Explore the ancient cactus forest budding into bloom at Saguaro National Park

With cactus buds forming and with temperatures warm but stillfar from summer's heat, spring is magic time in the desert. But thedesert seems like a long way to travel in a month unblessed by longweekends.

That's why we love Saguaro National Park, a spectacular Sonorandesert bracketing two sides of the city of Tucson:You can fly into Tucson for a weekend of desert hiking and still beback at work on Monday.

Longtime Tucson resident Bill Broyles, author of Sunshot: Peril and Wonder in the Gran Desierto, has wanderedcountless Sonoran areas, from foreboding salt flats to theEden-like wildflower fields of spring. Still, Saguaro National Parkhas a unique hold on him. "One of the first places my familyvisited when we moved to Tucson in 1951 was the cactus forest inthe Rincons," he says. "It's a place that has always been part ofour psyche."

The cactus forest is indeed unforgettable, especially in spring,when the park's namesake saguaros come into full bloom ― amagical sight, not least because it's so ephemeral. Saguarosthemselves, on the other hand, have a timeless quality about them:They can grow up to 40 feet and live up to 200 years, oftensurviving drought, frost, and even lightning strikes.

You'll learn all there is to know about saguaros at theArizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which celebrates the Sonoran'sdiverse habitats. The museum is in the Tucson Mountains, so you canbrush up on your botany before stepping out into the desert to seethe real thing. And there lies the real beauty of the park: It's anessential part of Tucson. As Broyles puts it, "Saguaro NationalPark is one of the wild places that makes Tucson what it is."

GETTING THERE

For information, go to www.nps.gov/sagu or call520/733-5100. Park admission is $10 per vehicle. Trail maps areavailable at both visitor centers.

WHAT TO DO

Rincon Mountain District Visitor Center Drive or bike the8-mile Cactus Forest Dr. (from the visitor center, take Freeman Rd.to Speedway Blvd.). Or try the Garwood Loop, a 5.3-mile routethrough a saguaro forest (take Douglas Spring Trailhead at the endof Speedway). Old Spanish Trail and Freeman Rd.; 520/733-5153.

Red Hills Visitor Center Covers the Tucson MountainDistrict. The easy King Canyon Trail climbs 3.5 miles (one way) toWasson Peak, which offers the park's best views. 2700 N. KinneyRd.; 520/733-5158.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Through Apr 15, Raptor FreeFlight features trained birds of prey flying around the grounds.$12; 2021 N. Kinney Rd.; www.desertmuseum.org;520/883-2702.

WHERE TO STAY

La Zarzuela The inn overlooks the desert. From $295; www.zarzuela-az.com;888/848-8225.


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