Some national parks immediately impress you with their sheer grandeur. Yosemite and Glacier come immediately to mind. Others are more subtle, like the old growth floodplain forest of Congaree or the rocks and unique foliage of Joshua Tree. Saguaro National Park, just outside Tucson, Arizona, falls into the second category.
The beauty of the desert is understated, but palatable. What at first seems fairly barren is, at a slightly closer inspection, teeming with life. Birds chirp, insects hum, lizards cross the path. Desert sage blooms, scrub fills the landscape, and the signature saguaro cacti tower over everything else, standing like sentinels in their varied forms.
The namesake saguaro is impressive, towering up to forty feet!
Saguaro National Park consists of two units, separated by the city of Tucson. The west unit is low-lying arid desert, while the east unit consists of a series of peaks up to more than 8,500 feet, and has considerably more water from snow melt. Both units, however, are more than 90% designated wilderness, meaning access is forbidden to anything with a motor, and so are tough to truly explore.
As far as visiting goes, the east unit is probably the best bet, as the Cactus Forest Loop Drive is beautiful and, perhaps more importantly for ease of access, paved. It carves its way through a saguaro-filled area at the base of the Rincon Mountains, although the higher elevations and their pine forests and meadows are wilderness-only. Several easy hikes work their way through the cacti, as well as a fully accessible nature trail.
The base of the Rincon Mountains in the east unit, and a lovely saguaro forest.
The park was first established as Saguaro National Monument in 1933, in what is now the east unit. The western portion was added in 1961, and in 1994, the combined park was redesignated a full national park. It exists specifically to protect wilderness areas of the Sonoran Desert, as well as what was the largest forest of saguaro cacti, a species endemic to the Sonoran Desert, and emblematic of the American West.
The saguaro are unique, and each one brings a different shape to the party.
What makes the Sonoran Desert special? Unlike most deserts which only have a single rainy season (or none at all), the Sonoran Desert has two. As a result, there is more plant diversity here than in any other desert in the world. In addition to the saguaro, other species of cactus like cholla thrive here, as well as members of the agave and palm families.
Cholla like this are common throughout the park.
While the Sonoran Desert and its landscapes are what you’ll be able to see on a normal visit to Saguaro National Park, remember that the Rincon Mountains of the east unit rise well above the desert floor, and contain an eco-system completely different, with larger mammals, pine forests, and grassy meadows. Areas like this are called “sky islands,” and are incredibly important for scientists, as many contain species not seen in their surroundings for millennia, having been stranded here as the surrounding lands fell away and became deserts.
It is for the protection of this unique combination of desert and sky island that Saguaro National Park is mainly wilderness. Even the scientists studying endemic species or water patterns must carry their equipment in by hand, as vehicular travel is forbidden. A wonderfully-done video at the Rincon Visitors Center tells some of these stories, in addition to giving casual visitors like me the chance to experience parts of the park reserved for serious backpackers.
We think of deserts as lacking in biodiversity, but how many different plant species can be seen here?
We have been trained to think of deserts as barren, devoid of life, and lacking in beauty. Saguaro National Park is proof that the desert is none of these things. It is beautiful, a thriving ecosystem, and incredible to explore!
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