Saguaro National Park
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Saguaro National Park covering 92,000 acres of land is a natural gem in Tucson, offering numerous hiking and biking trails covering more than 165 mile. The trails range between easy well kept trails such as Desert Discovery Natural Trail, Douglas Spring trail or a walk around one of the cactus gardens to more wilderness oriented trails with much higher elevation. Apart from its ecological worth the park also has a very rich history dating thousands of years and hosts an extensive collection of ancient Native American petroglyphs.
Saguaro National Park offers two scenic drives, the paved 8 mile one way way loop, Saguaro East passing through the saguaro forest and Saguaro West, also known as Bajada Loop Drive. The later drive provides multiple routes. A 6 mile loop starting close to the Red Hill Visitor Center passes through the Saguaro forest. Alternatively visitors can follow the two wayed Hohokam Gate Road to the Sus Picnic area, with views of the dense forest. From here the road becomes a one way road to Golden Gate road were a left turn leads to Signal Hill Picnic area. A short walk from this spot leads to petroglyphs and offers outstanding views of Panther and Safford Peaks, which are at the north of the park. Drivers can choose to drive back to the start or to take a right to the paved Picture Roads leading to Ez-Kim-In Zin picnic area where Amole and Wasson Peak can be clearly seen. The road conditions beyond this picnic area are more challenging. With Saguara west being a graded dirt road it is definitely recommend to follow Saguara West with low clearance vehicles and to check the road conditions before visiting.
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To the north side of Signal Hill picnic area, visitors can find the largest petroglyphs site in the whole district covering a 40 foot hill with a 200 feet diameter. This is possibly one of the most popular attractions in Saguaro National Park. petroglyphs are ancient drawing engraved into the rocks, as opposed to pictographs which are painted on the rocks. Signal Hill offers over 200 petroglyphs made by the Hohokam, Native Americans inhabiting the area, between 550 and 1550 years ago. The Hohokam was a very advanced civilization at the time, building structures and forming villages, bartering with other nations, growing crops before following a more nomadic life without a permanent lodging. Luckily some of these engravings can also be seen from the trail at Signal Hill which is less than a mile away from the car park. In order to protect this historical sight, walking off the trail is prohibited as is touching the petroglyphs. However the trail can also go beyond the petroglyphs and deep into the desert too. There are two types of petroglyphs in this area, the abstract ones such as spirals and decorative ones and representational, such as in the case of engravings of animals and people, possibly produced by pecking on the rocks using another stone. Researchers believe that the markings may have religious significance or are meant to commemorate events such as hunts and equinox among other things.
The Desert Discovery Nature Trail is an easy and short 0.5 mile trail north of the Red Hills Visitor Center at the bottom of the Tuscon Mountains. A paved path with multiple signs offers important information about this interpretive trail and the surrounding nature. The markings provide knowledge and facts about the ecology of the area, about the different trees, such as the Barrel Cactus which produces a pineapple looking fruit, devoured by the birds and the small mammals inhabiting the desert. Along the trail a series of shaded benches make for a perfect break surrounded by Saguaro cacti and nature.
While the visitor centers are open between 9am and 5pm, it is possible to roam around the park 24/7. Both the eastern side and the western side of the park provide incredible views of sunset.
With the park covering desert land, temperatures can get extremely hot especially in summer so strenuous hikes may be challenging during this season. The entrance fee to enter Saguaro National Park is at $25 for a seven day pass per private vehicle. While RV camping is not possible at the park, there are multiple campsites at different elevations against an $8 permit.
There is no doubt that Saguaro National Park is an ecologically rich park with hundreds of cactus varieties, home to different reptiles, amphibians and small mammals including bobcats, squirrels, foxes, coyotes and deer. When in the vicinity of Tucson Arizona, a trip to this national park offers a perfect balance between wilderness trails, informative trails, a good dose of history with ancient petroglyphs and scenic drives along the park.