NATIONAL PARKS: Saguaro National Park

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

Giant saguaro flower in mid-late spring in Saguaro National Park near Tucson, AZ

Giant saguaro flower in mid-late spring in Saguaro National Park near Tucson, AZ

A national monument can be called into existence by a U.S. president alone. However, only an Act of Congress can create a national park. A good number of our national monuments have been elevated to national park status, including Saguaro National Monument, which Congress made a national park in 1994.

Saguaro National Park is one of only a handful of the 59 national parks that is split into non-contiguous sections. Located in south-central Arizona, the park brackets the sprawling city of Tucson with the Rincon Mountain District in the east and Tucson Mountain District in the west.

Saguaro was established to protect the thousands of giant saguaro cacti that grow there as well as the nugget of pristine desert landscape that still remains.

Giant saguaro cactus

Giant saguaro cactus

Rincon Mountain area

Rincon Mountain area

Many different types of cactus are found in the American Southwest. The tallest varieties of these are the (giant) saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) and the organ pipe (Stenocereus thurberi). While they do indeed bear striking similarities, there is a significant difference in the anatomy of these two desert dwellers. The arms growing from the main trunk of the saguaro sprout many feet above the ground, while those of the organ pipe generally begin closer to the ground. The most likely place to see organ pipe cacti is Organ Pipe National Monument in extreme southern Arizona, less than 150 miles from Tucson and right next to the border with Mexico.

Perhaps the best time to visit Saguaro National Park is late May or early June when the saguaro are flowering. This short season becomes a visual symphony of form and color as the green and sensuously twisting arms of the saguaro wrap around groups of bright white and yellow flowers. These giants are night bloomers and, luckily for us, are usually at their peak in the lovely soft, warm light of early morning.

In addition to the distinctively shaped saguaro, such cacti cousins as hedgehog (barrel), prickly pear and cholla are also present in abundance at Saguaro National Park. Prickly pear often bloom around the same time as the saguaro, in late spring.

Getting up close and personal with cacti is always a “good news, bad news” kind of thing. Their curvy forms make for great images, but those sharp spines can make you say “Ouch!” when you least expect it. Watch out for the insidious spines of the “jumping” cholla in particular. No matter how careful you try to be, they will find you. Wear thick socks and carry tweezers.

Petroglyphs on Signal Hill

Petroglyphs on Signal Hill

While I have always had somewhat better success photographing in the western district, visiting both districts of this conveniently located national park is a must. That said, the Tucson Mountain District is a short and easy drive from town. Just head out past the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (worth a visit), and follow the signs. Most of the trails in this park are easy. Start out before dawn as the early light fades quickly and the heat builds up during the summer months here on the Sonoran Desert.

Don’t miss the short and easy trail up low Signal Hill to some good petroglyphs. Consider using a polarizer when shooting these ancient works of art in order to cut glare and preserve contrast. Along the trail there is a small sign warning of rattlesnakes. Although we must always take such warnings seriously, I have never seen a rattlesnake here.

The eastern district is right at the edge of Tucson. This is a popular spot for horseback riding, and you may encounter locals and their mounts on the trails at almost any time.

Both districts have dedicated visitor centers where you can gain more detailed orientation and get the lowdown on specific trails.

As a major city, Tucson boasts a pretty good-sized airport and is chock full of hotels, motels and restaurants of all stripes and prices.

Have you noticed the timing of the national park articles in eNews? My intent has been that each column appear approximately two months prior to the recommended time to visit. This is intended to provide ample time for you to plan such a photo trip. For example, this column, which briefly covers Saguaro National Park abutting Tucson, Arizona, has found its way to your Inbox in early March. Perhaps the best time to photograph this wonderful desert park is around mid-May when the giant saguaro cacti should be at the height of its spectacular annual bloom.

Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. Jerry was an artist in residence for 2015 at Petrified Forest National Park. More of his work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. E mail: jerry@jerryginsberg.com