Speedway Boulevard west to Gates Pass Road, turning right on Kinney Road. (Gates Pass not recommended for buses, RVs, and towed vehicles; instead take Ariz. 86 west from Tucson to Kinney.) Saguaro East: Take Broadway Boulevard east from central Tucson to Old Spanish Trail. Airport: Tucson.

When to Go

Year-round. From October through April, temperatures reach the upper 60s to mid-70s and can drop below freezing overnight. From May through September, highs routinely exceed 100°F. July through September is characterized by brief, fierce thunderstorms. Saguaros bloom nightly from late April into June.

How to Visit

On a one-day visit, begin early and view the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum before heading to Saguaro West; then pause at the Red Hills Visitor Center for an overview. Take the Bajada Scenic Loop Drive, stopping en route to walk the paved Desert Discovery Nature Trail. Return to Tucson, continuing east to Saguaro's Rincon Mountain District. Take the Cactus Forest Drive and walk the Desert Ecology Trail. For a scenic rest stop along the drive, visit Mica View Picnic Area.

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