If you want to see saguaro cactuses, you'll not find anywhere else on earth where greater numbers are concentrated than at Saguaro National Park West, ranked second in popularity to the Grand Canyon among Arizona attractions. Located 15 miles from downtown Tucson, the park abuts the AZ Sonoran Desert Museum, making it convenient to visit both during a long day. (If you have kids, you may want to work in a visit to Old Tucson Studios, a Wild West theme park nearby.)
To clear up any confusion, there are two Saguaro National Parks, West and East. Both have hiking trails and loop roads, although the West holds the more impressive stands of saguaro. The Red Hills Visitor Center (West) will provide maps and information about hiking distances and terrain.
We chose the King Benson Trail recommended by our friend Scott. A rather short trail (2 miles round-trip), it was all we could squeeze in before dark after spending most of the day at the AZ Desert Museum. The trail head was easy to find – we basically drove across the street from the museum.
The first section followed an old gravel road at the southern end of the park. Saguaro and ocotillo cactuses grew out of the hills and distant Tucson mountains. We met another couple who were searching for wildflowers and making notes in a book. Locals, they explained that because of the high rains this year, the wildflower show, which was just beginning, was already the most spectacular in 10 years.
To our left, a wash was visible at the bottom of the valley. Judging from the people walking around, it was currently dry, a good thing since that was our destination. We'd learned that petroglyphs existed on the rocks bordering the wash, and we were keen to see them.
At the trail junction for Esperanza near the Mam-A-Gah picnic area, we turned left to explore the wash. Hikers can continue east on the Norris Trail for another 2.2 miles to reach Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountains at 4687 feet.
Climbing down volcanic rocks to reach the sandy floor of the wash, we soon found petroglyphs on both sides of the rock. Geometric shapes and stick figures decorating many of the rocks are thought to be drawn by the Hohokam Indians, who had vanished by the 15th century. Other petroglyphs can be seen at Signal Hill on the very west border of the park, which easily accessed by car.
As we hiked back toward the car, dusk fast approached. Tips of the saguaros gleamed white against the dark shadowy mountains as skies turned pale apricot.