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Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Saguaro National Park, previously Saguaro National Monument, contains a wide variety of desert plants, and the famous saguaro cactus, symbol of the American Southwest. Flanking Tucson to either side, the two sections of the park offer visitors a rare and enthralling opportunity to stroll through strange desert forests of monumental saguaro cactuses.
Each saguaro can grow up to 50 feet tall and weigh up to 8 tons, but it takes around 150 years to do so. Whatever you may have seen in the movies, you can drive a long way in Arizona without seeing one; saguaro are unique to the Sonora Desert, and the thrill of encountering a thousand at once is immensely satisfying. Both segments of the park can be seen on short trips from the city; there is no lodging, or even permanent campground, in either segment.
The Tucson Mountain District, which stretches north from the Desert Museum around fifteen miles west of downtown Tucson, on the far side of the mountains, charges no admission fee. Beyond the visitor center, the nine mile Bajada Loop Drive loops through a wonderland of weird saguaro, offering many short hiking trails and photo opportunities. Signal Hill is especially worth mentioning, for its rock carvings and superb sunset views.
Short trails such as the Desert Ecology Trail lead off the eight mile Cactus Forest Drive, but many visitors come specifically to hike far from the road, up into the mountains. A popular way to enjoy the park is to bike around one of the scenic loop drives.