The Southwest is Alive at Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National ParkSaguaro National Park is located in the heart of the American Southwest—land of cowboys, iconic desert sunsets, yipping coyotes and, of course, towering saguaro cacti. While at first the Sonoran Desert may appear lifeless, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a vibrant, lively landscape, full of stories to tell and adventures to be had.

The park seems wonderfully remote, yet is surprisingly close to major population centers. Situated in southeastern Arizona, it’s about an hour south of Phoenix, about 80 miles north of the border with Mexico, and less than an hour’s drive from Tucson. Saguaro National Park has two districts—east and west—that are separated by the City of Tucson. This post focuses on the Rincon Mountain District, east of Tucson.

Begin your adventure at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center, where friendly rangers and volunteers can give you information about the park and advice about how to spend your time. While you're there, stock up on locally-produced treats, including prickly pear candies and jams. The prices here are better than what you'll find in some of the tourist shops downtown, and your purchase helps to support the Western National Parks Association, an organization that works with national parks throughout the West to help improve the visitor experience.

Saguaro National Park at SunsetDon't miss Cactus Forest Drive during the evening. This scenic eight-mile loop road, built between 1937 and 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, follows the natural dips and curves of the landscape and offers stunning vistas of the desert landscape.

The drive is beautiful any time of day, but plan ahead to arrive during the golden hour, when everything seems a bit more magical. The park closes at sunset and the loop road takes about 45 minutes to drive, so we recommend starting your journey about an hour an a half before sunset. This will allow plenty of time for taking in the scenery, stopping to take photos and exploring the Desert Ecology Trail, a quarter-mile paved loop with signs along the way that introduce you to the plants and animals that call the Sonoran Desert home. Plan to arrive at Javelina Rocks, a towering rock formation located about three quarters of the way around the loop drive, 30 minutes before sunset, when the sun is low in the sky, casting a golden glow on the rocks and turning the cacti a glimmering green against the evening sky.

Hiking trails, accessible via Speedway Boulevard, lead into the northern part of Saguaro National Park and the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. Choose from a number of winding trails that combine to make loops that range from two to six miles in length. Shorter trails meander along the base of the mountains and through desert washes, while more strenuous trails lead up into the foothills, where you can check out the ruins of old ranches and enjoy views of the cactus-filled valley below.

The trails in Saguaro National Park offer an unprecedented opportunity to get a close-up view of towering saguaro cacti, which can live to be more than 200 years old. As you gaze up at the many-armed giants from trail, marvel at the fact that saguaros take between 50 and 100 years to grow their first arm, and that they thrive here in the Sonoran Desert, where it rains only a few times a year. Although the desert may seem dry and lifeless at first, look closer and you'll see there's wildlife everywhere: Red-tailed hawks soar overhead, woodpeckers and flickers nest in cavities they’ve carved into cacti, burrowing owls peer out of their underground nests, roadrunners dash across the trail and coyotes slink through the sagebrush.

Beyond the Park

Tanque Verde Guest Ranch, located on 60,000 acres of land adjacent to the national park, is the perfect basecamp for exploring the park and the surrounding region.

View of saguaro cacti from guest roomThe ranch offers a range of accommodations, from refurbished historic rooms, which date back to the ranch’s early days, to more modern suites with fireplaces and private patios. Nearly all rooms offer views of the surrounding desert. Look out the window when you rise in the morning, and you'll nearly forget that you're within an hour's drive from a major city!

If you're hoping to learn more about local wildlife, stop by the ranch's nature center, where friendly guides will regale you with a collection of local wildlife specimens, ranging from live snakes and tarantulas to mounted insects. Nature guides also lead birding walks and talks and photography hikes into the desert. Birders will revel at the variety of feathered friends that pass through the area and should stop to explore the garden on the way to Cottonwood Grove, which is a great birdwatching locale. And keep a keen eye around sunrise and sunset, when you may just see a coyote (or at least hear one yipping in the distance).

