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Arizona's Saguaro National Park - An Overview

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Arizona's Saguaro National Park - An Overview
© cobalt123 via Flickr
Contact Info:

3693 South Old Spanish Trail
Tucson, Arizona 85730
Phone: 520-733-5153 or 520-733-5158
Email

Overview:

So you’re thinking cactus, right? Well you’re on the right track. In fact, the symbol of the American Southwest happens to be North America’s largest cactus: the saguaro. And it’s no wonder why the park got its name. These giants are scattered across 91,445 acres and blossom with figlike fruits at its tips.

The park is comprised of two sections to enjoy. The western Tuscon Mountain District is hot, dry, and has less vegetation. The eastern Rincon Mountain District is cooler and slightly wetter. Both are stunning and offer plenty of activities, like hiking, camping, biking, and birding, to enjoy.

History:

The area was established as Saguaro National Monument on March 1, 1933, and later became a national park on October 14, 1994. It protects the saguaro cactus which is native to the region. But there are plenty of other kinds of cactus within the park, including barrel cactus, prickly pear, and cholla cactus. The parks also protects a special endangered species - the Lesser Long-nosed Bat - who calls Saguaro its home during part of its migration.

When to Visit:

The area is known for its mild winters and hot summers so plan for the time of year that you would feel most comfortable. Keep in mind that Tucson has two rainy seasons, the summer rainy season (July through August), and the winter rainy season (December through January). The park also tends to be most popular between November and April. Both districts of the park are open from 7 a.m. to sunset, daily. Both districts of the park also have a visitor center that is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except on Christmas Day.

Getting There:

For the East District

Directions to the Rincon Mountain District from the City of Tucson
Travel east on Broadway or Speedway Boulevard to Freeman Road (turn right on Freeman Road). Drive south on Freeman Road and turn left on Old Spanish Trail. Drive .25 miles to the Park entrance on the left side of the road.

Getting to the Rincon Mountain District from Interstate 10
If you are traveling on Interstate 10, take exit 275 (Houghton Road) and drive 9.5 miles north to Old Spanish Trail and turn right. Drive 3 miles and the park entrance will be on the left side of the road.

For the West District

Getting to the Tucson Mountain District from the City of Tucson
Travel west on Speedway Boulevard. At the junction of Camino de Oeste, Speedway Boulevard will change names to Gates Pass Road. From this junction, drive 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) west on Gates Pass Road until it ends at Kinney Road (turn right on Kinney Road). Drive 3 miles (5 kilometers) north on Kinney Road to the Park entrance (entrance will be on the right side of the road). This route is not suitable for vehicles over 25 feet in length.

Getting to the Tucson Mountain District from Interstate 10
If you are traveling eastbound, there is one direction sign at exit 242, called Avra Valley Road. You want to drive 5 miles west on that road to Sandario Road and turn left. Drive 9 miles south to Kinney Road and turn left. You will see the visitor center after about 2 miles.

Getting to the Tucson Mountain District from Interstate 19
Starting on Interstate 10, take I-19 south to exit 99 (Ajo Way - also known as Highway 86), then travel west. Turn right onto Kinney Road and head north, following signs to the park.

Fees/Permits:

There is an entrance fee to get into the park. Fees are as follows:

  • $10.00 for any privately owned vehicle or motorcycle (valid for 7 days)
  • $5.00 for any individual on foot or bicycle (valid for 7 days)
  • $25.00 for any sedan seating up to 6 people
  • $40.00 for any van seating capacity of 7-25 people
  • $100.00 for anything seating more than 26

Annual passes may also be used to waive the entrance fee. Visitors who frequent Saguari may also be interested in the $25.00 Saguaro National Park Annual Pass, which allows unlimited visits for one full year.

Major Attractions:

Saguaro West

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: You will reach this if you drive west through Tuscon Mountain County Park. It’s worth a stop for 21 acres of animals and plants.

Red Hills Visitor Center: Check out a unique slide show and desert life exhibit to familiarize yourself with what you will see during your trip.

Sendero Esperanza Trail: A moderate, half-day hike that’s popular through the mountainous backcountry.

Signal Hill Picnic Area: View Hohokam petroglyphs that are hundreds of years old.

Saguaro East

Saguaro East Visitor Center: If you plan on hiking into the backcountry, this is where you will get maps, trail guides, and permits.

Tanque Verde Ridge Trail: It’s uphill and fairly vigorous, but worth it. You will experience cactus desert as well as an oak-juniper forest. Stunning.

Cactus Forest Drive: This is a great scenic tour for those visitors with limited time. This 8-mile loop showcases saguaros over 150 years old.

Accommodations:

There are six backcountry campsites within Saguaro East which is about six miles from the nearest trailhead. It costs $6 for the permit fee, which is required before you head out in the backcountry. There is also a campground in Tuscon Mountain County Park which is located next to Saguaro West.

If you don’t want to camp, there are hotels and motels to choose from in Tuscon. Check out Arizona Inn or Best Western for affordable room starting around $110 per night.

*Tips for Backcountry

  • Stay on trails
  • Avoid open and low-lying areas during thunderstorms
  • Keep a flashlight on you during the evening to avoid encounters with rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, and scorpions
  • Carry at least one gallon of water per day as there is no water at picnic areas or along most trails
Areas of Interest Outside the Park:

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Located on the road leading to the Mexican border, this area flourishes with desert beauty. Thanks to its designation an international biosphere reserve by the United Nations in 1976, more than 20 species of cactuses have been protected. Travel here in the spring for the best blooms and colors. It is a great spot for camping and hiking. Call 520-387-6849 for more information.

Sabino Canyon: Only a few minutes away from the park, this area feels like you traveled to another state in terms of climate and wildlife. You will see waterfalls, swimming holes, and cliffs. It’s a fun place for hikes and picnics.

Kartchner Caverns State Park: Open to the public since 1999, the caverns are full of formations. You can hike, enjoy a scenic drive, or even a guided cave tour. There are also 62 campsites to stay at. Call 520-586-2283.

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