Saguaro National Park, Tucson
By Nikki Buchanan
For tourists and locals alike, the word “forest” usually conjures trees, not a stand of saguaro cactuses covered in spines. But candelabra-shaped saguaros, found exclusively in our Sonoran Desert, are classified as arborescent (tree-like), so the “forest” label is hardly a stretch. Nomenclature aside, Tucson’s cactus forest — tucked within Saguaro National Park East and nestled up against the Rincon Mountains — is as starkly beautiful as any primeval forest you’ve ever seen or imagined.
Thanks to Cactus Forest Drive, a paved, one-way road that loops through 8 miles of rugged desert at an elevation of roughly 3,000 feet, visitors to this peaceful preserve are quickly immersed in our state’s most iconic assets: craggy peaks, sweeping vistas, spectacular sunsets and cactuses, cactuses, cactuses.
A smart first step is stopping at the visitors center for maps, literature and a short video on the flora and fauna of the park, an area thick with desert scrub such as creosotes, mesquites and paloverdes. This arid place is also home to 25 species of cactuses and 230 species of vertebrate desert critters, ranging from ground squirrels and Gila woodpeckers to mule deer and bobcats.
In late winter and early spring, you’re likely to find birds nesting and wildflowers blooming. Creamy-white blossoms adorn the saguaros from April to June, succeeded in June and July by the ripe, red fruit that coyotes and javelinas favor. If you visit deep into summer, you might see a small herd of adult javelinas and their babies sprawled out and snoozing in the dirt. Summer temperatures make these people-shy peccaries (which aren’t closely related to pigs) bold enough to seek out the ample shade of the visitors center.
Back in the car, you’ll veer to the left, following a narrow, undulating road so full of twists and turns that driving slowly is a must, given that you’ll be sharing the road with the occasional cyclist or hiker. Nearly a mile in, you’ll find the first of four overlooks featuring information posts with interesting and little-known desert lore, as well as views sure to elicit a “wow” or two.
A mile beyond Cactus Forest Overlook (the second pullout and one of the most impressive), you’ll find the interpretive Desert Ecology Trail, a paved, wheelchair-accessible path that spurs even the most sedentary to leave the car and take an easy 0.3-mile stroll. The more adventurous can stop, park and take the Cactus Forest Trail south for 2.5 miles to where it crosses the park road again. The seriously committed might venture into the wilds of the Rincons with a tent, a backpack and park permission to camp overnight.
For the rest of us, there are another 4.5 miles of gorgeous desert driving, plus a picnic area near the end of the loop — because who doesn’t work up an appetite out in the forest?
Photo: Slabs of metamorphic gneiss overlook the namesake cactuses of Saguaro National Park East. | Randy Prentice
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 8-mile loop
Directions: From downtown Tucson, go east on Broadway Boulevard for 8.4 miles to Old Spanish Trail. Turn right onto Old Spanish Trail and continue 5.8 miles to Cactus Forest Drive, which leads into Saguaro National Park East. Turn left onto Cactus Forest Drive and continue 0.2 miles to a fork. Bear left at the fork to stay on Cactus Forest Drive, then continue 8 miles around the loop and back to the starting point.
Vehicle requirements: None
Special Consideration: The park’s entry fee is $10 for passenger vehicles and $5 for pedestrians and bicyclists. The park is open to vehicles from 7 a.m. to sunset, and the visitors center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don’t travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Information: Saguaro National Park East, 520-733-5153 or www.nps.gov/sagu