Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 15, 2019

In Season: Saguaro National Park

As cooler autumn temperatures set in, this is an excellent time to consider a trip to your favorite desert in the northern hemisphere — or to one you’ve always intended to visit.

“Cooler” is a relative term. “Lower” temperatures in Death Valley, the Great Basin of Nevada and many other places can still be blisteringly hot by some standards. Or, depending on what the jet stream is doing or the time of day, they can be bitterly cold. Nature is capricious, and pays no heed to rules, averages or conventions.

One place to consider visiting during the winter months is Saguaro National Park, in southeastern Arizona.

Saguaro hiker Brad Nixon 5623 680

In order to prepare you for your trip, we went back to Saguaro this July and scouted it out for you. It’d been a number of years since our previous visit. We spent 8 days in and around Tucson in the absolute dead-center of summer. We’re not strangers to summertime in the desert and knew what we were in for. Tucson gave us its very best effort; daytime highs ranged from about 110 to 116 degrees (@ 43 – 47 C).

There are two advantages to hiking in the midsummer desert. First, trails are rarely crowded. Most visitors are waiting for autumn or winter and those milder temperatures.

Saguaro NP Brad Nixon 5607 680

Second, the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico get most of their annual rainfall in midsummer, thanks to the “monsoon” thunderstorms the terrain and atmosphere generate. The thunder clouds build up during the afternoon and let go in late afternoon or early evening They can produce torrential rain, lightning and high winds. As a result, that’s the season to see green and blooming plants in that part of the southwest, if ever.

Here, for example, are ocotillo trees, green and just ready to burst out with their red blooms.

Ocotillos M Vincent 5670 680

In the California deserts, our blooming season is usually in February or March, once the winter rains come in off the Pacific (if they come at all). We enjoyed seeing a green desert landscape in midsummer.

Saguaro and sky Brad Nixon 5659 680

The stars of the show — indelibly associated with iconic views of the American west — are the saguaro cacti.

Saguaro cactus Brad Nixon 5663 680

Sometimes growing more than 40 feet tall, saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) typically live for 150 – 200 years. They survive by storing water in their tissues, supported by extensive root systems. They bear fruit that was a favorite of indigenous people of the area, as well as local birds.

Visitors to the southwest — Texas, Utah, New Mexico — are often disappointed when they don’t see saguaros, but the cacti’s range is limited to the Sonoran desert of Mexico and southern Arizona, with a few in the Imperial Valley of southeastern California. They don’t thrive in cold weather, and both climate and elevation restrict their range. They’re not the only thing that makes this national park special, but they’re the marquee attraction.


What does one do to prepare for hiking in extreme temperatures? If you’re us, you set out from Tucson at first light, get to the trailhead at or before 7 a.m., and get off the trail well before late morning. There are hardy back country hikers acclimated to conditions like that. Admittedly, we are not. Discretion is always advised, for we’re all small people in a vast, unforgiving landscape.

Saguaro hiker Brad Nixon 5651 680

As you seasoned travelers who like to shoot photos know, an early start gives you the advantage of the low morning light. Shadows are longer, relief is more pronounced than later in the day when the sun’s high, colors more vivid.

Saguaro NP M Vincent 5647 680

Beasts of the Desert

Another advantage is that — especially in summer — your best chance to see wildlife other than lizards and snakes is early in the day — the earlier the better. Most of the animals are nocturnal or crepuscular, and have vamoosed by the time the sun is up.

We were admiring this scene of desert vegetation from the trail, looking into the sun that had just cleared the Rincon Mountains to the east. It was interesting to see so much green in the summertime desert.

Saguaro chaparral Brad Nixon 5608 680

There was a telltale reddish blush to the right of a barrel cactus, in front of a green cholla cactus. Zooming in to the limit of my lens, I captured this local resident:

Saguaro hare Brad Nixon 5608 680

A black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californica). They’re common all over the west, but they’re skittish and camera-shy. Only the morning sun shining through its translucent ears gave that one away.

Our route that day was on Cactus Forest Trail, easily accessible at its northern and southern ends from the loop drive through the eastern Rincon district of Saguaro National Park (see below for more orientation). That kept us in the low desert that’s the habitat of the saguaros, because that’s what we wanted to see. We weren’t equipped for a longer, hot weather hike into more remote portions of the park, up into the Rincon Mountains, seen in this view.

Rincon Mts Brad Nixon 5658 680

As the trail rises and falls, you get views northward toward Tucson and the Santa Catalina Mountains beyond it.

Saguaro NP Brad Nixon 5666 680

With the heat, we limited ourselves to a couple of hours, and by that time, the thermometer read 100 (38 C). Yes, we might’ve stayed out longer, but there are limits. Later in the year, with the temperature and the sun a bit lower, you’re in for a wonderful time at Saguaro National Park.

