Explore Arizona’s Saguaro National Park

Sonoran Desert wildlife and vistas just outside of Tucson

During my early travels, I lusted after waterfalls, geysers, hoodoos and bears. Sand, heat, lizards and prickly things weren’t on my bucket list. That changed after I visited Saguaro National Park and the Sonoran Desert.

I was attending a work conference in Tucson and used a free afternoon to explore the area before flying back home. After studying a map, I chose the Rincon Mountain east district of Saguaro National Park, just outside of the city. There’s also the Tucson Mountain west district. I had barely driven a mile on the park’s Cactus Forest Loop when I decided to return to Saguaro for a future and more in-depth visit. Since then, my family and I have hiked in Saguaro and around Tucson on two different weeklong vacations.

evening drive iwest district of Saguaro National Park
We took an evening drive in the west district of Saguaro National Park.

Enjoying cool desert air

We’re not hot-weather wimps – we have hiked in our share of 100-degree days. But we always try to plan a trip when temperatures are more spring or fall-like. I researched Saguaro National Park to pick a time of year when cooler temps and blooming cactus overlapped, so we settled on mid-April.

We started early each day in 50-degree temps that slowly progressed to the low 80s by noon. Perfection for us. Then during peak afternoon temperatures, we returned to our hotel to relax and later re-entered the park for an early evening drive and to gasp at amazing sunsets.

The skin of the gila monster looks like beautiful art
The skin of the gila monster looks like beautiful art.

Spotting Saguaro’s amazing lizards and birds

In an earlier Wandering Rose Travels article entitled “20 national parks & 20 tips to improve your experience,” I wrote about the incredible lizards we saw in Saguaro. The gila monster won our grand prize. It’s a rarely seen creature with an amazing skin pattern that would be considered art in most galleries. I actually shrieked when I spotted it, but don’t tell anyone I’m a shrieker – that could tarnish my mountain man image.

Our next favorite lizard sighting included several collared lizards. They’re beautifully colored and possess an extremely unique characteristic where they run on their hind legs and puff out their throats to appear more ominous. We also saw a Cooper’s hawk, javelina, jackrabbits, gila woodpecker, roadrunners, rattlesnakes and a variety of other lizards. The snakes we encountered wanted nothing to do with humans and ignored us while slithering away.

A variety of cactus bloomed during our April hikes in Saguaro National Park.
A variety of cactus bloomed during our April hikes in Saguaro National Park.

Photographing floral diversity and cactus blooms

I never considered myself much of a flower lover. But the same could be said about butterflies, birds and dragonflies. Now I love photographing all of them and grow goosebumps when I see something new.

The Sonoran Desert jumpstarted my interest in flowers. Like most destinations, to encounter a “bloom” requires careful planning and sometimes a lot of luck. I usually research a park to determine the best month for experiencing wildflowers. In the desert, this can be a wide range of months, unlike other famous places such as the meadows of Mt. Rainier that have a 3-4 week window. We found a variety of cactus flowers blooming during our April trips, but we arrived too early for peak bloom of the Saguaro cactus. 

Hiking nearby Sabino Canyon

The entrance to Sabino Canyon lies just minutes outside of Tucson in the Coronado National Forest and Catalina Mountains. This beautiful recreation area offers hiking, swimming, biking and picnicking.

We hopped on the narrated shuttle bus tour that makes nine stops, not our favorite mode of transportation but it made our trek less strenuous. Many of the riders onboard were just sightseers but we got off on the last stop to hike into the canyon. A shorter shuttle route, with just three stops and no narration, takes you to another part of the canyon and its Seven Falls Trail. This series of waterfalls is often dry so check ahead of time for a flow report.

The collared lizard’s colors stand out in the Sonoran Desert
The collared lizard’s colors stand out in the Sonoran Desert.

Exploring Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum

We asked the locals about other Tucson must-sees and one destination routinely surfaced: the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. It didn’t disappoint.

The attraction combines a zoo, natural history museum, botanical garden, two aviaries, art gallery and small shops, including an ice cream hut, which seemed even more refreshing under the desert sun. The zoo was the largest section of the museum, with wildlife in numerous outdoor desert exhibits.

I made a mistake (first one in 30 years) in choosing our time of day to visit. After trekking all morning in Saguaro, we decided to tour the museum in the afternoon and avoid hiking in the heat. But guess who else sought the same refuge from the sun? The zoo’s wildlife. Most were hunkered down and out of sight. Next time, we’ll visit early when the animals are more active.

Tucson appeals to more than hikers

In addition to the desert museum, there’s a lot to take in around the Tucson area. Head west and enjoy Old Tucson with live action stunt shows, vintage rides and stage performances where nearly 400 movies and film productions have been made with Hollywood stars such as John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor and Clint Eastwood. Wild West fans can take a side trip southeast of Tucson to nearby Tombstone in Cochise County. Absorb some western history at the Bird Cage Theatre, the O.K. Corral reenactment or during the Good Enough Mine Tour.

In Tucson, aviation buffs can explore the Pima Air & Space Museum and its 350 aircraft spread over 80 acres. There are indoor hangar exhibits, outdoor planes and tours featuring aviation history from the dawn of flight to WWII and modern times. If flying machines aren’t your thing, visit the beautiful old Mission San Xavier del Bac, which still holds Masses on weekends and is open for public tours on weekday mornings.

We’re going back to Tucson because there’s more to explore and we still haven’t seen a desert tortoise, horned lizard or whiskered screech owl. Or the ghosts of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, but maybe next trip.