15 Surprising Things We Learned at Saguaro National Park

For weeks leading up to our trip to Saguaro National Park last month, there was a raging debate happening at our house:

Is it pronounced Sa-guaro with a ‘g’ or Sa-wah-ro with a ‘w’?

Convinced after hearing the name in podcasts and National Park Service videos pronounced with a silent ‘g’, I was pretty sure that Greg was going to lose the argument. (See #1 below for the official answer to how you pronounce Saguaro.)

Truth is Saguaro–our 74th unit of the 400+ National Park Service sites we’ve visited–earned a reputation of being full of surprises. There was so much we didn’t know about the park before our Arizona road trip. And much of what we thought we knew about the desert Southwest was utterly wrong (thanks Hollywood!)

Saguaro Needles

Today we’re posting our list of 15 things we learned while visiting the park–all of them surprising to us. If you’re already an expert on the park, be sure to leave us a note in the comments below or on Facebook about what else you find interesting and exciting about Saguaro. If you haven’t had a chance to visit yet, we hope these tidbits inspire you or a friend to take an upcoming trip to Saguaro National Park.

You just never know the surprises you find in a national park…

1. It’s actually pronounced Sah-WAR-oh.

I hope you can envision how blown away we were about this one. Since pretty much the beginning of our #parkchasing history, we’ve been saying Saguaro with a hard ‘g’ sound. In our defense though, so does 90% of America.

Saguaro is actually pronounced Sah-WAR-oh, no ‘g’ sound at all. Thankfully, the park ranger staff and locals we met didn’t seem too concerned with our constant self-corrections. The origins of the word come from Mexican Spanish, probably from Ópata (Uto-Aztecan language of Sonora, Mexico) and describe the tall, column-shaped cactus we’ve all come to know and love.

2. Saguaro National Park is only 30 minutes from the Tucson Airport.

Unlike some of the other national park gateway towns we’ve visited, Saguaro National Park shares space with one of the largest cities in Arizona. The Tucson International Airport is just 30 minutes from the park’s main Visitor’s Center, making it one of the easiest national parks to check off your #parkchasing list.

We added Saguaro National Park into a longer Arizona road trip itinerary, with stops in Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon National Park. The Phoenix airport also works well for a trip to Saguaro; it’s less than 3 hours drive from the park entrance.

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3. The park is split into two ‘districts.’

In completing our pre-trip park research, another unique feature of Saguaro National Park appeared. It’s one of the few of the 60+ national parks that split the park’s land into multiple units. Acadia National Park and Redwood National Park were the only two others we’ve been to with similar land management structures.

Saguaro National Park’s units are split over the downtown Tucson area. The Eastern region of the park is known as the Rincon Mountain District and is the larger of the two sections. A substantial part of this land is designated wilderness area–but more on that later. The western part of the park is known as the Tucson Mountain District; it is smaller but has a much larger concentration of saguaro forests.

We opted for one of the most popular options for first time-visitors: Spend the first day hiking and driving in the western section of the park and then spend a second day in the eastern part of the park.

4. Saguaros only grow in the Sonoran Desert.

So here’s the first ‘myth buster’ of our trip. Ask any 6-year-old to draw you a picture of what they think lives in the desert, and we can almost guarantee that you’ll get a saguaro cactus. Unless you’ve been to Saguaro, or you live in this part of the world, pretty much all of America has grown up thinking saguaros live in deserts everywhere.

We think of Texas desert and saguaros.
Cowboys and saguaros.
Somewhere hot and dry, and guess what. Saguaros.
Am I right?

But even though these big, giant, beautiful cacti are what we all know and love about the western United States, here’s the deal. They only grow in the Sonoran desert, which is this tiny part of Arizona, New Mexico and California. Check out a map and see for yourself:

North American Map of the Sonoran Desert outlined in green
Map provided by: wikipedia.com

If you want to get up close a personal with a saguaro, there’s only a few places in the United States that can happen. And Saguaro National Park is one of the best options.

5. In fact, pretty much everything John Wayne taught us about the Southwest…was wrong.

This tags right along with #4. While we were at Saguaro National Park, it became pretty apparent to us that most of what we know about the desert southwest was blatantly false.

Danielle and Bryan from the Everybody’s National Parks podcast did a full episode titled Saguaro: Symbol of the American West that talks about how Hollywood icons like John Wayne shape what we know about places like Saguaro National Park.

Just watch this clip of John Wayne drinking from a barrel cactus to get a sense of what we mean when we say TOTALLY wrong.

6. Saguaros don’t grow an arm until around age 75.

One of the other crazy things we learned right away when we got to the park: saguaros are old. Like, really old.

In fact, those lovely arms or branches that a giant saguaro cactus lifts to the sky don’t start growing until around age 75. In the first eight years of life, a saguaro only grows between 1 and 1.5 inches total. The average life span of a saguaro is probably 150 – 175 years of age. Biologists estimate that some saguaros in the park can live to be over 200 years old.

