In this country, the best place to see saguaro is in southern Arizona. Here, vast stands of the majestic saguaro stand guard over the desert.
In The Land Of The Saguaro
If you want to be surrounded by saguaro, there’s no better place than Saguaro National Park (and Tucson Mountain Park, right next door). Mid-February, we returned to Tucson after our adventures in Bisbee and Patagonia. This time, we stayed at Gilbert Ray County Park, located in Tucson Mountain Park on the west side of Tucson.
This is a great option for exploring all there is to do on the west side of Tucson without having to drive across the city. We settled in for a weeklong stay at the park, enjoying a variety of hikes, an extraordinary day at the nearby Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum (post to come), and delightful happy hours in our expansive desert garden behind our campsite.
Saguaro Legend And Beauty
The native Tohono O’odham regard the giant cacti not just as a plant, but as another form of humanity. They refer to saguaros as “O’odham,” which means “people” in their language. Wandering through the saguaro, it’s easy to imagine that you’re walking among sentient beings. Given the slightest breeze, the thousands of spines of the saguaro sing in the silence of the desert.
Despite their massive size, saguaros are extremely slow growing. In the first decade of life, they typically grow only about two inches. Between 50-75 years of age, they grow arms (if they grow them at all). At age 125, a saguaro is considered to be an adult, and may be 50 feet tall and weigh several tons.
Here, a quick tour of our hiking highlights on the west side of Tucson:
In Tucson Mountain Park
About a half-mile walk from the campground, the beautiful Brown Mountain Loop Trail offers a five-mile hike that ascends steeply up a rocky trail to the peak of Brown Mountain, with a long hike along the undulating ridge line and views of a carpet of saguaro extending to the horizon.
In Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountain District:
• Valley View Overlook: This picturesque trail of less than a mile climbs through a landscape of cacti, leading to a lovely panoramic view of the saguaro-studded terrain below.
• Signal Hill Trail: A half-mile trail leads to a boulder covered hill with scores of 800-year old petroglyphs pecked into the rock by the Hohokam people. Communication? Decoration? Ancient graffiti? No one knows for certain, but it is nonetheless an awe-inspiring sight.
• Wasson Peak:
One of the highlights of our return to Tucson was meeting up with intrepid hikers, fellow full-timers, and bloggers John and Pam (Oh! The Places They Go!).
Eric and John started off our adventure by leading us on a bushwhack through the cacti, but we pretty quickly found our way to the real trail and completed a spectacular 10-mile loop hike to the top of Wasson Peak, where we enjoyed lunch and stunning views accompanied by fun and interesting conversation.
We even found a crested saguaro on the hike—Pam collects images of the rare crested saguaro, and is always on the lookout for these unique beauties. For unknown reasons, the mature saguaro grows into an intricate, fan-like shape. It was a fabulous all-day hike, and we had a great time getting to know Pam and John while exchanging stories of the full-time traveling lifestyle.
About The Campground
Gilbert Ray County Campground has gorgeous desert scenery and dark night skies and is far from the snarl of city traffic and busyness. It offers electric hookups; great hiking within the park; and is convenient to Saguaro National Park, which has numerous hiking options.
The downsides: First come, first served (this is a popular park, and you need to arrive early to snag a spot); no water hookups (but water faucets are conveniently located in the campground); no showers; and far from the goodies of civilization (including decent grocery stores).