Saguaro National Park


We visited Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona years ago before we embarked on our quest to visit all the U.S. National Parks. We happened there when the desert was in bloom and it was incredibly beautiful. With that in mind and an extraordinarily wet winter, I called the park to see if the wildflowers were in bloom, and was told that they were “popping” so we set out to see. We were somewhat disappointed in the flower display, or lack thereof, but even so we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the park.

In 1920, interest was first expressed in preserving the “cactus forest” in southern Arizona. Members of the Natural History Society of the University of Arizona as well as academics, local businessmen and politicians worked to try to obtain land for preservation and future study.

Finally, March 1, 1933, President Herbert Hoover signed a proclamation establishing Saguaro National Monument 15 miles east of Tucson (now Rincon Mountain District). Since that time, an additional area west of Tucson (now Tucson Mountain District) has been added and in 1994 Congress officially elevated Saguaro National Monument to Saguaro National Park. It currently encompasses 91,445 acres.

Fairy Duster                                                                      Brittlebush

The saguaro is an iconic symbol of the American West. In reality, it will only grow in the Sonoran desert, primarily southern Arizona. The saguaro will grow from sea level to about 4000 feet in elevation so its range is rather limited. Further north or higher in elevation, it is restricted to warmer, south facing slopes.

Saguaro and Ocotillo

In the 1937, Tucson suffered record low temperatures and a few years later many saguaros started dying. After another killing freeze in 1962,researchers figured out that temperatures below freezing for more than 20 hours could kill saguaros. In combination with grazing and consequent trampling of young saguaros by cattle, it was feared that saguaros would go the way of the Old West and die out. In 1979 the National Park Service acquired grazing rights and halted grazing. Young saguaros began to sprout under palo verde and mesquite “nurse trees.”  In general, it seems the saguaros are younger and smaller in the east Rincon Mountain district than in the west Tucson Mountain district.

Occasionally a saguaro, rather than rising in a straight column, forms a crest in which the tip spreads outward in a large fan. These cristate (crested) saguaros are abnormal but not diseased. They are not common and no one really knows why they do this. We saw two of them during our visit.

Saguaro National Park is home to 25 species of cacti.

Engelman’s Prickly Pear                                      Staghorn Cholla & Brittlebush

Three of the young cacti (saguaro, pincushion and hedgehog) resemble each other enough that you have to look closely to discern the difference. The saguaro spines emerge from a long ridge, pincushion has fish-hook shaped spines and hedgehog has a series of knobs. They all take advantage of the shelter of the nurse trees. Other cacti are more independent.

Saguaro                                                       Pincushion (top)  Hedgehog (Bottom)

Chain Fruit Cholla                                                 Ocotillo and Teddy Bear Cholla

Staghorn Cholla and Prickly Pear                                               Fishhook Barrel

The saguaro germinates from a tiny seed and takes about twenty-five years to grow to about a foot tall. They don’t produce flowers until they are seven or eight feet tall and are fifty to sixty years old. The growth rate slows and at the age of seventy-five to a hundred years it may be twelve to twenty feet tall and arms begin to appear.  The new arms begin to produce flowers within two to three years. The arms give each saguaro its own individual identity and no two look alike.

There are a number of trails in Saguaro National Park but, since we had our dog with us, we were a bit limited as to where we could go and take him along. Some national parks limit dogs to parking lots and tethered in campsites. Saguaro does have several trails that we could take him on a leash so we took advantage of that. He enjoyed our hikes and was a perfect gentleman.

Phainopepla                                                                                   Cactus Wren

March is a nice time to visit Saguaro. Although our first day was very windy and quite chilly, the second day was sunny and very pleasant. The east and west districts of the park are about 35 miles apart with the city in between so it was nice to visit them on separate days. The variety of cacti and desert plants we encountered on our hikes provided plenty of photo opportunities. A summer visit to this park would certainly be a different experience with temperatures well over 100°.


For more information: