West Side - Saguaro National Park
Saguaros are my absolute favorite plant and being a Phoenix native, I really took them for granted until I started to travel more. I realized how precious they are, only naturally occurring in portion of Arizona and the Sonoran desert - no where else in the world.
Important thing to note is the park is split into two different sides with the city of the Tucson separating them. One weekend, I experienced sunset at both sides. Check out my experience on the east side here.
The west side is known as the Tucson Mountain District. The volcanic rock in the area makes it look completely different from its counterpart. Fun fact, John F. Kennedy was the one who designated the TMD as a part of the national monument in 1961 and then they were turned into a national park in 1994.
The pure concentration of saguaros on this side is unbelievable. This is probably one of only two other spots in the state that I’ve seen this sheer volume of saguaros. You can definitely tell it’s where they were born. The west side offers more opportunities to explore, with both paved and unpaved drives to take you deeper into the desert. I’d recommend visiting this side if you only have a limited amount of time to see the park because of how many saguaros they are, its truly breathtaking.
I was chasing a monsoon and only had an hour before sunset when I visited this time around, so the whole experience sort of felt like a blur. I was focused on getting there but I didn’t quite have a destination, I just wanted to be within the park to be able to enjoy the sunset. I took the first left I could once I entered the park and set out down a dirt road. It wasn’t too bumpy, the parks service does a good job at keeping the road graded. My Ford Focus handed it with ease.
Monsoon season is a special occurance in the desert. It’s quite literally the gift we get for putting up with the extreme summer heat.
I was the only person out there and it was so beautiful and peaceful. Truly the calm before the storm. I could see the dark clouds looming in the distance, creating the perfect backdrop for the saguaro silhouettes. I stopped a few times to capture the beauty and stood on my car to gain some height for the photos. Lightning started striking pretty close to me so I decided stay in my car for the remainder, shooting through the window. Remember it’s not worth risking your safety for a shot. Also important to note flash floods happen without warning (hence the name) so always stay alert and be careful during monsoons. Don’t try to cross an area that’s already flooded!
Saguaro growth fun fact from NPS:
Saguaros are a very slow growing cactus. In Saguaro National Park, studies indicate that a saguaro grows between 1 and 1.5 inches in the first eight years of its life. These tiny, young saguaros are very hard to find as they grow under the protection of a “nurse tree”, most often a palo verde, ironwood or mesquite tree. As the saguaro continues to grow, its much older nurse tree may die. Some scientists believe that competition from the saguaro may lead to the death of the nurse tree by taking water and nutrients from the soil in the immediate area. As a saguaro begins to age, growth rates vary depending on climate, precipitation and location. We do know that the period of greatest growth in a saguaro cactus is from unbranched to branched adult. Here at Saguaro National Park, branches normally begin to appear when a saguaro reaches 50 to 70 years of age. In areas of lower precipitation, it may take up to 100 years before arms appear. When a saguaro reaches 35 years of age it begins to produce flowers. Though normally found at the terminal end of the main trunk and arms, flowers may also occur down the sides of the plant. Flowers will continue to be produced throughout a saguaro’s lifetime. An adult saguaro is generally considered to be about 125 years of age. It may weigh 6 tons or more and be as tall as 50 feet. The average life span of a saguaro is probably 150 - 175 years of age. However, biologists believe that some plants may live over 200 years.
During golden hour, the sun poked through a cloud casting the most epic light ray through the desert. On the other side was a full rainbow arching over a mountain, an insane contrast to the setting sun. It was one of the most magical experiences I’ve had in the desert, one on one with mother nature, witnessing all of her destruction and beauty. Sharing it with thousands of hundred year old trees. Soaking up the same water, feeling the same wind against my skin - true magic!
The monsoon was unleashing rain on the quenched valley and I didn’t want to get caught in a flash flood, so I headed back a little sooner than I would have wanted. I was greeted with a nice farewell in my rearview mirror, the sunset saying goodbye as I headed off into the storm. A day spent in the desert is a day well spent wherever you are. Check out my experience on the east side and if you manage your time right, it’s definitely possible to do both!