Exploring the Southern Arizona National Parks
Looking back on this year I must admit I’ve been very blessed, especially when it comes to travel. After 2 years of sticking close to home I had hoped 2022 would brings lots of travel opportunities and it certainly did. In fact, I started the year off with a bang with an impromptu trip to Tucson. When my initial travel plans were cancelled due to adverse weather I did a quick pivot and decided to head to a city long on my “must visit” list. My main intention was to visit Saguaro National Park but once in the area I decided there were more parks that I just had to see and I spent a fun weekend exploring the southern Arizona national parks.
As one with a goal of visiting as many national parks as possible, Saguaro has always been high on my list and I couldn’t wait to see those quirky cacti. Of course, as soon as you cross the Arizona border saguaros start littering the roadside but it’s not the same when you’re speeding past on the highway. I was quite ready to get up close and personal and made the park my very first stop once I hit Tucson city limits.
Here’s the thing, Saguaro National Park is very unique for a number of reasons. First, it’s one of the few parks to have a mascot, Sunny the Saguaro. Second, it’s right in the city limits and is the first national park I’ve visited where I could see adjoining subdivisions from the park grounds. Lastly, it’s divided into two districts – the western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District. Figuring I’d only have time to visit one I headed for western district.
It was late afternoon so, after checking in at the visitor’s center, I decided to play it safe and just take a tour around the .4 mile Desert Discovery Loop. This short, paved trail is a perfect introduction to the park as there are several informative placards throughout that provide all the information you need about its history and inhabitants and it offers a great chance to get up close to the giant cacti.
Since the loop was short and quick I realized I had time for another stop and headed to Signal Hill.
Signal Hill, at only 50 feet, may be more of a mound, but it’s a fun spot in the park. The trail stairs and adjoining picnic area were WPA projects and have served visitors well for the past 90 years, and the boulders dotting the summit are filled with fascinating petroglyphs.
But my favorite part of the trail was the view from the summit.
What a sunset! I figured the sun had also set on my time at Saguaro, but I was wrong as the following day I found myself with enough time to visit the Rincon Mountain District to the east.
Again it was late afternoon, only this time I had just missed a rainstorm and it was freezing outside, but I was determined to do some exploring. I stopped at the .25 mile Desert Ecology Trail and made the quick loop.
It’s essentially the eastern districts version of the Desert Discovery Loop but it was still fun to see the cacti up close. As the weather wasn’t as nice as the previous day I decided to stay in my car and take the Mica View/Cactus Forest driving loop.
The trail offered beautiful views of the Rincon Mountains and surrounding cactus forest and, thanks to the weather, it proved to be quite a dramatic landscape. Near the end of the loop I came upon a large outcropping where I found a large group of park visitors.
Curious, I started along the trail and soon learned what all the fuss was about.
Another beautiful sunset! What were the odds?
After visiting Saguaro National Park I decided I hadn’t had enough of the Nation Park Service and looked to see if there were other area sites. I was in luck, as about an hour south was the National Historic Park, Tumacácori, and I had enough time to visit it.
Tumacácori is the site of a historic 17th century Spanish mission. Before the Franciscan Fr. Serra established the California missions, the Jesuit Fr. Eusebio Pima founded missions throughout Arizona and San Jose de Tumacácori was the first of these.
The remaining structure dates to 1751 and is largely in ruins as the site was abandoned in 1848 when the native citizens moved north to Tucson and established the San Xavier del Bac Mission. The building was looted and vandalized throughout the 19th century until it fell into complete disrepair.
Luckily, the powers that be decided what remained was worth saving and it was declared a National Monument in 1908 and stands to this day in a state of arrested decay. In the adjacent museum are miniature recreations of what it initially looked like, but I would highly recommend visiting San Xavier to get a better perspective as it has been beautifully preserved.
Tumacácori is still a wonderful place to visit. You can wander around the mission grounds, visit the adjacent museum and even hike the Anza trail which runs along the adjacent Santa Cruz River.
And if you’re lucky enough, you might even get a special treat. During my visit there was a tortilla making demonstration with a complimentary homemade tortilla, bean and salsa snack which made for a delicious end to my time there.
After visiting two national park sites you’d think I’d be satisfied, but I was still ready for more so I decided to take a bit of a detour on my drive home. About 2 hours southwest of Tucson is the Organ Pipe National Monument and it’s the only part of the US you can see its namesake cactus.
The organ pipe cactus is fairly prolific throughout Mexico but in the US you can only find it growing wild at the national monument. That alone merited the 2 hour detour and, after I entered the park, it didn’t take me too long to come across one right next to the visitor’s center.
I suppose I could have been satisfied with that but I decided I didn’t nearly drive into Mexico (the park is adjacent to the border) just to stop at the visitor’s center. I asked a ranger what was the best activity for someone with limited time and she recommend the Ajo Mountain Drive which is a one way loop on a 21 mile long dirt road. It takes about 2 hours and after a bit of back and forth with myself I decided I’d do it. After all, when would I ever be back there?
I have to admit, I did end up making the drive in about an hour because I still had a long drive home. Since I couldn’t drive very fast on the road I skipped most of the stops and decided to just enjoy the view from my car, and what a view. As I got closer to the Ajo Mountains the organ pipe cacti became more and more prolific until they completely dotted the hillside.
As I drove the views became more and more incredible culminating in the wondrous double arch.
Of course, pictures never do it justice but if you look closely at the top of the arch you can seen an additional miniature one. In person it was such a fascinating sight to see.
Soon after, I headed home completely satisfied with my visit. Visiting 3 national park sites in a weekend was an ambitious undertaking but it was well worth the effort. Southern Arizona is home to a fascinating landscape that is just ripe for exploring and I’m so glad I took a peek at it.