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Heaven on Earth: Saguaro National Park

From Joshua Tree National Park, it's a five-hour drive down Interstate 10, over the Colorado River, past Phoenix, and finally to Tucson. Saguaro National Park straddles the city, with the smaller western side accessible via Picture Rock Road in the northwest and the larger eastern side directly east of Tucson.

The park’s namesake, the Saguaro cactus, grows up to forty feet tall, making it the largest cactus in the United States. Stand next to one and see how you measure up.

Saguaro cacti develop those iconic branches as they age (They can live up to 200 years!) and have such unique structures. I love how no two look identical with some branches curving around the columnar trunk and others dried and hollowed out for small birds to roost in. The cacti regularly grow up to fifty branches, and it’s amazing to see how they still support themselves despite asymmetrical, sometimes Jenga-like branches. If you want to see these stunning plants in person, you’ll have to plan a visit here as they only grow here in the Sonoran Desert.

Both sides of the park have beautiful scenic drives, especially Saguaro National Park East’s stunning nine-mile loop along a paved road, making it easy to see plenty without leaving your car. (The west side’s drive is shorter and on an uneven, unpaved road that I wouldn’t recommend for certain vehicles.) Every hill and turn of the drive provides a new vista, just as beautiful as the last with miles and miles of desert covered in saguaros, shrubs, and trees. There is the green of the cacti, yellow and orange flowering shrubs, purple wildflowers, and of course the bright blue endless sky. It is odd to me that the word deserted means what it does because the desert is not at all deserted: it is filled with life and color and plenty of beautiful sights to admire.

In the west side of the park, the Desert Discovery Nature Trail is a short loop walk that allows you to get up close and personal with the park’s many incredible species of cacti, including shrubs and flowering cacti which shelter Gila monsters and horned lizards and feed the various birds you can watch flit about. If you only have time for one side of the park, I would recommend this side so you can walk this loop. The trail is also close to the Visitor’s Center, where you can pop in for desert-themed souvenirs and a bottle of cold water.

On your way back to the highway, you'll pass the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is an incredible all-in-one experience. The property includes a zoo, an aquarium, an art gallery, a natural history museum, and a botanical garden. It’s hard to upstage a national park right next door, but this botanical garden does have over 2,000 species of plants and has been rated one of the top ten best public gardens in the U.S. by Trip Advisor.

Saguaro National Park is an amazing place to spend a day, and it’s so convenient how close it is to Tucson. If you are looking for a short but scenic road trip around the southwest, Tucson is a great choice for your home base. The city has beautiful parks, a zoo, museums, Sabino Canyon, Mt. Lemmon, and so much more. Saguaro National Park was definitely a highlight of this trip and will surely remain one of my favorite national parks. I can't wait to go back!


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