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Saguaro National Park – Tips and Images

Saguaro National Park Tips and Images @handbookofnaturestudy

What an amazing place to explore the desert! Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona surprised me with all its secret delights. There isn’t anything that we didn’t enjoy about the two trips we have taken to this part of the world.

If you can plan a trip to Saguaro National Park with your family, you will experience the southwest at its best!


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Of course, we came to see the saguaro cactus and we were not disappointed. These magnificent cactus actually are like a whole habitat in themselves with the way they provide food, shelter, and beauty for the inhabitants of this southwestern desert. We learned about the Sonora desert and its unique place in the web of life…creating a place for migrating and resident animals to take refuge.

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Our first trip to Saguaro was in 2009 and we flew into Tucson, Arizona and rented a car. We spent days exploring the desert together with our two boys. At first glance you wonder what lives out in the desert but after hiking out by ourselves and seeing with our own eyes the many creatures and plants that are thriving in this dry sandy/rocky place, we realized the magnitude of life in this special national park. I am personally grateful that this refuge is protected for generations to come.

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Our second trip was in 2010 when we drove from California to Tucson to visit the park again in the spring (April). This was the perfect time to experience the burst of life from the wildflowers and flowering shrubs, a bit early for the saguaro themselves to be blooming but we saw big flower buds up on the top.


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One day we parked along the edge of the park and went in at the Broadway Trailhead to hike the trails from there. It is hard to describe the many, many things we found to observe. Saguaro National Park 5

The cactus and  brightly color flowers were each a work of art…what a blessing to time our visit to see them.

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Birds…so many birds! I spent lots of time with my binoculars and field guide on both trips, making lists of birds each night when we returned to our hotel.

Saguaro National Park Gambel Quail

Our favorite bird of the desert is the Gambel’s quail. They have such beautiful feathers, jaunty little top-notch, and sweet song.

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Wildflowers to make your heart sing.

Saguaro National Park tarantula hawk

Insects like this tarantula hawk eek out a life in this part of the world. (read it’s life story…creeps me out!)

Mica View Trail Saguaro

Saguaro National Park actually has two sections that are located on opposite sides of Tucson, Arizona. Find more information here at the Plan Your Visit page.

The photos above are from the eastern section of the park called Saguaro East-Rincon Mountain District. This section of the park has a large visitor center that we enjoyed on both of our visits. The Cactus Forest Drive is a must do for everyone to get their feet wet with this national park. There are several spots to stop and view the landscape and a short nature trail that features the desert habitat. You can reach the Mica View trailhead and picnic area off the Cactus Forest Drive.

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Also along this drive, we stopped at Javelina rocks and hiked. There is a trail out to an old homestead that was interesting and on this trip was lined with colorful wildflowers.

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One of our favorite moments during our trip was the day we were driving through on the road and there was a sudden downpour where the rain came down in buckets. Shortly, the rain stopped and the sun came out….I cannot describe the scent of the air. It was magnificent and I hope someday to experience that fragrance again. The wet earth, the damp vegetation, the creosote bushes, something else…amazing!

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The other section of the park is on the western side of Tucson and is called: Saguaro West-Tucson Mountain District. There is a visitor center at Red Hills and is a wonderful source of information and you will find displays and helpful rangers to make the most of your trip. Here is a wonderful printable list and map for hikes in this section of the park: Trails in the Tucson Mountain District. 

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The western section is a little more rugged and has some fantastic aspects that make it worth the effort to visit it as well. One trail has petroglyphs to view along the way.

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Keep your eyes open and hike along quietly and you never know who you will see! We saw evidence of pack rats and coyotes. One day we heard coyotes howling in the distance.

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We saw more birds in the desert than we have ever seen in any other habitat. The many ways they have found to survive in this harsh environment are a wonder. Here is a nest that we found with the opening on the side.

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I spy a dove!

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If you time your trip just right, you are going to see a display of wildflowers so colorful you can’t believe it. I love this place!

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We made sure to plan a sunrise walk one of the days we were there. It took some effort and it was COLD but well worth it to us. It was awe inspiring to watch the sunrise as it transformed the desert from a shadowland to a blaze of daylight. We saw deer and rabbits and flocks of quail. My boys loved it and we hope to do this again someday.


