Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Saguaro National Park

Sightseeing at Saguaro National Park
©2006 National Park Services Giant saguaros are silhouetted by the warm glow of sunset, when the desert's many nocturnal creatures emerge from their hiding places to search for food.

For many visitors, Saguaro National Park is their first and only close view of the true Sonoran Desert. The park is a superb place for that introduction.

The saguaro cactus, both aesthetically and biologically, forms the centerpiece of the desert and of the national park. Each giant cactus supports a whole community of animals, including ground-dwellers such as rodents, insects such as honey bees and harvester ants, and songbirds such as the cactus wren, Gila woodpecker, elf owl, gilded flicker, and Lucy's warbler.

Scenic drives and a network of trails at both Saguaro East and Saguaro West are designed to acquaint visitors with the park's varied geology and wildlife, ranging from the pine forests atop the 8,666-foot Rincon Mountains to the classic desert scenes of cactus and creosote bush at lower elevations.

Much of the best hiking in Saguaro is in the eastern portion of the park, where there are more than 150 miles of hiking trails. Most desert aficionados agree that the best time to hike in the Sonoran desert is in late March to early May when the wildflower displays are at their peak.

Special attention is paid to the saguaro forest itself, which tends to be concentrated on the rocky slopes, or bajadas, at the base of desert mountains. The giant saguaro cacti do not typically blossom until late May or early June, however.

Casual visitors should note that the best time for hiking is early morning or evening, when the sun is low on the horizon and shy desert animals such as coyotes, javelinas, and seldom-seen bobcats are busy looking for food.

Saguaro National Park Photo Opportunities

In addition to getting some cool shots of saguaro cacti, you'll want to be sure to stop at these sites to take a picture or two:

  • Valley View Overlook: This scenic spot offers spectacular views of the mountains, desert, and extensive saguaro forests.
  • Cactus Garden Trail: This trail is located in the center of the park and follows a level paved walkway through a collection of incredible desert plant life.
  • Cactus Forest Drive: If you're looking for a route to snap some pictures from your car, this eight-mile jaunt winds through the heart of an extensive saguaro forest and offers a close look at a variety of Sonoran Desert life.
  • Desert Ecology Trail: Located in Saguaro East, this trail features a variety of desert plants and animals. Interpretive signs along the way explain how they survive despite the limited water resources of the Sonora Desert.
©2006 National Park ServicesAlthough dominated by towering saguaros, the Sonoran Desert is home to a variety of vegetation, including hedgehog and prickly-pear cactus, spindly ocotillo, ubiquitous creosote bushes, and the notoriously prickly cholla cactus.

You could spend all day just learning about the habitat of the saguaro cactus and other desert life -- or you could read the next page for an overview.