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Traveling to Cacti – Saguaro National Park – East and West

If you’ve ever had the urge to go hug a cactus – well, that would probably be a painful experience. Some of them do look cute and cuddly – in a rugged, western, prickly kind of way.  If the chance to see cacti up close makes you long for the Old West, Uncle Sam offers the Saguaro National Park, just outside of Tucson, Arizona.

Actually, Saguaro National Park is two parks – located about an hour away from each other.  Saguaro National Park West  (Tucson Mountain District) – and Saguaro National Park East – or the Rincon Mountain District offer two different views of cacti.

Of the two parks, we preferred the West version.  For sheer thrills just getting to the Saguaro Park West is a daredevil ride down the mountain, with curving, narrow roads and a fabulous view of mountains in the distance.  The driver, however, should be concentrating on the road.  It is that hairy a drive.

Once at Saguaro West, there is a modern visitor center and amenities (there is no food at this or the Saguaro National Park East.)  In the immediate area, they have spectacular views with saguaro and other Arizona flora and fauna on view.  Park Rangers give talks and there are exhibits on display.  One fascinating exhibit we saw was of a “boot” that is formed as a bird invades the saguaro.  In response to the bird, the saguaro forms a hard coating around the chamber, which can serve as a refuge for the birds.  When the cactus eventually dies, those “boots” have been picked up people.  Symbiosis at its finest! (Two living things working together.)

What’s a saguaro?



(pronounced – sah-wha-ro) It’s the image you see of Arizona – other than the Grand Canyon –that straight-looking cactus with arms reaching toward the sky. The large ones that you see are very old, as they only grow about an inch a year for the first eight years.  Typically, they live for as long as 125-200 years.  And, there are some interesting variations with rarer saguaro that have crests and curvy arms.

A hillside of saguaro - notice the one with arms waving

A hillside of saguaro - notice the one with arms waving

(Information courtesy of Saguaro National Park Web site. )

Flowers bloom, really showy, gorgeous white flowers, after about 35 years. As a custom, Native Americans removed the buds before they flowered and brewed them into a rich, intoxicating drink for their harvest feasts.

Saguaro on a slope

Saguaro on a slope

We have seen saguaro north of Phoenix and as far west as California.  They also grow in Mexico.  However, they do not grow everywhere.  So, a sight of them is exciting – especially a whole hillside of them.

Back to the Parks…

Given a full day and children with a good attention span, visiting Saguaro National Park West, Old Tucson Studios (in the vicinity and detailed on Monday, January 25) and Sonoran Desert Museum (also in the vicinity, but we won’t be discussing this right away) might be possible.  But, start early and expect to spend some time at each location.  Bring snacks, as only Old Tucson Studios and Sonoran Desert Museum have food.

Saguaro National Park East is an hour away from the Eastern version.  We found it to be flat and less interesting geographically, however you can see mountains in the distance.

Hiking trails are available at both locations.  Views are memorable. The visitors centers have exhibits and friendly National Park Rangers who will answer questions.

Saguaro National Park East and West –

Admission – $10 for a car-load of people.  The receipt you receive for your admission is good for a week at either of the two Saguaro National Parks, just show it to gain admission to the other park.

Saguaro silhouetted at sunset

Saguaro silhouetted at sunset

The Parks open at 7 AM until sunset, but the visitor centers are only open from 9 AM until 5 PM. daily.  Especially in the summer, we recommend an early visit as it gets very hot by late morning!

There are picnic tables on a first come-first-serve basis.

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