Other Tips for Saguaro National Park:

  • There are six picnic areas in the park with tables and shelters. We found the shelters were helpful to keep off the sun but we got wet in the rain! There are no restaurants in the national park so pack a lunch or several snacks.
  • There are trails for all ages, some that are wheelchair accessible.
  • Make sure to bring along a camera to record the numerous plants, birds, flowers, rocks, and landscapes you are going to come across.
  • Bring your binoculars and a good bird field guide for the Arizona Sonora Desert region. You are going to see and hear lots of birds if you get out and hike even a short distance.
  • There is a Jr. Ranger program and a Not So Junior Ranger Program.
  • Carry water, wear a hat and sturdy shoes.
  • No camping within the national park but hotels galore of all sorts in Tucson, Arizona. We stayed at a condo for a steal of a deal…look online at places like Expedia.
  • At the very least, plan a long day in the park, visiting one section if you are limited on time. If you can stay two days, explore one section each day.
  • If you can, plan a sunrise or sunset hike to experience the changing light and creatures that come out during those times of day.
  • Distance from Las Vegas – 400 miles or 6.5 hours, Phoenix, Arizona – 110 miles or 2 hours, Albuquerque, New Mexic0 – 445 miles or 6.5 hours.

Check out this really well done YouTube video: Saguaro National Park.

Other Things I Suggest Doing While in Tucson, Arizona

You can read more of my national park tips in these entries:


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Prickles, Patterns, and Vines in the Garden

This week I had fun gathering lots of interesting images from the garden to share with you. I have been trying to work my way through the Summer Nature Photo Challenge and one of the topics is “something prickly”. The cactus on the left I call Hairy and he lives on my deck…I inherited him from a relative and we think he is over thirty years old. The image on the right is one I actually took at Home Depot as I browsed in the nursery. I love the patterns of the prickles on this cactus!

I have a wide variety of sunflowers this year and they each have their own unique charm…ruffles, bendy petals, variations in color and leaf size…so much to enjoy about our sunflowers.

This is the time of year that I take a morning walk with my cup of coffee, exploring for new things in the garden. As you slow to really enjoy each flower, the patterns of color, petals, and seeds make an impression. Learning to share these things with your children and watching them grow in appreciation is something we all can do and it is easy if you have a cutting flower garden. Let your children cut a single flower, bring it inside and find a vase for it, and then set it on your kitchen table for closer observation and enjoyment.

Climbing vines are a big part of my summer garden. After studying vines with the Outdoor Hour Challenge, I have learned to notice how the vines twine and which direction they twine around the stakes. Each plant is uniform in its twisting direction. I also have a passion flower vine and it doesn’t twine but it uses tendrils to grab onto the stakes.

One last image for you to see….this one is my thistle plant that is blooming and is super pokey! The birds (finches) love the seeds from this plant and I hated to pull it out but I had to. My husband does not always share my love of all things that grow in the yard. He is right that it had already spread enough seed to ensure that there will be more next year without letting the whole area get filled in with thistles. I am a reasonable person so we pulled it all up.

I encourage you all to take a look with fresh eyes at your yard or neighborhood…find some prickles, patterns, and vines to point out to your children. Let them make some oral observations and perhaps gather a pretty flower or two for you kitchen table.

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Desert Nature Study-Joshua Tree National Park and More

I wanted to share some more of the photos from our trip to the desert that we took a few weeks ago. The photo above is from Joshua Tree National Park. The scene is typical of what you will find as you hike along the trails of the park. It has taken me three trips to the desert to begin to develop a love for the animals and plants that live here. In this strange and wonderful landscape, you can find the most beautiful of things if you look carefully enough.

There really are blooming plants here and if you get the chance to get up close, you realize that there are bees and other insects as well as birds that are attracted to the color and fragrance.

I will admit that there are sections of the park that are more rock than anything else. My two boys couldn’t resist a good climb when they saw it.

When you get up close you see all the intricate patterns and designs of the desert plants. I believe this is some kind of cholla cactus.

Now here was something that surprised me and I examined it carefully for some time. Can you see all the different colors of lichen on this rock? There is a moss green, a grey-green, an orange and a soft yellow-green all living right here on the side of this rock. Beautiful.

