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You will recognize the huge multi-armed Saguaro cactus as a symbol of the American West. Saguaro (pronounced suh-waa-row) have figured prominently in classic Western movies. They are a must-see when visiting Arizona and the Sonoran Desert. When you travel through the Phoenix area and southern Arizona, you can have your picture taken with these spiny giants and even hike or drive through Saguaro forests.
These armed giants have taken on a distinct character for me. When I return to the Valley of the Sun from time away, they greet me with outstretched arms. When I leave, they wave a sad goodbye as I view them in my rear-view mirror. Locals and visitors alike have fun spotting the cacti and look for arms in interesting positions. Some people even name a cactus. You’ll find Arizona souvenirs emblazoned with Saguaro cacti — it’s a thing in the Southwest.
These silent giants of the desert Southwest are incredible plants. Here are some facts about the mighty saguaro:
- The Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) is found only in the Sonoran Desert. The Sonoran Desert is mostly in Mexico, southern Arizona, and a small part of southeastern California.
- Protective spines cover the saguaros.
- Saguaro grow waxy white flowers in the late spring and produce red fruit in summer.
- The Saguaro blossom is Arizona's state flower.
- Saguaros are slow-growing and can live to be 150-200 years old.
- A fully-grown Saguaro full of water can weigh 3200-4800 pounds.
Finding the Saguaro Cacti
There are special desert preserves and parks where you can get up close and personal with Saguaro cacti. In addition, most of the established desert resorts in the Phoenix and Tucson areas feature huge Saguaro cacti in their landscaping and natural desert areas. The resorts are fully aware that visitors to Arizona expect to see Saguaros.
Some of the best places to find these giant cacti are:
Saguaro National Park – Tucson
Saguaro National Park protects some of the most impressive forests of these desert giants, on the edge of the modern City of Tucson. The park has an excellent visitor center, desert scenic drives, and some great hiking trails.
Desert Botanical Garden – Phoenix
While you won’t find natural stands of Saguaro in the botanical garden, you will have easy access to some huge specimens. The Desert Botanical Garden, located just east of downtown Phoenix, is a must-see for visitors to Arizona. You'll wind your way through scenic cactus and succulent gardens, enjoy special art displays, and seasonal butterfly gardens.
JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa – Tucson
The Starr Pass area is noted for Saguaro forests. The JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort was built with the goal of preserving the desert and leaving these impressive giants for visitors to enjoy. When you golf, you’ll be playing with a desert backdrop of Saguaro cacti.
At sunset, the resort hosts a Tequila tasting on the patio with a view of the desert and the twinkling lights of Tucson in the distance.
White Stallion Ranch – Tucson
White Stallion Ranch is one of those iconic dude ranches where they actually filmed Hollywood westerns. Guests can stay in their own adobe casita filled with southwestern touches. While at White Stallion Ranch, be sure to check out the saloon. You can sit on a saddle bar stool! Looking for something more active? Try your hands at roping cattle and go for daily horseback rides. The scenic mountain rides are very popular as well as kicking back at a steak barbecue afterward.
Gates Pass and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – Tucson
As you drive west from Tucson to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, you'll find yourself winding through some amazing stands of Saguaro cacti. These cactus “forests” are not found everywhere. The pass, named after Thomas Gates who created this “shortcut” through the Tucson Mountains in the late 1800s, is a destination for stunning views and hiking.
After a winding, sometimes steep drive, you’ll arrive at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a place where you can learn about and see the desert life of the Sonoran Desert. When you visit, you’ll have a true Sonoran Desert experience that includes a beautifully reproduced cave, botanical gardens, and natural history museum. You can also check out the desert animals in small but natural habitats. There is a bit of non-desert fun in the aquarium, where you can enjoy the Stingray touch tank.)Be sure to stop by the art gallery and shop to take home a moment of your views of the desert and the Saguaro cactus.
Saguaro Lake – Mesa
Saguaro Lake was formed by the Stewart Mountain Dam, completed in 1930, and was the last of the reservoirs to be built on the Salt River. As I walked down to the marina one day, a huge Saguaro cactus appeared to be reaching down to me to hand me a bouquet of white Mother’s Day flowers. The cacti, surrounding the lake, flower in May.
Saguaro Lake has more than 22 miles of shoreline, creating a great opportunity for boating, kayaking, sailing, skiing, jet skiing, fishing, and camping. When you visit, stop by a lakeside shop or restaurant, rent a boat, or take a narrated cruise on the Desert Belle.
Rancho de los Caballeros – Wickenburg
At Arizona dude ranches, a highlight is riding through the desert among stands of Saguaro cacti. Riders can easily imagine themselves in an old Western movie scene as they ride along desert trails.
Rancho de los Caballeros, one of many Arizona dude ranches, provides visitors with stunning views of cacti. At sunset, a favorite view from the ranch is Vulture Peak and the silhouettes of huge Saguaro. If you visit the on-site spa, you can relax overlooking the desert. Rancho also sells desert art, some featuring the amazing Saguaro. Many visitors enjoy taking a Jeep ride out into the desert. During your ride, a naturalist helps you learn more about desert life.
Just south of Tucson, on the grounds of Colossal Cave Park, you’ll find the annual Saguaro Festival. The Ha:san Bak Festival takes place between mid-June and the end of July (depending on the weather) when the ruby-red fruit of the saguaro cactus ripens.
At an early-morning workshop in the desert, pre-registered participants harvest saguaro fruit. After the harvest, they prepare and taste saguaro products. During the workshop, you learn about the saguaro, its natural history, and its uses by the Tohono O’odham native people.
Afterward, the park opens to the public for a festival that normally includes an exhibition by rain dancers, basket-making demonstrations, and samples of freshly made saguaro syrup and other native foods.
When You Visit Arizona
To learn more about the cacti of Arizona, we recommend these books to inspire you.
Wander writers have ideas for places to stay and things to do during your Arizona visit. Arizona is a state of contrasts with pine forests and mountains as well as the Sonoran Desert and the magnificent Saguaro Cacti.