For several weeks, those living in Phoenix have had to stay at home in accordance with statewide shelter-in-place orders. Now that restrictions are easing, many residents are looking for ways to safely get fresh air while also socially distancing. Saguaro National Park is only a few hours away from the city and an excellent way to enjoy the beauty of the Sonoran desert landscape. At this time, visitor centers and comfort stations are closed. No fires are allowed in wilderness campsites or picnic areas, but hiking trails are open.
The History of the Saguaro Land
Pronounced suh-wah-row, the Saguaro cactus has long been a symbol of the American southwest and the perfect icon for the National Park. Humans have lived on this land for thousands of years and the earliest evidence comes from the Hohokam villages from 200-1450 AD. Non-native settlers arrived in the 1690s and founded the San Xavier Mission. The area continued to be settled by more and more pioneers as they headed west and Arizona became a state in the 19th century. The 92,000-acre park is now divided into eastern and western sections that are separated by the city of Tuscon. It is the only park dedicated to protecting a single species of plant, even though the cactus is not endangered. Saguaro can grow to be over 40 feet tall and can live longer than 200 years. There are more than 1.6 million individual Saguaros inside the park and their greatest threat is human expansion or vandalism.
Tuscon Mountain District
The area of the park to the west of Tuscon is known as the Tuscon Mountain District and is more heavily trafficked than its eastern equivalent. It also has a higher concentration of the famous Saguaro cactus. The Signal Hill Trail is arguably the most famous trail in the entire park. The trail is relatively short and rises only 50 feet above the surrounding desert. The main attraction to this trail is the Hohokam petroglyphs carved into the rocks beside the road. The glyphs were most likely left in the grey and brown rocks by Hohokam hunting parties in the 13th and 14th centuries to mark good places to stalk prey. The top of the rise offers views for 20 miles, excellent places to see where prey could be located.
The Desert Discovery Nature Trail is a brief hike that is appropriate for all ages and skill levels. The parking lot is small ensuring the trail can’t get too crowded. Signage posted along the trail gives fun facts and information about the Saguaro cactus and the animals that depend on them to survive the harsh Sonoran desert. Many creatures feed on the cactus flesh, fruit, and flowers. Birds of prey will frequently roost, careful of the spines, to gain vantage points from which to hunt and safe places to raise their young. Smaller birds and mammals will excavate burrows either in the arms of the cactus or at its base. These burrows are similar to modern-day human apartments. Once a family of birds has raised their young, they will move out and other creatures will move into their old space. The cactus spines offer great protection from predators.
Rincon Mountain District
The eastern portion of Saguaro National Park is far less populated than its western counterpart. However, it is easily navigable via the Cactus Forest Drive, an 8-mile loop around the district. There are frequent turnoffs and overlooks offering views of the desert and red rock formations.
One of the most accessible pathways around the desert is the Mica View Trail. The Rincon Mountains serve as a stunning backdrop for this paved trail that is appropriate for families and those with limited mobility. Even though the trail is paved, that doesn’t deter the local wildlife from making their presence known. Roadrunners frequently scamper across the trail while hunting small lizards among the cactus and brush. Though the landscape is harsh, it is home to more than 30 species of mammals, 107 birds, and 36 reptiles. Visitors to the park are advised to stay a safe distance away from all wildlife, especially snakes. Venomous diamondback rattlesnakes call the park home and should be avoided at all costs. It is also advisable to check the heat index before venturing into the desert landscape. If rain occurs, be aware that flash floods are likely.