Tucson's wild side

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

Matthew Jaffe

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

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

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

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

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

GETTING THERE

For information, go to www.nps.gov/sagu or call 520/733-5100. Park admission is $10 per vehicle. Trail maps are available at both visitor centers.

WHAT TO DO

Rincon Mountain District Visitor Center Drive or bike the 8-mile Cactus Forest Dr. (from the visitor center, take Freeman Rd. to Speedway Blvd.). Or try the Garwood Loop, a 5.3-mile route through a saguaro forest (take Douglas Spring Trailhead at the end of Speedway). Old Spanish Trail and Freeman Rd.; 520/733-5153.

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

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Through Apr 15, Raptor Free Flight 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.


More great travel ideas in the Southwest »