Driving and hiking through Tucson’s Saguaro National Park is an absolutely stunning scene, and the perfect introduction to the Sonoran Desert. Saguaro National Park is split into two parts about 45 minutes away from one another, the Rincon Mountain district of the East and the Tucson Mountain district of the West. Both contain visitor’s centers with great gift shops where purchases support the parks. Inside are fantastic and informative displays along with great souvenirs, and most importantly, trail maps. After paying $10 you are welcome to the park for 7 days.
Our first visit was to the East side and I had never been to the American Southwest before. My first moments taking it all in at the park were full of wonder in the otherworldly landscape. Upon entering the East side of the park you drive onto the seriously scenic Cactus Forest Loop Drive. This is an 8-mile paved one-way road (until you near the end where local traffic creates need for a two-way) which allows access to the trailheads and general beauty of the park, it reminded me of Park Loop Road in Acadia National Park. There were many people biking the loop as well. The special part about this simple road is that anyone who admires the artistry of nature no matter what their circumstances can enjoy it here simply by driving around the loop; it’s universally accessible. The drive is breathtaking; you’ll want to take it slow. There are stop off points just to look out at particularly charming spots and learn about the ecosystem from informational panels. I loved finding out the names different types of cactus by doing this. There are paved trails in both districts of the parks which are wheelchair accessible, in the East it is called the Desert Ecology Trail, a quarter of a mile, which has informational exhibits and benches. We only intended on hiking about 3-4 miles as we had other fun activities planned for the day, and one of the volunteers in the visitor’s center recommended the Loma Verde Loop 3.4 miles, perfect for us! We hopped off the loop and scored the last legitimate parking spot in the small lot for the trail, laced up our boots and hit the trails with the Rincon Mountains in the distance. We marveled at all of the different cacti we now knew such as the ocotillo, teddybear cholla, barrel, prickly pear, and of course the namesake of the park: saguaro. These behemoths tower over all else in the terrain, each is an individual and a sight to see. The hike was mild with little elevation gain, but that might have been a good thing. Even at an early time in the morning (10-12pm), things were already getting hot. It is best to get there as early as possible, and bringing water is absolutely essential. We took a mid-hike break to hydrate and eat some oranges under the shade of a saguaro. Our February trip meant we weren’t around to see the saguaro blossoms, however there was still brilliant color in the desert besides the blue skies, green cacti, and yellow sand. Pink ‘fairyduster’ flowers were an abundant and lovely display, little desert globemallows made a bright appearance, and cactus fruit were a vibrant sight. We also spotted some jack rabbits and tiny lizards, no gila monsters or rattlers though. It was a fantastic hike, and so unique to me, one I will remember all my life.
Our time on the West side was short, yet lively with a gorgeous backdrop of the Tucson Mountains. We had some time early in the morning before heading to the airport, so we wandered about some quiet trails and admired the giant saguaros for the last time. The birds were active at this time and we spotted gambel’s quail, phainopela, and flickers, along with some more jack rabbits! I really loved hiking through this desert environment, and although it was bittersweet leaving, it renewed my lust to keep traveling and seeing new lands! This amazing national park is worth the visit if you find yourself in Tucson, it is full of unforgettable appeal.