The city of Tucson has plenty more to offer, and I’ll cover some of its attractions in upcoming posts.

Practicalities: Many Paths

Saguaro National Park has two districts, east and west. We were hiking in the Rincon district, east of Tucson. The Tucson — western — district is 30 miles away, northwest of downtown Tucson (map, circles).

Tucson Saguaro marked Google 680

Both districts have visitor centers and a portion of each section is accessible by a loop drive. You can get a sense of the terrain and vegetation by driving the loops and stopping to look. To really see the park and develop a feel for this remarkable place, get out of your vehicle and walk — if only for a moderate distance. There’s an enormous amount of remote and sometimes wilderness area accessible only on foot or horseback. Trail cycling is permitted only on one trail in each of the districts. Hiking trails are plentiful, your options are many.

From Tucson’s 2,400 feet above sea level, some trails ascend much higher into different climate zones. You leave the saguaros and low desert chaparral behind and climb through scrub oak, pine, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. In the eastern district, you can reach Mt. Mica at 8,566 feet after many miles of hiking (and you must hike back out).


Regular readers have seen my desert caveats before.

Yes, there are rattlesnakes. Back away if you see or (more likely) hear one. You might hike for years without encountering one (true for me), but pay attention.

Avoid brushing against anything, at least in the low desert portions. Everything’s prickly and will penetrate your skin after piercing your clothes or even the uppers of your shoes if you’re careless.

Saguaro cholla Brad Nixon 5640 680

Painful, trust me.

There’s no water beyond the visitor centers except what you carry. Take it … and drink it, too. Something bad can happen, whatever the temperature. You can wait out most setbacks until help arrives if you have water. If you don’t have enough water, you’ve created a potential emergency, sui generis. Every living thing in the desert knows: water is life. Pay attention.

I’m happy to have comments from readers with additional pointers about seeing Saguaro.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Some photographs © M. Vincent 2019. Used by kind permission. Map © Google.


  1. Very nice! I was here in the heat of summer a few years back so didn’t venture too much. Lovely place!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a question of acclimatization, but getting accustomed to temperatures that extreme takes more than a few days during a visit, in my experience. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree!!! I was not out of the car much at all but enjoyed the views from driving! Miss a lot that way but extreme heat isn’t to be messed with!!!!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post about one of my favorite places in the world to hike, whatever time of year. I love that desert rabbit photo!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice to be there to spot the rabbit with you. On we go.


  3. Beautiful post, thank you for the journey and welcome back, UWS!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great to see you back in the blogosphere. Beautiful pix, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Beautiful Desert Scenes, I particularly like your closeup of the cacti, and the one of the rabbit.


    • Thank you, Shawn. As you know, it’s catch as catch can with birds and wildlife, as your own photos and paintings demonstrate — and you’ve scored your share of winners. They have a knack of disappearing just as you’re ready to press the shutter. The jackrabbit was a rare “get.” In 20+ years of roaming the west, I’ve managed about 2 reasonable photos of jackrabbits. They possess a level of vision and awareness beyond anything a human has access to, with senses tuned to a level of intensity we can’t begin to match. That one was 40 meters away, and assumed if he stayed still, we’d never see him. It’s a battle, walking out in nature, trying to decide if the close-up detail or the wide shots are more compelling. Our eyes and brains combine to give us more information than the camera can ever capture, and sometimes all one can do is look, and forget about the camera. Thanks for the comment.


  6. Curious what Tucson residents do when extreme temps hit their city by noon. Limit their time walking outside? Stay indoors until after sunset? I would imagine that the concrete and asphalt of a city would only increase the extreme temps.


    • All that. They come out in the morning or evening. In the middle of the morning, down in the center of the city’s government and business district, I was amused to see people walking from the big parking garage under the central plaza, heading for the courthouse or the federal building or city hall, dressed for business, as if it was just another day. One does get acclimated, and it’s just another day.


  7. We do become acclimated. On the other hand, anyone who thinks the custom of siestas is a sign of laziness hasn’t lived in a hot climate. It’s actually a sign of wisdom.

    Love the jackrabbit photo. Finding one to photograph’s as much fun as looking at images later and discovering we photographed such a creature without ever seeing it.


    • Yes, I’ve had that experience, only seeing something after the fact. I was delighted to catch Mr. Jack in person, and not later. I AM humble enough to know I might’ve walked past half a dozen other desert residents, unaware. They survive by not being noticed, and are darned good at it, unlike us noisy, intrusive bipeds. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Nice!
    When I saw the Saguaro forest, I burst out laughing. It looked like hundreds of surrendering beings.

    Liked by 1 person

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