Exploring The Parks: Saguaro National Park In Spring

As the snow continues to pile up in the northern U.S. and Canada, thoughts not surprisingly turn to warm weather settings.

Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona is a great place to explore in early spring. The saguaros are the highlight of this national park, of course. The scenery is spectacular and captures the beauty that is so unique to the region.

The Rincon Mountain District (East) includes the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, an eight-mile paved route that provides access to a variety of trails. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rincon Mountain District (East) includes the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, an eight-mile paved route that provides access to a variety of trails. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even though the calendar says winter, wildflowers could start showing their happy faces by late February. Since an unusual amount of moisture was delivered by El Niño, the blooms should be out in force this spring with plenty of color to go around. At this stage it’s all guesswork as to where the gaudiest displays will burst across the landscape. But Saguaro National Park is reasonably close to a sure thing.

With the wildflowers seeming to peak in March and April, now is a great time to start planning a Saguaro getaway.

Last March a BioBlitz was conducted in the park with volunteers identifying nearly 100 plant species.

Saguaro National Park has two districts. The Rincon Mountain District is located to the East of Tucson and the Tucson Mountain District is located to the West. Both districts have their own visitor center, scenic drives, and hiking trail systems.

Stretching outward, an army of saguaro cacti waved at me with their massive prickly arms. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stretching outward, an army of saguaro cacti waved at me with their massive prickly arms. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District are approximately 30 miles (45-60 minutes) apart. While similar in terms of plants and animals, the intricate details make both areas worthy of a visit.

The Eastern Rincon Mountain District rises to over 8,000 feet and includes over 128 miles of trails. The Western Tucson Mountain District is generally lower in elevation with a denser saguaro forest.

The Rincon Mountain District  includes a one-way paved road drive, the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop, that winds through the spectacular saguaros and is navigable by RVs under 35 feet long and less than 8 feet wide. This 8-mile loop includes several trailheads, picnic areas, scenic vistas, and pullouts.

You may want to stop at the visitor center for a guide to the natural and cultural history that can be viewed along the drive.

You can surround yourself in the color by hiking the Douglas Spring Trail and on to Bridal Wreath Falls, where hanging gardens are nourished by the falling waters—which can either be a trickle, or a torrent, depending on recent rains.

Since an unusual amount of moisture was delivered by El Niño, the blooms should be out in force this spring with plenty of color to go around. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since an unusual amount of moisture was delivered by El Niño, the blooms should be out in force this spring with plenty of color to go around. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While you’re hiking in the forest, be sure to keep an eye out for Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers that whittle out cavities in saguaros for their nests. At the same time, don’t forget to watch where you step, as rattlesnakes and gila monsters also make this area their home.

Another great stop when you’re visiting Saguaro is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near the Tuscon Mountain District to the west of downtown. This indoor-outdoor museum really drills down into the ecology of the Sonoran Desert. Within the museum’s plant and animal collection are 20 endangered or threatened species. The museum also serves as a genetic refuge for “three endangered native fish, one state endangered snake, and several endangered plants.”

After exploring the exhibits inside the museum, head out and walk the trails on the property. The trails lead to some pretty interesting displays/exhibits, such as the Hummingbird Aviary and the Walk-in Aviary, where 40 bird species live, including Cardinals, Gambel’s quail, and the Greater roadrunner.

If you block out enough time for your southern Arizona dose of warmth, consider heading west about two hours to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

The many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground, instead of growing like a massive trunk of the saguaro. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground, instead of growing like a massive trunk of the saguaro. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overall visitation in 2015 was a healthy 10.65 percent higher than in 2014 (1,217,000 vs. 1,099,910).

What’s to do in Organ Pipe? Desert photography, birding, night sky viewing, camping, hiking, and scenic drives.

Worth Pondering…

A saguaro can fall for a snowman but where would they set up house?

—Jodi Picoult

Leave a Reply