The saguaro cactus is a symbol of many things – the American Southwest, the open desert, cowboy culture, and certainly the state of Arizona. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that over the years, as I’ve welcomed countless first-time visitors to the Grand Canyon State, one of the main things they want to see is “the tall, magnificent cactus...”
… “or is it cacti?” they always follow up, with a confused smile.
[Here’s a pronunciation guide. “suh – wah – ro.” And clarification – when referring to more than one cactus, it actually is “cacti.” Saguaro cacti are found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, which spans the state of Arizona, pieces of Northern Mexico and a slice of Southern California.]
Discovering Saguaro Cactus National Park in the Catalina Foothills
I hosted an eager group of college friends, and unavoidably, the fascination with these unique specimens became evident. Luckily, I was fully equipped for the cacti questions and armed with plenty of interesting factoids. Most importantly, I had the perfect place for this group to experience the cacti up-close-and-personal.
First stop: Saguaro National Park in Southern Arizona. We packed up the car and pointed our GPS toward Catalina State Park, nestled in the Catalina Foothills just north of Tucson, and an easy one-hour jaunt from Greater Phoenix. Technically this park sits just north of the Saguaro National Park boundaries, but that doesn’t stop the cacti from decorating the terrain of this wonderful landscape in no small number. They say nearly 5,000 saguaro cacti grow here.
Experiencing the Majestic Saguaro Cactus while Camping in Arizona
We arrived at sunset. The silhouette of the landscape was dramatic, and the bold outline of the saguaro cacti made it feel as if we’d arrived on another planet. And yet, we were just minutes from civilization. The sun finally settled below the mountains for the evening, and we slowly directed our gaze upward. The velvety, black sky served as a surreal backdrop for a blanket of clear, bright, shining lights. It was an emotional feeling, and after several minutes I realized our lively group of five had become completely silent. All of us were looking above – in awe. The dynamic shifted, and quietly, almost in a whisper, we pointed out various constellations to one another: the Little Dipper, and the North Star to name a few. It was a night in the open desert I won’t soon forget, and if that was all of Arizona I introduced to my guests, it would have been enough.
But of course, the adventures had only just begun.
We awoke to a new day, with bright sunshine and rugged desert trails to conquer. We made our way to the trailhead and were surprised to discover this particular park offers a Saturday Wildlife Exhibit. About 10 booths were set up, each staffed with enthusiastic volunteers educating hikers about the park and wildlife found within. There was a booth dedicated to snakes native to Arizona, one for arachnids and scorpions (not the booths of choice for my particular interest), real fur samples for the kids to identify and learn about, live Gila monster exhibits, even scat samples for animals found in the park (not actual samples thankfully, but useful information for hikers).
We felt fully prepared for our adventure, and set off towards the Nature Trail – a brief, one-mile loop which inclines enough to get any heart racing. The scenic route was lined with saguaro cacti photo-ops aplenty. Apparently, it’s also a great trail for the adventurous jogger, but I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking:
An Arizona Adventure We Won’t Soon Forget
We finished our beautiful desert hike mid-day while the sun was high. Having been given a healthy dose of inspiration from the elusive saguaro cacti, the group was ready for their next Arizona adventure, whether it be backpacking through the Tonto National Forest or mountain biking on South Mountain, the options seem endless. It wasn’t a journey complete, but rather a journey that had just begun – the best kind of conclusion to an epic day.
For those of you looking to experience the Sonoran desert, and the splendor of the saguaro cactus, let this serve as your jumping off point. Accessible isolation and supreme adventure awaits.
Rebekah Bell is the Director of Advertising for the Arizona Office of Tourism. When not playing tour guide and trying to calculate the age of 200-feet cacti, she can be found seeking action-packed adventures across the state, sampling locally crafted brews, or exploring quaint Arizona hideaways. Catalina State Park was her 10th Arizona State Park to explore. She still has plans for the remaining 19.