Established: October 14, 1994
Size: 91,445 acres
Symbol of the American Southwest and North America's largest cactus, the saguaro's imposing stature and uplifted arms give it a regal presence. Perhaps that's why this burly giant, whose only bits of exuberance are seasonal blossoms and fig-like fruits at the tip of its limbs, has been dubbed the "desert monarch."
Carnegiea gigantean is the trademark of the Sonoran Desert, whose basins and ranges rumple 120,000 square miles of northwestern Mexico, southern Arizona, and southeastern California. Saguaro National Park is composed of two sections. The westerly Tucson Mountain District embraces about 24,000 acres of the hotter, drier, less vegetated "low" Sonoran ecosystem, which occurs at an elevation around 3,000 feet. Thirty miles east, on the other side of Tucson's urban sprawl, is the 67,000-acre Rincon Mountain District, which occupies loftier ground and has a cooler, slightly wetter "high desert" environment. Most of it is inaccessible except by foot or on horseback. Here the terrain inclines from saguaro forests into nearly pristine woodlands of oak and pine. Hikers pressing on to higher elevations find Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and solitude.
The Sonoran Desert's extreme temperatures, perennial drought, frequent lightning, banshee winds, and voracious predators keep the saguaro forever at the limit of its endurance. Odds against survival rival a lottery: Though the cactus annually produces tens of thousands of pinhead-size seeds—some 40 million over a life that may last two centuries—few ever even sprout. Even fewer seedlings achieve the grandeur of towering 50 feet and weighing up to 16,000 pounds.
Though the saguaro may be the park's centerpiece, after wet winters the spring wildflower display can be breathtaking. The brilliant gold of the Mexican poppy is often the first-noticed bloom, while penstemons, lupines, desert marigolds, brittlebushes, and globe mallows contribute their lively colors of red, lilac, blue, and yellow. Many trees, shrubs, and cactuses also bloom, including creosote bushes, paloverdes, ocotillos, chollas, and hedgehogs. Saguaros bloom in late spring.