Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park in Arizona is divided into two districts separated by the city of Tucson. To the west is the Tucson Mountain District, which has a desert environment. To the east is the Rincon Mountain District, which has both desert and mountain environments complete with pine trees at the higher elevations.

Saguaro is one of my favorite national parks. It does not have the grand scenery of my other favorites, such as Glacier, but it certainly has its charms. There are several reasons why I like it so much. First, the saguaro cacti are just so darn cool. I had seen these for my whole life on TV, both in cartoons and live action, and it was a thrill to see them in person. They are truly impressive plants. Second, Saguaro was my first National Park, though it was a National Monument at the time, and there is always a certain fondness for your first. On top of that, my first visit was also the first time I had been in the desert. The desert is so different from the trees and water of my home state of Michigan, and it is utterly fascinating. Third, it never seems crowded. Finally, I have been there more times than any other National Park. (I have been to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore more.) I know the Tucson Mountain District quite well. This familiarity engenders a connection that I do not have with any other National Park. It seems like my own special place.

My visits to Saguaro National Park always include the Tucson Mountain District, so I will begin there. I usually take Speedway Boulevard from Tucson. Speedway eventually turns into Gates Pass Road, which twists and turns over the Tucson Mountains. That is why I like driving it. It ends at Kinney Road, which goes into the park. Starting roughly at Gates Pass, you are driving through Tucson Mountain Park, a Pima County park. Not too far before the Red Hills Visitor Center in Saguaro National Park is the entrance to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, an excellent combination of zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden. It is definitely worth taking some time from your hiking itinerary to visit.

More or less across from the zoo entrance is the trailhead for the King Canyon Trail. I usually have to drive back and forth a few times before finding it. This is the start for my favorite hike in the park, to Wasson Peak. My usual route is to take the King Canyon Trail to the Hugh Norris Trail to the Wasson Peak spur and then back the way I came for a seven-mile round trip. Last time I tried something different. After rejoining the Hugh Norris Trail I continued to the Sendero Esperanza Trail and took that trail back to the King Canyon Trail for an eight-mile round trip. I do not recommend one route over the other – it depends on whether you want a loop or an out-and-back hike. No matter which way you choose, it is one of the easier mountain hikes I have taken, similar to Ryan Mountain at Joshua Tree National Park. The views from the trail and the top are great, and as an extra bonus you can see the Kitt Peak Observatory from the top.

Wasson Peak is my favorite hike at Saguaro National Park both because it is simply a good hike and also for personal reasons. The first time I visited Saguaro was in 1990, when I was in Tucson for a conference. Of course, I had to go see the saguaros. I saw them and was happy, but then I heard about the hike to the top of Wasson Peak. Wasson Peak is only 4687 ft (1428 m) high, so it was an extremely attractive destination. I found the trailhead and started walking up King Canyon. Even though I was an inexperienced hiker at the time, I soon realized that I was ill-prepared to do the hike. I had no hiking boots, no hat, and no water. Any hiker will tell you that the most difficult thing to do psychologically is to turn back before reaching your destination. What really helped me was imagining the headlines in the newspaper the next day: “Conventioneer found dead in Saguaro National Monument.” It would be especially bad since I was a scientist, a presumably smart person. I turned back. As you might expect, it bugged the heck out of me that I did not do the hike, but I managed to push it to the back of my mind and avoid therapy. In 1994 I was not able to do the hike because of time limitations, but in 1997 I finally made it to the top of Wasson Peak, wearing hiking boots, a hat, and carrying water (and probably a granola bar).

Moving our story back to Kinney Road, the first site that you can find without driving back and forth is the Red Hills Visitor Center, a nice new yet tasteful visitor center. I seem to recall that they opened it soon after receiving their promotion to a National Park in 1994. As usual, there is a short nature trail behind the building. Continuing west on Kinney Road gets you to the Desert Discovery Trail, a short nature trail. Next is the driving highlight of the Tucson Mountain District, the six-mile Bajada Loop Drive. The road is unpaved, but usually in pretty good condition. This is where you can get your saguaro cactus fix. Along the road is the short (0.4 mile) but good Valley View Overlook Trail. You walk across a wash and then up a hill to a nice view of the Avra Valley. Also along the scenic loop is the Signal Hill picnic area. A short trail from there leads up the hill to some Indian petroglyphs and a fine view of hills and saguaros. It is a view that you will often see in photographs.

The Rincon Mountain District is not as fun to drive to as the Tucson Mountain District, but once you are there it is just as fun. The Rincon Mountain Visitor Center is near the entrance. From there you can take the eight-mile Cactus Forest Drive. This drive is nicer than the Bajada Loop in that it is paved. Again, you can satisfy your saguaro cactus craving here. Off of the road is a short nature trail, the Desert Ecology Trail.  Later, the side road to the Javelina Picnic Area leads to the Freeman Homestead Trail, a nice one-mile loop past a huge saguaro, through a wash, and past the site of an old house.

At the end of the side road is the trailhead for the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail. This is the big trail at Saguaro National Park, and it leads to an extensive network of trails in the Rincon Mountains.  It climbs for 6.9 miles to the 7049-foot (2148 m) Tanque Verde Peak and then beyond to other trails to the even higher Mica Mountain and Rincon Peak. At these altitudes, you are no longer in the desert but rather pine forest. I’m sorry to say that I have not hiked in this area, but hiking to Tanque Verde Peak is on my list for the next time if I can tear myself away from all the other things to do in Tucson.

My visits: May 1990, October 1994, May 1997, June 2000, April 2002, December 2006, May 2012


  1. Awesome park. I visited in May, in the midst of the Saguaro blooming season. There was a lot more wildlife than I expected.

  2. Thank you for the detailed post. I'm planning to visit the park and do the trails you suggested.