Iconic Cacti and Innovative Learning Collide in Arizona's Desert

December 8, 2017Travel Ideas
— Jonathan Horng, Share the Experience

Spanning two separate “districts” on either side of the city of Tucson, Saguaro National Park is one of the best places in the United States to see our Southwestern desert ecosystem in all its glory. Home to a diverse assortment of plants and animals — including, of course, its namesake saguaro cactus, which is the largest cactus in North America — this park offers endless opportunities for recreation and exploration.

Much more than desert

Lighting striking the ground during a distant storm at Saguaro National Park
Kevin Wixted, Share the Experience

Saguaro National Park is best known for its desert landscape and the astonishing saguaro cacti that grow there, but it is home to so much more. This vast park encompasses a wide range of ecosystems, from desert scrub and grassland to oak woodland and mixed conifer forest, spanning elevations from 2,180 feet to 8,666 feet.

Within this varied landscape exist countless opportunities to reconnect with nature, including scenic driving routes and hiking trails of varying length and difficulty. The park’s guided tours and ranger-led programs give visitors of all ages a chance to immerse themselves in the world of Saguaro National Park.

Two parks in one

Close-up of a spiral hieroglyph at Saguaro National Park

Hieroglyphs at Signal Hills at Saguaro National Park

Marion Ball, Share the Experience

While Saguaro National Park is managed as a cohesive unit, it consists of two distinct districts, with the city of Tucson nestled in between. The Tucson Mountain District to the west and the Rincon Mountain District to the east are about 30 miles apart, and each provides a unique experience.

  • The Tucson Mountain District is home to coyote, skunks,  and 5 types of bats. Its highlights include the Valley View Overlook Trail, with expansive views of the Avra Valley and the mountains beyond, as well as the Signal Hill Picnic Area, where hundreds of ancient petroglyphs are on display. Also of note is the fascinating orientation program at the Red Hills Visitor Center, which offers a Native American perspective on the saguaro cactus.
  • The Rincon Mountain District is the more ecologically diverse of the two districts. It offers incredible views along Cactus Forest Loop Drive, which is open to cars and bicycles and provides access to numerous hiking trails. You can also learn more about homesteading in the desert along the Freeman Homestead Trail or venture into the Rincon Mountain Saguaro Wilderness Area, one of the park's most untamed areas

Although the districts are geographically separate, an entrance pass to either area is valid in both for a period of seven days, so there's no need to worry about paying the entrance fee twice. What’s more, the central location of Tucson between these two districts makes it easy to explore both over a period of several days while making the city your home base. 

Support for Saguaro National Park

Red and orange sunset with the arms of the saguaro cactuses reaching into the sky at Saguaro National Park
Michel Hersen, Share the Experience

Saguaro National Park continues to thrive thanks, in part, to the efforts of the National Park Foundation. Via a grant from the NPF, Saguaro National Park has been able to engage and inspire local fourth-grade students through the Every Kid in a Park program by helping them make lasting personal connections to nature. This grant has also made it possible for fourth- through sixth-grade hiking clubs to make repeated visits to the park throughout the year. Past educational programs created by the park and supported through the NPF have also included an online web resource that teaches about the park’s biodiversity via interactive games and lesson plans.

Since 2015, the National Park Foundation has also worked with the park and its partnering association, the Friends of Saguaro National Park, as they established the Next Generation Ranger Corps. This program allows youth interested in pursuing careers with the National Park Service to better understand the agency and its work. College students work and learn in Saguaro National Park, receiving a basic understanding of national park history, a broad range of job training, and the chance to work with a mentor on an individualized project

Saguaro National Park is a truly special place that offers limitless possibilities to learn about, explore, and enjoy a one-of-a-kind landscape. It's also one of two dozen National Park Service units across the state of Arizona, making it an accessible addition to any Southwest road trip. Whether you’re visiting in person or virtually, Saguaro is an iconic American landscape worth exploring and sharing with our nation’s next generation.

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