Saguaro National Park


Visited December 2016

Why Visit Saguaro National Park?

This scenic place is a deep reminder of the hardships of life and the amazing adaptability held within. It is a reminder to us that if we focus on the right character strengths, like the animals and plants found in this harsh desert landscape, we too shall prevail.

Children will learn how life thrives in difficult situations. They will learn about characteristics, like the careful use of resources, which allows the kangaroo rat to survive by getting the majority of its hydration from seeds it eats instead of drinking water. They will learn how cooperation enables the saguaro cactus, and it’s inhabitants to coexist because one offers shelter, and the other pest control. They will see how adaptability allows trees and shrubs to survive because they have special features, like wax coated leaves, that reduce evaporation. This national park is full of unique wonders oddly applicable to our human condition.

My very favorite memory of Saguaro National Park will unlikely be yours! On a late evening in 2002, my fiancé and I set out on a hike through the park. At the time, we lived nearby, and I wanted to take full advantage of our proximity. I was rather ambitious in my estimation of the time it would take us to hike Cactus Forest Loop Drive (8 miles) after parking at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center. I also underestimated the time at which the visitor center parking lot would be closing, and the sun would be setting.

Buoyed by my optimism, Joe and I began our late afternoon hike around the loop, up and down the hills enjoying the gorgeous scenery on a winding, curvy path. We listened to the sweet sound of the mourning dove, awed at the lovely ocotillo swaying, and enjoyed the gorgeous sunset. The sky continued to darken as I assured Joe we would be rounding the corner to the visitor center at any moment. Then, we heard sounds, rustling sounds and footfall sounds, and snapping twigs. We gasped, knowing this place is home to Javelina. These largely nocturnal wild peccaries (not to be mistaken for a boar) travel in big packs and are notorious for their fierce defense of family and horrid eyesight. It is also home to mountain lions, coyotes, skunks, and even black bears. Our leisurely roadside hike became a huddled quick paced walk down the center of the roadway, as far from nefarious creatures found amongst the mesquite trees and cacti as possible. The sun set lower, our spirits became more panicked, and Joe tried to be patient and sweet though a bad knee was beginning to hurt. Then, there came the sound of a quickly approaching vehicle and a panic at that too. What relief to see a not-too-happy Forest Ranger on his search for a remaining vehicle’s occupants.  Saved!

I have no pictures to document this visit. I do have pictures of our return, years later with our children. It was just as beautiful, the diversity of nature found within the park as enchanting. There is something intoxicating about this place, especially in the cool winters. The smell of lingering dessert rain is refreshing unlike anything else. The crystalline blue skies framed by reaching saguaro cacti are ethereal. It was great fun to relive our hiking experience and share our adventure with our kids, who have learned to love wild places, because we have shared with them National Park magic. Unfortunately for them, there were no unplanned night excursions through the park. But, if you want to see what nighttime here is like, overnight back country camping is available. See the Saguaro National Park camping website or Rincon Mountain Visitor Center for more information.

Learning about dessert animal adaptations is one of the primary reasons to take your family to this extraordinary place…and so is the amazing hiking. Just know how fast you can hike, when the parking lot closes and when the sun sets!

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Safety
  • Sonoran Desert
  • Cacti
  • Reptiles
  • Petroglyphs

Extra Tips:

Saguaro National Park is blessed with two ecologically distinct regions. The first, Saguaro West, is located near the famed ‘Old Tucson’ studios. It offers sweeping vistas of classic Sonoran Desert landscapes with rocky outcroppings and jutted mountainsides against saguaro cacti in abundance. Saguaro East is located approximately 45 minutes to the east at the base of the Rincon Mountains. Here you will find a more upland ecosystem with different plants due, to an increase in annual precipitation and higher elevations. It is possible to see both in one day, but highly recommended to plan one day for each. It is certainly worth visiting both to get a complete picture of the vast variations and adaptability of animals and plants that live in this park system. If closer to the warmer months, Saguaro East is highly recommended.


Stay on marked trails when hiking. Desert ecosystems can be fragile, and also dangerous. By staying on marked trails, you will be easier to locate if necessary. Always carry plenty of water, one gallon per person, per day minimum. Don’t assume you can do a quick one mile hike in the heat without carrying water. Always have it with you. There are over 250 deaths and 3,000 emergency visits related to heat related illness in Arizona EVERY YEAR! Cacti thorns hurt! Don’t let your children run around this national park in sandals! A brief brush against a cholla cactus with bare skin will ruin the day.

Where to Eat:

Tucson has some fabulous dining options. Where you dine depends on which Saguaro National Park district you visit. If Saguaro East, a favorite restaurant of ours was McGraws on Houghton Road, but as of this posting they appear to be closed for Covid-19 so call before you go. Another option is Saguaro Corners Restaurant and Bar. Saguaro West is in close proximity to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum which offers dining options. A little further away is the iconic Daisy Mays Steakhouse, or the Star Pass Marriott Resort.

When to Go:

This is a virtually year-round park. Summer months are certainly going to be more taxing with temperatures frequently above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. However, there are ways to manage extreme temperatures, even with children. First, drink abundant quantities of water. Specifically, you need 1 gallon per person, per day. Secondly, plan your visit in the early morning. Monsoon season, typically in July, may make visiting more challenging as abundant rainfall could reduce trail access by flash flooding.

Where to Stay:

Back country camping is available at Saguaro East. There are also RV parks available near both park areas. There is an abundant variety of resorts available in Tucson, primarily golf/spa resorts. Some of our favorites include Lowes Ventana Canyon and the Tubac Golf Resort and Spa.

Example Itinerary

Include one day for both Saguaro East and West. While visiting West, take time to explore the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Take full advantage of your time in Tucson with two or three more days to enjoy the great many things the area has to offer. See Visit Tucson for further information. My suggestions include: lunch at Mount Lemon (a mountain island); University of Arizona campus and affiliated art, mineral, and state museums; Pima Air and Space Museum; and Mission San Xavier del Bac.

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