Many times as we hike along we name the rock formations we see. The boys named this one “Whale Head”.

Not to be confused with “Whale’s Mouth”.

They keep me smiling…..and thinking.

We came across a wash on our hike and the wildflowers were already blooming. There are three different flowers blooming in this photo…two white and the desert sand verbena.

How about a video? (Why does it take so looooong for the videos to load onto Blogger anyway?)
This squirrel was entertaining us with his acrobatics…trying to get that certain pod to eat.

Here is what the squirrel was gathering to eat. This is a palo verde tree.

I took a lot of photos at the Living Desert Museum and I shared a lot of the butterfly and hummingbird photos already but here are a few more of the larger animals we saw that the boys spent a lot of time observing.

The giraffes…there were four of them.

The cheetahs..there were two of them. I love this photo….look at that face!

For some reason I threw our nature journals in my backpack and we took the opportunity in the afternoon to slow down and do some sketching at the museum. It was a great way to remember our time there.

What a great memory.

It was great way to end our stay at the museum. The desert holds so many interesting and surprising creations for us to learn about….a life time of learning just one plant and one bird and one animal at a time.

So whether you venture out in the national park or you stay in town and visit the Living Desert Museum….there is so much to enjoy as a family. Pick your adventure.

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Desert Walking Again….Just a Glimpse

I can always tell when I am ready for a road trip. It is a very good thing that we live in a place in the world that with some driving we can totally change our environment. From snow to the desert sunshine…I feel so much better.

The desert is getting really close to bursting out in blossoms. This is a cholla cactus putting out its buds.

Here is what the cactus looks like as we hike along in the desert.

I added this photo for those that know how much my husband is into alternative energy. He was amazed at the wind turbines out here in the desert.

A little rock climbing went on. Well, maybe A LOT of rock climbing. How about this natural arch?

Here is one critter that we saw while we were out hiking in the desert…he sat still for a very long time while I took a few photos. If you click on the photo you should be able to see his blue spots.

My husband spotted the desert cottontails in this area of the trail. Very, very cute little mammals to observe!

One last photo….here is the star of our desert hike. The Joshua tree is a unique plant that we are just now starting to get to know.

Winter will soon change to spring. Sigh.

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Desert Study: Outdoor Hour Challenge #8

Here is our family’s Outdoor Hour Challenge #8. 

We just returned from our week long adventure in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. It was so surprising to find so much life and color and activity in this part of our world. If anyone says there is nothing to do for nature study in the desert, I can now whole-heartedly disagree. We spent every waking minute in the great outdoors exploring the fascinating world of the desert, even in a sudden desert rainstorm and at sunrise. We were hiking in Saguaro National Park just about everyday and found that we grew to love this place.

If you have been reading my blog this week, you will have seen some of the more interesting plants and birds that we have encountered. I will be posting more over there in the weeks to come.

Before we left for our adventure, the boys and I read several books to prepare us for what we would be seeing up close and personal. The most interesting and recognizable plant in the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro cactus. (pronounced sa wah ro) This cactus is a whole ecosystem in itself and we were able to observe the many phases of its growth while on our trip.


Here is a landscape with the saguaro sticking up prominently.
The saguaro grows very tall and provides shade for itself with its spines and grooves.

tall saguaro
It also provides homes for birds like the cactus wren and the gila woodpecker. They make their nests inside the saguaro. Here is a photo where you can see the nest holes.

saguaro with bird nest holes
Here is a gila woodpecker sitting on the saguaro and if you look closely, you will see a sparrow in a nest hole near the top of the saguaro.

saguaro and woodpecker
Here is a close up of the cactus itself.

close up saguaro
We enjoyed a sunrise walk in the desert and the colors and sounds are not soon to be forgotten.

saguaro at sunrise
There are so many things to tell you about from this trip but I will narrow this entry down to the saguaro cactus. Maybe later this week I will share all the many other birds that we encountered. I have some awesome hummingbird photos to share and some others that will surprise you that we found in our desert wanderings.

We did some close up work last week at home for this challenge with our hand lens. The most interesting thing we found was looking at the bark of our cedar tree…..there is so many interesting things in there like spider webs and egg sacs. If you didn’t get a chance to use your hand lens last week, I encourage you to take a few minutes this week to give it a try.