Breakfast horseback ride among the saguaro cactiThe ranch has an extensive horseback riding program, with exceptional instructors and programs for all experience levels. Whether you've ridden many times before or are just staring out, don't miss the opportunity to "learn the ropes" from the experts at Tanque Verde. During introductory horseback riding lessons, beginners (and those looking to brush up on their riding skills) will learn the fundamentals. For advanced riders, refresher courses provide tips for how to enjoy the ranch to its fullest. Have a rough go at it the first time? Never fear—experienced wranglers and guides will set you up with several horses until you find one that you click with.

Even if you think riding may not be your thing, it's worth it to take a few beginner classes, so you'll be prepped to participate in the breakfast ride into the mountains, which takes place twice a week. This scenic ride and cowboy breakfast feast overlooking the desert is considered by many to be one of the best memories of their stay.

Breakfast among the saguaro cactiIf you're lucky, breakfast will be cooked up the ranch owner himself, who has been perfecting his cast-iron blueberry pancake recipe for decades. The sweetness of perfectly crisped blueberry pancakes is rounded out with many savory options, including bacon and cowboy hash. Then it's time for a ride back down to the ranch for relaxing or heading to another lesson.

After a day spent on horseback, on the trail, or even by the pool, head over to the Doghouse Saloon for some excellent handcrafted margaritas made by friendly bartenders. Margaritas not your thing? The creative bartenders offer a rotating list of cocktails made with local ingredients and there is a variety of local beers on tap. Don't miss the ranch's signature cocktail: the prickly pear margarita with handcrafted prickly pear syrup, made from fruit grown at the ranch.

In addition to excellent dining room fare, the ranch also offers periodic cookout lunches and dinners. Here you'll find tasty picnic and barbeque fare, live music, country line dancing, and maybe even a javelina sighting!

Additional activities and amenities at the ranch include a swimming pool, tennis courts, guided photography walks, campfire storytelling sessions and mountain bike rides into the desert. Or, after a long day on the trail, head to the ranch’s spa for a relaxing massage or treatment using organic and locally made products.

Tuscon is the nearest major city and just a 45-minute drive from the ranch. The ranch offers airport connections, and friendly drivers will make sure to get you to and from the airport and offer stories about the area’s history during your tip.

If you're able to pull yourself away from the relaxing atmosphere of the ranch, don't miss the opportunity to explore downtown Tucson, which offers excellent Southwestern style food as well as a great arts scene.

We recommend visiting the 4th Avenue and Downtown areas near Congress Street. Here you’ll find a great mixture of shopping, dining, cultural exhibits and art galleries. For lunch, try Café Poca Cosa offering gourmet Mexico City cuisine with a few local twists. The menu is written on a chalkboard and changes daily. Try the Plato Poca Cosa, which includes a chef’s choice of three menu items. Your server will be happy to guide you through this process, which is a delicious gamble!

If you're looking for more outdoor adventure, consider a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where you'll learn about local species in their natural habitat, including the Gila monster, jackrabbit, desert tortoise, bobcat and many more.

Additional day trips include a day-long adventure to the top of Mount Lemmon or a nighttime trip to the Sky Center observatory for stargazing.

Or head to Sabino Canyon for some hiking and exploration. Not ready for a full day of exertion? Heed the advice o the locals: take the tram up to the top, then enjoy a leisurely walk down!

by Kelly Restuccia

Images: Hiking trails lead into the Rincon Mountains at Saguaro National Park; Cactus Forest Drive is best experienced at sunset; Guest rooms at Tanque Verde Ranch offer views of the surrounding landscape; Guests at Tanque Verde Ranch can participate in a variety of horseback riding lessons and adventures; An early-morning horseback ride ends with blueberry pancakes and cowboy hash.

This trip was sponsored in part by Tanque Verde Ranch; opinions are my own.