Image by Dmitry Vinogradov Five Hundred Pixels
Saguaros (sah-wah-ros) are icons of the American Southwest, and an entire cactus army of these majestic, ribbed sentinels is protected in this desert playground. Or, more precisely, playgrounds: the park is divided into east and west units, separated by 30 miles and Tucson itself. Both sections – the Rincon Mountain District in the east and Tucson Mountain District in the west – are filled with trails and desert flora; if you only visit one, make it the spectacular western half.
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 camping requires a permit ($8 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 (8666ft) and back in 20 miles (backcountry camping permit required for overnight use). If you'd rather someone (or something) else did the hard work, family-run Houston's Horseback Riding offers trail rides in the eastern section of the Park.
West of town, the Tucson Mountain District has its own Red Hills 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. The 0.5-mile informative Desert Discovery Trail, which is 1 mile northwest of the visitor center, is wheelchair accessible. Distances for all four hikes are round-trip.
As for the park's namesake cactus, don't refer to the limbs of the saguaro as branches. As park docents will quickly tell you, the mighty saguaro grows arms, not lowly branches – a distinction that makes sense when you consider its human-like features.
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 cacti begin blossoming with lovely white blooms – Arizona's state flower. By June and July, the flowers give way to ripe red fruit that local American Indians use for food. Their foot soldiers are the spidery ocotillo, the fluffy teddy bear cactus, the green-bean-like pencil cholla and hundreds of other plant species. It is illegal to damage or remove saguaros.
Note that trailers longer than 35ft and vehicles wider than 8ft are not permitted on the park's narrow scenic loop roads.