Saguaro National Park and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

One of the cool things about being retired is having the ability to just get up and go. On Monday morning, I decided that I was going to head over to Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona, so I packed a bag, booked a hotel room for two nights using points, threw my camera in my car and drove six hours to Tucson.

I left a bit later than I should have—around 11 a.m.—but it put me into the area about two hours before sunset, which worked out perfectly. (Let’s say I planned it that way.)

Saguaro National Park

If you’re not familiar with Saguaro National Park, it’s actually divided into two districts: the Tucson Mountain District (West) and the Rincon Mountain District (East). Both are worthy of a visit, as they are considerably different from each other. The Western District has a gazillion Saguaros on a relatively flat desert floor, while the Eastern District is more sparsely populated with Saguaros on the hills of the Rincon Mountains. Both have their own visitor centers and their own hiking trails.

Saguaro National Park Rincon Mountain (East) District

Saguaros are remarkably slow-growing cacti, growing only 1-1.5 inches / 2.5-3.8 cm per year in their first decade of life. They don’t grow their distinct arms until they are 50 to 75 years old, and perhaps 100 years old if rain has been lacking. The average life span of a Saguaro is 150-175 years and can grow to 50 feet / 15 meters tall. You can learn more here:

How Saguaros Grow

When I arrived in the West District late Monday afternoon. I took a short hike on the Desert Discovery Trail, a short, half-mile (one kilometer) long paved trail that introduces you to the many different plants in the Sonoran Desert.

I stayed for sunset at the Red Hills Visitor Center, but the sunset fizzled to a degree, with few clouds to make it really interesting.

On the to the hotel in Tucson, I stopped at the Gates Pass trailhead / overlook for one last glance of the sky, and this young woman in her twenties wearing red stilettoes and very short shorts, apparently high as a kite, approached me and said, “Hi sweetie… My boyfriend and I got into an argument and he left me here and I need you to give me a ride to town.” “Uh, nope. Sorry.” “How sad,” and continued mumbling to herself as she walked away. Yeah, the last thing I needed is to be alone in a car with a tweaked-out woman who might accuse me of doing something untoward to her. Not a chance.

Tuesday morning, I drove the Bajada Loop Drive (a gravel road but fine for passenger cars), stopping to hike the Valley View Overlook Trail. The trail is about 0.8 miles / 1.3 km and leads up to an overlook of the flat, expansive valley below. I had my first prickly encounter with a cholla cactus on the trail. I stopped to take a photo and didn’t realize that a broken-off cholla branch was on the ground next to my foot. I accidently kicked it, and it stuck to my show like Velcro. Fortunately, it didn’t penetrate into my foot and, even more fortunately, I remembered to bring a comb with me. It was very easy to use the teeth of the comb to pull the cholla branch off my shoe.

Even though it was only 60° F / 16° C for my early morning hike, the sun was unrelenting and I was peeling off layers by the time I got to the viewpoint.

Tuesday afternoon, I drove the paved 8-mile / 12.9 km Cactus Forest Loop Drive in the Eastern District. You get some great views along the drive and I found it to be easier to photograph than the Western District. In the Western District, there are almost too many Saguaros packed too closely together, and that makes finding a good composition a nightmare.

For sunset Tuesday night, I headed back to the Desert Discovery Trail in the Western District. There were enough clouds to make the sky more interesting than the previous night, and there was a pack of crazy coyotes whelping and howling to make it entertaining. You may want to turn the volume up on the video below.

Coyote Chorus at Sunset

Saguaro National Park – Tucson Mountain (West) District Gallery

Click to enlarge the photos below.

Valley View Trail – Saguaro National Park Tucson Mountain (West) District

Saguaro National Park – Rincon Mountain (East) District

Coloring Interstate 19

Those of you who know me well, know that I have this old tattered map where I have highlighted all of the roads I’ve taken over the decades. I’ve been known to go on “coloring” trips to just fill in sections of highways that I haven’t traveled in the past. I-19 from Tucson to Nogales, Arizona, was one of those sections that needed to be colored in, so I took two hours and drove the entire length (65 miles / 104 km).

The other fun, nerdy fact about driving I-19 is that it is the only Interstate highway in the United States that uses kilometers instead of miles to mark distance along the route. Unfortunately, it still has the speed limits posted in miles per hour, so it’s not a full metric conversion. Someday.

One of the other interesting things along the highway was at one of the rest stops. They had handicapped parking for semi trucks. I’ve never seen that before.

San Xavier del Bac Mission

Seeing as it was on my way back to Tucson, I stopped at the San Xavier del Bac Mission south of the city, just off of I-19.

The Mission was founded in 1692 and the current building is the oldest European building in Arizona, with construction beginning in 1783 and ending in 1797. It’s still an active Catholic church with services held weekly.

Sonoran Hot Dogs

A month or so ago, I was watching a young couple on YouTube as they were driving their camper van from Austin, Texas to Alaska, and they stopped by Tucson along the way. On their video highlighting Tucson, they had a Sonoran hot dog from El Sinaloense, a little cart run by one guy in a vacant lot. I had to check it out.

