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Saguaro National Park

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Saguaro National Park Overview

Ask a child to draw a picture of a cactus and chances are you'll get a reasonable facsimile of a saguaro cactus. These giants of the cactus world are the quintessential image of America's southwestern deserts and as such are familiar to one and all, young and old. However, what many people don't know is that saguaros, which can grow up to 50 feet tall and weigh more than eight tons, are native only to the hot lowland regions of the Sonoran Desert, a finger of which reaches from Mexico into southern Arizona.

It wouldn't do to let this Old West icon disappear from the landscape, and since 1933 the eerie, leafless forests of saguaros around Tucson, Arizona, have enjoyed federal protection, first as Saguaro National Monument, and then from 1994 as Saguaro National Park.

Although the park's namesake cacti are its reason to be, the best reason to visit the park is to immerse yourself in the whole of this exemplary bit "of the unusual" Sonoran landscape. The Sonoran Desert is sometimes called the Green Desert—it receives an average of 12 inches of rain each year and is considered one of the lushest, most biologically diverse deserts on earth. Saguaro National Park is home to 25 species of cactus ranging from the towering saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) to the tiniest type of cactus in the park, the mammillaria (Mammillaria spp). Park inhabitants include rattlesnakes and gila monsters, mountain lions and elf owls, javelinas (a type of wild pig), and desert tortoise, which can live as long as 100 years.

Saguaro National Park is a place where the small and subtle hold the biggest fascination—it's the cactus wren's habit of nesting amid the long, impregnable thorns of chollas, where its young are safe from predators; it's the jackrabbit's ability to radiate excess body heat out through its ears, allowing it to be active in the intense daytime heat; the way kangaroo rats never need a drink, meeting their water needs solely through the seeds they eat. There are excellent opportunities for outdoor adventure in Saguaro, and exploring the desert with curious, inquisitive eyes will guarantee an unforgettable visit.

Hike a Saguaro Forest
The Hugh Norris Trail is the perfect day hike for someone looking for a good long look at Saguaro National Park's most famous inhabitant. From a trailhead along the Bajada Loop Drive in Saguaro West, it switchbacks up a ridge and then drops through a sag, passing the densest, most impressive saguaro forest in the park. This bajada—a transition between valley and mountain—is the saguaro's favorite habitat. As you climb out of the dip, look back and you'll see a saguaro army of thousands, and the only sounds you'll hear will be the gurgle of cactus wrens. From here, the trail follows along the northern ridge of the Tucson Mountains, ascending gradually to 4,687-foot Wasson Peak; you'll pass unique rock formations and enjoy splendid views of the Catalinas, Picacho Peak, and finally the Santa Ritas and Rincons on the far side of Tucson. A sunset from Wasson Peak—or indeed from any of the elevated viewpoints along the trails of Saguaro West—can be an unforgettable sight.

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Visit a Sky Island
Perhaps because only those willing to put some serious sweat into the journey can reach them, the roadless fastnesses of Saguaro's Rincon Mountain Wilderness remain one of the best-kept secrets in southern Arizona. Strike out on the Tanque Verde Ridge, Douglas Spring, or Turkey Creek Trails and you'll cover as many as six distinct biotic communities within an ascent of a few thousand vertical feet—from parched Sonoran lowlands across the spectrum to moist, cool glades of ponderosa pines and gambel oaks. At the highest elevations, there are even patches of spruce-fir forest you'd expect to find in Canada! And though the Rincons' six backcountry campsites are Saguaro's only camping options, what fine options they are—Happy Valley and Manning Camp in particular are well-shaded, cool spots amid pinyons, ponderosas, and oaks. They afford a chance to leave the furnace-like heat of the Tucson Valley about 25 degrees behind and experience an array of night sounds—owls and other birds, insects, and other animals—unlike anything you'll hear in most of the American wilds.

Bike Desert Single-Track
For all but the supremely confident bike-handler, most of Tucson's mountain-biking trails are terrifying—there's a lot of sand, scree, and unstable "babyheads" out there, and a mistake may put you on very close terms with the desert's grand array of nasty, pointed flora. Saguaro East, however, offers up a perfect starter course. Trail riding is permitted only on the 2.5 mile multi-use portion of the Cactus Forest Trail, which is circled by the Cactus Forest Loop Drive.  The roller coaster trail runs through typical cactus-and-shrubland Sonoran habitat and offers up a string of great views. Plan on riding a circuit or two along this banked, soft track as the sun sinks low to the west.

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Unravel the Sonoran Mysteries
Saguaro, in its spectacular natural diversity, is an especially good place to explore alongside a trained naturalist. Both units of the park run guided naturalist tours every day out of the visitor centers; depending on the time of year, tours may focus on migratory birds, the reproductive frenzy desert plants engage in when moisture allows, or even an after-hours exploration that opens a window on the park's very active nightlife. If you've time only for a short visit and can't join a guided tour, be sure to at least walk the West Unit's Desert Discovery Trail or the East Unit's Desert Ecology Trail; both of these self-guiding trails offer insight into the workings of this amazing environment.

Live the "Cowboy Way"
The saguaro cactus may have a pretty limited foothold on U.S. soil, but Hollywood producers know a winning location when they see one. The result is that countless movies and television shows—from Rio Bravo to Bonanza—feature dusty, jut-jawed stoics riding tall in the saddle through forests of these rangy cacti. (Hollywood actually built the Old Tucson Studios here to handle the demand.) You could settle for a visit to the studio museum (just north of the park's West Unit, in Tucson Mountain Park), but why not live the Old West dream yourself? The Tucson area is home to a number of classic dude ranches, and at least two of them—White Stallion Ranch on the city's west side and Tanque Verde Ranch near the Rincon Mountains—lead rides into the park's interior. Want a specific destination to dream on? How about riding the high country to Manning Camp in the Rincons, where there's a corral for your steed and plenty of ponderosas to take your ease under.

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