Saguaro National Park

sights / Parks & gardens

Lonely Planet review

If you're standing beside a docent at this cacti-filled park, don't refer to the limbs of the saguaro (sah-wah -ro) as branches. As the docent will quickly tell you, the mighty saguaro grows arms , not lowly branches – a distinction that makes sense when you consider their human-like features. They shake your hand, wave at you or draw a gun on you. They are also the most iconic symbol of the American Southwest, and an entire army of these majestic ribbed sentinels is protected in this national park. Their foot soldiers are the spidery ocotillo, the fluffy teddy bear cactus, the green-bean-like pencil cholla and hundreds of other plant species.

Saguaros grow slowly, taking about 15 years to reach a foot in height, 50 years to reach 7ft and almost a century before they begin to take on their typical many-armed appearance. The best time to visit is April, when the saguaros begin blossoming with lovely white blooms – Arizona's state flower. By June and July, the flowers give way to ripe red fruit that local Native Americans use for food.

Saguaro National Park is divided into two units separated by 30 miles and the city of Tucson. Both are equally rewarding and it's not necessary to visit them both. Note that trailers longer than 35ft and vehicles wider than 8ft are not permitted on the park's narrow scenic loop roads.

The larger section is the Rincon Mountain District , about 15 miles east of downtown. The visitor center has information on day hikes, horseback riding and backcountry camping. The latter requires a permit ($6 per site per day) and must be obtained by noon on the day of your hike. The meandering 8-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive , a paved road open to cars and bicycles, provides access to picnic areas, trailheads and viewpoints.

Hikers pressed for time should follow the 1-mile round-trip Freeman Homestead Trail to a grove of massive saguaro. For a full-fledged desert adventure, head out on the steep and rocky Tanque Verde Ridge Trail , which climbs to the summit of Mica Mountain at 8666ft and back in 18 miles (backcountry camping permit required).

West of town, the Tucson Mountain District has its own visitor center . The Scenic Bajada Loop Drive is a 6-mile graded dirt road through cactus forest that begins 1.5 miles north of the visitor center. Two quick, easy and rewarding hikes are the 0.8-mile Valley View Overlook (awesome at sunset) and the half-mile Signal Hill Trail to scores of ancient petroglyphs. For a more strenuous trek we recommend the 7-mile King Canyon Trail , which starts 2 miles south of the visitor center near the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Distances for all three hikes are round-trip.