Friday, August 15, 2014

National park honors iconic cactus

Saguaro National Park landscape
The Saguaro cactus stand tall and proud in this section of the Sonora Desert, reminding us of fir and pine trees in a forest.

Saguaro National Park was established in 1933 to protect and preserve these symbols of the American West as this cactus is found only in a small area of the desert that surrounds Tucson, Arizona. Tucson itself separates the national park. The west section is known as the Tucson Mountain District while the east park section is known as Rincon Mountain District.

View from the visitor center
The west district that we visited isn’t just desert, but also contains mountains more than 4,600 feet high. (Mountains more than 8.600 feet high can be found at Rincon.) Desert scrub and grass lands lie at the base of the mountains.

The Saguaro is the nation’s largest cactus and they’re visible almost as far as the eye can see. Other varieties of cactus, including the ocotillo, can be found there, though the Saguaro dominates the landscape. Its blossoms are the Arizona state flower.

Wild animals, including coyotes, desert tortoises and a variety of rattlesnakes, can be seen in the park.

The west section offers a five-mile gravel loop road giving visitors a glimpse of the park. There also are hiking trails, though walkers should be on the lookout for rattlesnakes during the hot months. Hikers also should be sure to carry lots of water with them.

Tucson Mountain visitor center
The park is open to vehicles from sunrise to sunset daily, though hikers and bikers can use the park around the clock. Camping is not available. Both park sections have visitor centers that are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

The Tucson Mountain District might be considered the poor man’s Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. That museum, located just a couple of miles away, charged admission of almost $20 per person per visit in 2014. The national park charges just $10 per vehicle for a weekly pass. The landscape isn’t that much different, though the desert museum several indoor exhibits in air-conditioned buildings.

The Tucson Mountain District can be reached by taking the Speedway exit off Interstate 10 in Tucson and heading south. Follow the signs to the desert museum, only keep going past the museum turnoff.

For more photos of the park, please see my Saguaro National Park slideshow.

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