A Sonoran hot dog is a hot dog wrapped in bacon and grilled. It’s served with tomatoes, onions, beans, jalapeno salsa, and mayonnaise. It’s served in a bolillo style hot dog bun, and it was quite tasty.

Mount Lemmon

After my Sonoran hot dog and a run through the East District of Saguaro National Park, I decided I needed a cookie for an afternoon snack. In the town of Summerville at the summit of Mount Lemmon (yes, that’s spelled correctly with two Ms), there’s the Mount Lemmon Cookie Cabin.

The 36 mile / 58 km drive up takes you through multiple climate zones as you go higher and higher up the mountain. The Sonoran Desert gives way to pine forests with residual snow on the ground at 8,000 feet / 2,440 m, and temperatures dropped from 75° F / 24° C to 45° F / 7° C. It’s a gorgeous drive on a twisting, two-lane mountain road with plenty of pull-offs to see the views below.

By the time I got to the summit, I was ready for a fresh oatmeal raisin cookie (healthy, right?). I thought $7.00 was a bit pricey for a cookie, but then they pulled it fresh from the warming oven and it nearly covered a 9-inch / 23 cm plate. The warm cookie in the cold mountain air is just what the doctor ordered for the drive back down.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Wednesday morning, I drove west out of Tucson on AZ 86 through the Tohono O’odham Nation, past Kitt Peak with its Kitt Peak National Observatory (and others), and into the town of Why, Arizona. Yes, that’s it’s real name. From there, I headed south into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, an International Biosphere Reserve.

One thing I noticed along AZ 86 was the high number of roadside memorials to people who died in car wrecks. I didn’t think of counting them as I drove, but there easily had to be at least three dozen or more that I passed in the 120 mile / 193 km drive. The highway is not in the best condition, and there is no shoulder in many places along the way, so I could see how someone might be tempted to be running much higher than the 65 mph / 105 km/h speed limit in the wide open desert and lose control of their vehicle. It was sad.

I stopped at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center for a map and some recommendations. I opted to drive the 21 mile / 34 km Ajo Mountain Loop. It’s a mostly gravel road (some short paved sections) that’s suitable for regular cars, but you’ll just have to take it slow in some sections. Because of really tight turns and steep grades, it’s not suitable for RVs.

There are some pull-offs that correspond to numbered highlights on the park’s cell phone app that will tell you the story behind what you’re looking at. (Download the app for off-line use before entering the park, as cell service is spotty at best.) You can plan on taking a minimum of two hours to drive the loop.

The very northern end of the loop is perhaps the most scenic as you’re right up against the mountains. In some ways, it reminded me of Capitol Reef National Park. Like Capitol Reef, I would like to spend more time exploring Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Epilogue

When I left home, I really wanted to photograph the Saguaros, and I had visualized the image that I wanted to create. However, once I got to Saguaro National Park—especially the West District—I realized just how difficult it would be to turn that image in my mind into reality. There’s just so much chaos going on with cacti everywhere, and I was hoping to isolate two or three in my image in a very particular way. Of course, finding the perfect cactus was a challenge, too. Not possible.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was much more interesting to me and I wish I had spent more time there. I’ll just have to return someday and explore it more in-depth.

All in all, it was a great little bit of escapism and good to be out before Arizona turned into a summer blast furnace.

Logistics

Yes, this was a whirlwind trip, cramming a lot into about 56 hours that crammed in 1,265 miles / 2036 km of driving. A bit excessive, but that’s okay. That’s what I call “windshield therapy” for me. Although, I admit that the last leg home was a bit of a slog, needing more stops to just rest and stretch the legs.

Monday:

  • 11 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. – Drive San Diego to Desert Discovery Nature Trail
  • 5:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. – Sunset in Saguaro West, dinner, and to the hotel

Tuesday:

  • 7 a.m. – 9:30 a.m. – Bajada Loop; hike Valley View Trail; Red Hills Visitor Center in Saguaro West
  • 9:30 a.m. – noon – Drive I-19 to Nogales and back; stop at San Xavier Mission
  • 12:30 p.m. – 1 p.m. – Lunch at El Sinaloense
  • 1 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. – Drive to Mount Lemmon Cookie Cabin then to hotel for a quick break
  • 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. – Back to Discovery Nature Trail for sunset, then dinner and return to the hotel

Wednesday

  • 8 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. – Drive from Tucson to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Visitor Center
  • 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. – Drive Ajo Mountain Loop
  • 1 p.m. – 7 p.m. – Drive home to San Diego

I used my rewards points and stayed in a Holiday Inn Express on the west side of Tucson (1564 W Grand Rd, Tucson, AZ 85745). It was a very nice facility but I was about the only one still wearing a mask indoors aside from the staff.

If you don’t have a National Parks pass, the entrance fees for both Saguaro and Organ Pipe Cactus are $25.00 each.

My travel map.

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