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Saguaro National Park
A few years ago my husband and I drove from a week's holiday in California to another week in Phoenix. While we were there we visited this unique National Park. Being a National Park it is part of the NP services and as such the 'America the Beautiful' card will get you in as it is the annual season ticket that gets you in any National Park in the country for a year. If you plan on visiting a few National Parks then it is well worth buying a card as it will work out much cheaper for you but do the sums first to check.
WHERE WILL I FIND THIS PARK?
This park is very close to Tucson in Arizona and is the home of the Saguaro which is the largest cacti in North America. These are the cacti that look like a man with his arms in the air and they appear in many a Western movie. They are found only in this fairly small area and in this park they are a protected species. The park covers an area to the east and west of the city of Tucson.
PRICES AND OPENING TIMES
Entrance fee paid for Saguaro National Park is good for seven days and will also give you entry to both the Tucson Mountain District (West) and the Rincon Mountain District (East).
Saguaro National Park Vehicle Permit - $10.00 (U.S. Dollars) - one car/non commercial vehicle plus passengers
Saguaro National Park Individual Permit - $5.00/person (U.S. Dollars) - one person on foot or bicycle under 15 free.
The National Park also has these days free entry for 2013:
January 21 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) April 22-26 (National Park Week) August 25 (National Park Service Birthday) September 28 (National Public Lands Day) November 9-11 (Veterans Day weekend)
The annual Saguaro card is $25 US and an 'America the Beautiful' card for 2013 is $80US.
Both areas of the park are open to vehicles from sunrise to sunset daily. You can walk on or bike in to the park 24 hours a day.
There are two Visitor Centers which are also open 364 days per year (closed Christmas day). They open Monday - Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
THE VISITOR CENTRES
These are well worth visiting as they have great displays and information boards as well as suggestions of things to see and do. There is of course the gift shop selling souvenirs, books, local pottery and food from the area as well as seeds of both Saguaro and Joshua trees. I bought one packet of each. The Joshua tree seeds did not grow at all. My saguaro are still very tiny but surviving. They are the size of my thumb nail and have not grown much beyond that in all the years I have had them!
The saguaro cactus only grows naturally in the Sonoran Desert and there are approximately 1.6 million individual saguaro plants growing within Saguaro National Park. That is a stunning number and I have to ay you cannot fail to ne impressed with the size and number of cacti within the National Park.
WHAT YOU CAN DO THERE
Most people enjoy hiking but if you plan on doing that make sure you have a map and PLENTY of water. They suggest 1 quart of water per hour of hiking as it is very hot and dry. If you are not into hiking then you can horse ride, bike or drive around. There are specific marked trails for all types of transport which you can find maps for at the visitor centres.
Being short of time and lacking the interest in walking we chose to drive. We were in the Eastern park of the Rincon Mountain District and drove the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive which was fully sealed or paved with some parts one way. Once again you cannot fault the American efficiency and design of these places as this drive allowed us to stop in several places for different views and photo opportunities and in total covered about 8 miles. We did buy the guide to the drive which gave us information about the cacti we might see, the animals native to the area and also a bit of cultural history of the area too. It was pretty cheap at $2US and we found it interesting and useful.
If you choose to go horse back riding then you must follow the trails in order to protect the vegetation. In fact I would say that you would be pretty stupid not to follow any of the trials however you plan on getting about as it would be safer for you and the environment.
ABOUT THE SAGUARO
If you have not seen these giant cacti they are huge two or three times the height of a person with big fat 'branches' like arms up in the air. They are everywhere and even though they are strange and not that pretty there is something attractive about them all standing there for mile and miles. There are other cacti between these giant and unless you are very lucky these smaller ones are the only ones you might see in flower as the saguaro flowers at night when it is cooler and the flowers close by midday.
The saguaro flower is the state flower of Arizona and they are creamy-white with a yellow centre. They are quite big, about three inches wide and tend to bloom in May and June. According to pictures we saw they seem to be at the end of the 'branches' in clusters but sadly we did only see them in photos in the visitor centers.
We read in our guide that the Saguaro has more stamens per flower than any other desert cactus. The Saguaro can only be fertilized by cross-pollination sweet nectar in the flower as well as the color attract birds, bats and insects which take the nectar and return the favour by cross pollinating the cacti.
The huge cacti have surprisingly shallow root systems despite their huge size. It has one tap root that is about 3 feet long, many more other fat roots that are only about a foot deep and then smaller roots that spread sideways and wrap around rocks to help give support.
These cacti can absorb and store vast quantities of water and this along with their very slow growth allows them to flower every year even in dry years. They grows very slowly about an inch a year so as most of those we saw were well above 15 feet tall you can see how old they are. Experts reckon that the largest plants can be about 200 years old. These old 'men' are often thirty feet tall and have five arms or branches.
OUR SECOND DRIVE
As we tend to only visit somewhere once we wanted to see as much as we could while we were here we drove to the other visitor centre and then did the other drive loop. This was in the west park and was called the Scenic Bajada Loop . This one was closer to the foothills and was also not sealed so was a little more off-road. It was graded and some parts were one way and it was drivable in a normal car rather than a 4x4 as there is little rain in the desert. This drive is about 6 mile and the guide for the drive sold in the Red Hills visitor center is $1 US (9.7 km) loop. High clearance or four-wheel drive is not needed to drive the loop. I would suggest you get the guide as it does give directions around the loop although it is signed too.
My husband is a huge fan of Western movies and so we have seen quite a few over the years so it was great to see these giant cacti in real life. I was quite amazed at their size and found them strangely appealing.
Well worth a visit if you are down in Arizona or nearby. We spent the best part of a day visiting this National Park and also Old Tuscon which is where a number of Western films were shot. These were both possible to visit on the same day driving from Phoenix for a day trip.
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