Saguaro Cactus with 3 arms

7. Saguaro National Park visitor numbers are growing.

Like most of the units in the National Park Service, Saguaro continues to see higher visitor stats year over year. On average, just short of a million visitors spend time in the park each year. That’s substantial growth in just a decade. In 2008, there were only around 700,000 visitors annually to the park.

Saguaro continues to look for strategies to meet the growing needs of all these new visitors while still protecting the cacti and the natural landscape.

ParkChasers at Saguaro
The Park Chasers were among the nearly 1 million people that visit Saguaro each year.

8. The highest point in Saguaro National Park is Mica Mountain at 8660 feet.

If you’ve followed along with us, you’ll know we love a good mountain hike. We didn’t expect or anticipate that Saguaro National Park would be the spot we could find one. (See #4 – Our limited understanding of saguaros also included the idea that deserts are also flat!!) While the time constraints of our road trip didn’t allow us to hike the multi-day trip to Mica Mountain, we’ll be back (See #14).

And we’re planning to come back because not only does Saguaro have desert landscape, as you approach the summit of the Rincon Mountains, you’ll also find pine forests.

You’re thinking… Pine trees? Really?

Yep. Saguaro National Park has pines and cacti all wrapped up in one amazing park. We can’t wait to go back again.

9. Saguaro has only been a National Park since 1994.

Although Saguaro has been in a national monument since 1933, it’s fairly new to the circle of national parks.

Saguaro was designated as the 53rd national park by Congress around the same time as Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park in California. At the time of designation, much of the park was set aside as Designated Wilderness Area, which means kept as pristine and as free from human influence as possible.

Saguaro National Park and Blue Sky

10. Six endangered species call Saguaro home.

As we got to know more about the diversity in elevation and how it changes the diversity in plant life in the park, we also learned about the hundreds of different animal species that call the park home. That includes six species listed on the endangered species list–the jaguar, Mexican spotted owl, and lesser long-nosed bat to name a few.

Lizard in Saguaro National Park

11. There’s no front-country camping inside the park.

Here’s something we learned in prep for our trip to Saguaro. There are no front-country drive up campgrounds in the national park. There are hike-in campgrounds, but no options for the drive-up-and-stay camping that most of us are used to in a national park.

Thankfully, the park service maintains a list of camping options around the Tucson area. There are a few Arizona State Parks and Pima County Parks though within 10-15 miles of the park entrance.

12. Saguaro has more than 175 miles of hiking trails.

We can’t wait to share some hiking options with you in some upcoming posts. Saguaro has hiking options for everyone on your list. From paved, fully-accessible, self-guided trails like the Desert Ecology Trail to the multi-day strenuous trips into the backcountry, Saguaro has a little bit of everything. You’re also connected to the Arizona National Scenic Trail in the Rincon Mountain District which offers 800 more miles of hiking options outside the park.

A few things to know about hiking in Saguaro:

  • Pay attention. It sounds silly, but even in the short time we were there we had some close calls with cacti. There’s also no off-trail hiking below 4,500 feet in the park.
  • No pets on the trails.
  • It no shocker that it gets hot in Saguaro. Hiking in the early morning and late afternoon helps with the heat, but be prepared with a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water.

13. If it’s too hot to hike, try the two scenic loop drives.

On both days in the park we found that it was too hot to comfortably hike in the afternoon. Instead, we spent that time driving the park’s two scenic loop drives, Bajada Loop and Cactus Forest. We recommend you try to see at least one, if not both during your trip to the park.

View along the Bajada Loop Drive

14. Manning Camp is a popular backcountry destination.

We’ve already mentioned planning a second visit to Saguaro. If we get the opportunity to go back, we hope to plan a multi-day trip to Manning Camp. Here’s what the park has to say about this backcountry destination:

Built by former Tucson Mayor Levi Manning, this camp was his family’s summer home. Now it serves as a high elevation (8000 feet) base for many of our fire and natural resource studies. A Ranger is stationed here from April- September (normally) and six campsites exist. The hike is from 14-18 miles from Tucson, and accumulates from 5500-6500 feet of elevation. Extraordinary views and amazing changes in flora and fauna composition exist, passing through riparian zones and dry cliff alike.

From https://www.nps.gov/sagu/planyourvisit/camping.htm
Cholla Cactus

15. Saguaros aren’t the only cactus you can see in the park.

Once again, this was probably our lack of knowledge about the desert Southwest failed us when it came to the cacti. The number of other cactus species in the park impressed us. We spent just as much time looking and learning about barrel and cholla and prickly pear as we did the saguaro.

15 Things to Know About Saguaro National Park


Greg & Amy
Chasing a visit to all 400+ units in the NPS
Current Count: 130/423
Next Stop: @hawaiivolcanoes


3 thoughts on “15 Surprising Things We Learned at Saguaro National Park”

  1. Pingback: Visiting the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson - Park Chasers

  2. Pingback: Hiking Saguaro National Park: The Valley View Overlook Trail - Park Chasers

  3. So we visited family in Mesa, my first visit to Arizona in my 50 years of living. There were saguaros all over. Does this area count as part of the Sonoran Desert? Its apparently a 2 hour drive to the Sonoran Desert from Mesa.

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