Vien R. Guenther
Exploring Saguaro National Park – Tucson, Arizona
Updated: Jan 7
Arizona has three national parks: Petrified Forest National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Saguaro National Park. Each is different and offers diverse amazing features. What’s different in Saguaro National Park is the focus on its amazing living features, the Saguaro Cactus, the universal symbol of the American West. Saguaro National Park protects this largest cactus, which you can find almost nowhere outside of Arizona except in northern Mexico.
Located in Arizona, one of the hottest states in the United States, the park is open every day, except Christmas. We visited this park in winter on our way to California. With temperatures from the low 50's to the high 70's in winter, it is a perfect time to explore here. Although we missed the blooming time in Spring, we were at least able to explore the park without crowds and avoided the summer heat.
Saguaro National Park is located on the edge of the Sonoran Desert. It was first declared a National Monument on March 1, 1933 by Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States. Then the monument was elevated to National Park in 1994 by Congress.
Saguaro National Park is composed of two distinct districts outside of Tucson: The Rincon Mountain District on the east side and the Tucson Mountain District on the west side, which is the part we visited.
The Tucson Mountain District contains desert scrub, and desert grassland with wildlife living in the area including coyote, Gambel’s quail and desert tortoise. The Rincon Mountain District, on the other hand contains desert scrub, desert grassland, oak woodland, pine-oak woodland, pine forest and mixed conifer forest. The Rincon Mountains, which are considerably higher, have more diverse plant and wildlife living in the area: black bear, Mexican spotted owl, Arizona mountain king snake, and white-tailed deer. The area is a desert but it receives enough water to sustain plants and animals living here. They are well adapted to drought and long dry periods which is typical in a desert landscape.
THE SAGUARO CACTUS
The Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), are found only in the Sonoran Desert, in southern Arizona and in western Sonora in Mexico. Some stray ones can be found in southeast California.
Saguaros are very slow growing and they can live as long as 150 to 200 years old. With the right growing conditions, they can grow as high as 40 to 60 feet, but may take 20 and 50 years to reach a height of only 3 feet. If they can get plenty of rain, they can absorb and store large amounts of water and will weigh between 3200 to 4800 pounds. You don't want to be under one of these when it's windy! Saguaro has one deep root that extends into the ground for more than two feet, but most of its roots are only four to six inches deep, a large root network that can spread as far as its height.
The Saguaro bloom from April through June. It is the state flower of Arizona. Its white silky flower opens after sunset and closes mid-afternoon. It produces large amounts of pollen, nectar and fruits which are food for main pollinators such as hummingbirds, honeybees and bats. These pollinators are one important factor for their continued existence. They grow slowly from seed and only reach a height of 0.25 inches in two years.
Birds create holes in saguaros for nesting. Saguaro then creates a callous tissue on the wounds to protect itself. When Saguaro dies these nests remain and are called, "Saguaro Boots". Native Americans use these as water containers or storage vessels. Saguaro's wooden ribs, formed as a skeleton, are used by native Americans as a building material for such things as roofs and furniture.
Arizona has strict laws in harvesting, collecting and/or destruction of this giant cactus such as by shooting (also called "cactus plugging"). You might not get 25 years in prison when caught, but you don't want to get revenge from a giant cactus either. It happened to a man trying to fell a Saguaro by shooting it in 1982 and was killed when an arm of the Saguaro fell on him. The 500-pound arm of the Saguaro crushed him and his car. As if that was not enough, the cactus trunk fell on him as well.
The largest known living Saguaro listed since 2014 in the United States is a 200-year-old specimen in Maricopa County in Arizona. It measures 45 feet tall with a 10-foot girth.
You can find Saguaro at the visitor center, convenient for those who are not able to explore on foot. But if you are able, why just stay there, you will find more than just cactus if you hike. There are short, well-maintained trails in the park where you will find historic sites and structures. Serious hikers take note though, back country permit is required to hike 12 miles to Manning Cabin.
In Saguaro National Park, you will find evidence of human activities that span more than 8,000 years. There are prehistoric sites such as petroglyphs and pictographs, as well as later period historic sites.
In the Tucson Mountain District, on Signal Hill Trail, you will find petroglyphs on boulders covering the hillside. Most of the rock art in the park was created by the prehistoric Hohokam who lived in the area from 200 to 1400 CE. I just hope visitors will respect this area and not vandalize these important prehistoric sites for others to enjoy.