Love those Saguaro!

Saguaro National Park
Loop Drives: 2
Hikes: 2

While we loved the campground and the desert landscape at Gilbert Ray and around Tucson, it turns out Saguaro was not our favorite national park. Somehow there isn’t something of the spectacular in this park. True the saguaros are cool, and I love how they seem so human and are all so different, some with arms that point down or curve around which only seems to make them look more life-like, but we saw just as many of those in Tucson Mountain Park and even on the drive into town. So our explorations in Saguaro just didn’t wow us.

This is another park with two parts to it, one on the east side of town and one to the west (near Gilbert Ray), both with visitor centers.

Both sides also have loop drives with views of the cacti which is a great way to experience the park, but unless you really get out and follow one of the trails you aren’t getting the full effect. By getting up close you realize how big the saguaros can be and see the diversity in their forms. You also get to see all the other cacti up close.

On our way around the loop drive in the Tucson Mountain District (the west side), we stopped to hike a couple of short trails. First we took the Valley View Overlook trail (.8 miles roundtrip) with far reaching views toward Picacho Peak (little did we know that we’d be camping there soon—more on that another day) and then the easy Signal Hill trail (.3 miles) to see the ancient petroglyphs, which were cool.

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When we visited the Rincon District (the east side) we took the Loma Verde loop hike (3.4 miles). It started in a unexciting Mesquite forest with not a cactus in sight, but eventually got to some nice desert landscape. On the right below you can see the ribs of some dead saguaros.

Still it wasn’t a spectacular hike, and even the 8 mile loop drive here left us feeling unfulfilled. The most interesting part was a sign showing how the park was covered with saguaro in 1935 when it was first established. No one realized these beauties were near the end of their lifespans, and after some cold winters (saguaro can die from freezing temps lasting more than 20 hours) and cattle grazing (cattle step on young cacti killing them) the park looked much different 30 years later. A saguaro seed can take 5-10 years to grow to just 2 inches high and they don’t sprout those quirky arms until 50-75 years, so it’s taken a while but the park is recovering.

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The tip of the arm was actually fuzzy and soft!

I love looking at the diversity in the saguaros, especially those with arms. Besides the classic “stick ‘em up” arms, I’ve seen some with little nubs and others with long curving trunks. Some have just one or two arms and others up to 10 or 12. The arms give them so much personality. I’ve seen one whose downward curving arms made it look as if it was twirling a skirt, others that look as if they are high-fiving, and one had it’s arm around another that was leaning it’s head against it.

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I was hoping that one of the visitor’s centers would talk more about the different shapes saguaros take, but I had to look online to satisfy my curiosity and even then didn’t find much. One person said that during cold spells the arms can curve downward but will move upward again when it warms. Since I saw lots of saguaros with arms pointing down and it hadn’t turned cold yet I’m not sure that is true. Still I am sure that weather has some role to play in the arm formations. During rains the ribbed structure of the saguaro allows it to expand as it soaks up water. Maybe some of those arms get too heavy. After all, a fully hydrated plant can weigh over 4000 pounds.

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Rare “crested” saguaro at the Desert Museum

One thing you’ll notice around saguaros are birds. Woodpeckers make holes in saguaros and the cactus creates a hard shell around the hole called a boot to protect itself from water loss. Later other birds and mammals make homes in these cavities. Other animals in this area include coyotes, which we heard howling in the evenings. We even had one walk right through the campground late one afternoon.

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Interior of a dead saguaro

While we were underwhelmed by Saguaro National Park, we have really enjoyed our time here. The weather has been spectacular, with sun and upper 70s most days. The campground is pretty empty so it is quiet. And every night we are treated to colorful skies as the sun sets. This is a place I could stay a month—and I guess we almost did!

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