The eerily humanoid yet humungous presence of saguaro cacti will both shock and awe any visitor to Tucson. But there's nothing like seeing a whole forest of them, their branches sometimes contorted like in Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons, or sometimes so numerous that they seem capable of toppling at any moment.
For this surreal experience, there's no better place in the world than Saguaro National Park.
In the Park
This 75-year-old national park that bookends the city in two large, majestic swaths is like no other place in the country. A mountain-rippled landscape teems with these gargantuan green beasts, plus 18 types of trees and shrubs, a dozen perennial flowers and another dozen cacti species.
There are also six different ecosystems on display (from desert scrub to conifer forest), more than 200 kms of hiking trails, six leave-no-trace camping sites and an excellent outreach program featuring day camps, field trips, lectures, guided walks and sunset hikes.
The star attraction is the saguaro, which is unique to the Sonoran Desert and an integral part of a food chain that includes coyotes, foxes, javelinas, rodents, birds, insects and humans.
Indigenous peoples still harvest the juicy, fig-like fruit—which ripens in June and July, following two months of nocturnal blooming of up to 100 flowers on each crown—for jams, syrups and religious ceremonies, as well as its robust ribs for shelter and future harvests.
By the Numbers
Saguaros can reach 50 feet tall and weigh as much as eight tonnes, they can store 200 gallons of water (enough for a full year) within their accordion-esque pleats and spongy flesh and they can produce as many as 40 million seeds in a lifetime—which can last 200 years.
For all their might, they need a nurse tree (usually palo verde or mesquite) to survive through adolescence, reaching a foot in height around 15 years, producing fruit around 30, becoming taller than most humans around 50, and finally sprouting arms around 75. And though their numbers declined dramatically in the 20th century, a hopeful recover is underway.
The park is open year round from sunrise to sunset. Admission is free to the West Park; seven-day permits are $5 at the East Park; most extracurricular activities are by donation.