Saguaro National Park – Tucson Mountain District (West)
Location: Tucson, AZ
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes in the gift shop
Saguaro National Park is split into two parts on either side of Tucson. Both districts of the park offer hiking, backcountry hiking, scenic drives and a Visitor’s Center. The big attraction at Saguaro is the abundance of saguaro cacti which the park is named for. Saguaro cacti are the tall cacti with the arms. The landscape around Saguaro is exactly what you picture when someone says Southwest. You’d expect to see a tumbleweed and a cowboy ride past you. We didn’t see either but Saguaro was an awesome stop.
We opted to visit the Tucson Mountain District of the park which is on the West side of Tucson. If you are coming to the park you need to be fully aware that this is exactly what you would expect from a visit to the desert. It was HOT (113 according to the car that day). The air is very dry. There is no shade.
We started our visit to the park at the Red Hills Visitor Center. We watched a very informative film about the history of the park and the importance of the saguaro cactus both to its ecosystem and to the native people who called this area home. The film takes about 20 minutes and it is well worth the time. The kids also spent some time exploring the small museum and completing their Jr Ranger books.
We had a fair amount of bad luck while visiting Saguaro National Park. Baby girl decided to start spiking a fever mid-way through the film. Because she wasn’t feeling great we decided that we would just take turns hiking the very short (maybe ¼ mile) loop around the Visitor’s Center. This was a very easy hike although it was a dirt path so I’m not sure I’d try to take a stroller on it. The trail walks you through a lot of desert eco system and you can get some nice up close views of the various types of cactus that call this park home.
During this time, it also started to thunder. Thunder in the desert means that you have to get under cover because normally you are the tallest thing around so lightning is a very real danger. Between the thread of lightning and a sick baby, we decided to forgo any hiking plans. We decided to take the scenic Bajada Loop Drive. This 6 mile loop is an unpaved road that takes you up close to the desert. Although the road was unpaved and a little rough in some spots you don’t need an off-road vehicle to drive it. We managed to drive the full thing in a minivan. We saw many magnificent saguaro. We helped another tourist move a desert tortoise out of the middle of the roadway. We also got to experience a summer monsoon (I have a new appreciation for that word).
Overall: Despite the horrible luck we had with weather and illness, Saguaro was an awesome park. You don’t need to be able to hike to take in the beauty of the desert. I do wish we could have gotten out among the cactus more so I would love to return in the future. If you are in the Tucson area, Saguaro is a must see.