When most people think of Arizona, they think of the Grand Canyon. As one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the state nickname and the second most visited National Park in the U.S. with more than five million annual visitors, it’s really no surprise. But beyond the mighty canyon, Arizona boasts a world of wonders and storied history, from petroglyphs to dinosaurs, at Saguaro and Petrified Forest National Parks. From the soaring Saguaro cactus in southern Arizona to ancient logs that pre-date dinosaurs in the northeast, these underrated parks are well worth an excursion.
For as far as the eye can see, the largest and mightiest cacti on Earth line the horizon in the Rincon Mountains like some sort of surreal alien landscape in Saguaro National Park. As looming as it may seem, growing up to 50-feet tall and eight tons, the giant saguaro is vulnerable and precious, and the park serves to protect this rare breed that only grows in a small section of the United States and Mexico. Divvied into two sections on either side of Tucson, Arizona, the park preserves and celebrates this quintessential symbol of Southwestern ecology; the veritable redwoods of the desert.
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Thanks to its accessibility both from Tucson and Phoenix, the latter of which is less than two hours north, and its relatively small size, Saguaro is a very doable visit in a day or two. But just because the park doesn’t rival the square acreage of say, the Grand Canyon, doesn’t mean it isn’t brimming with endless sights, hikes and activities.
Start with a stop in the Red Hills Visitor Center in the western Tucson Mountain District portion of the park, where you can pick up maps, guides, trinkets and chat with rangers about trail conditions. From here, drive up and along the Scenic Bajada Loop, a dirt road that takes you through some of the thickest saguaro forests in the park, with majestic vistas of the valley. Along the way, stop off at the Signal Hill Trail, a short hike to the top of a rocky expanse that’s lined with ancient Native American petroglyphs.
Head to the eastern Rincon Mountain District next. Hiking is particularly popular here, what with its 100-plus miles of trails and the moderate elevation gains, aside from some of the more strenuous, multi-day backcountry treks. A popular day hike is the Cactus Forest Trail, an easy drive from the Rincon Mountains Visitor Center. The five-mile roundtrip jaunt weaves through dried river beds and gets you up close and personal with some of the mightiest and most strikingly beautiful saguaro scenery in the park.
Saguaro is also a popular park for animal-spotting. Though deserts are stereotypically barren, the park defies stigma with its thriving ecosystem of birds, mammals and reptiles. The cacti themselves serve as skyscrapers for resident birds, like Gila woodpeckers, gilded flickers and elf owls, all of which carve out homes in the plant’s interior. Honeybees, wrens, warblers, kingbirds and hawks can also be spotted amidst the cacti. Closer to the ground, watch for rattlesnakes, coyotes, desert tortoises, black bears, foxes, javelinas and rarely-seen (thankfully) mountain lions.
Relics of an era so ancient that they pre-date most dinosaurs, the crystalized logs dotting the landscape at Petrified Forest National Park are awe-inspiring and humbling. Forget everything you know about “forests”; you won’t find lush greenery or babbling brooks here. Rather, blue-hued badlands, petroglyphs and the largest collection of petrified wood on Earth comprise one of the most unique — and unexpected — National Parks in the nation.
Far removed from any city, the worthwhile park is surrounded by once-bustling railway towns and populated with so many fossils and preserved trees that it’s basically a giant, all-natural museum. The stars of the show are the fallen trees, which once stood up to 200-feet tall in the region’s subtropical climate some 225 million years ago. After giving way to rivers, these behemoths were buried in soil and volcanic ash, preserving and crystalizing them over millions of years until the surface eroded away to reveal modern-day Arizona. Today, these stone logs are scattered across hiking trails, buttes and valleys, some glimmering like giant jewels and some as wide as a school bus.
The park is easily doable in one day, as it’s bisected length-wise by a single road from one visitor center to another. Start up north at the Painted Desert Visitor Center and drink in the sights at overlooks like Kachina Point and Chinde Point. Driving south, stop at Puerco Pueblo to explore the grounds of ancient civilizations, and be sure not to miss nearby Blue Mesa. The best hike in the park, the trail takes visitors down into lustrous badlands strewn with petrified logs, offering a striking juxtaposition of textures, erosion and color.
Culminate with a hike through Giant Logs and Long Logs trails, both of which feature the largest petrified trees in the park, including the 10-foot wide Old Faithful. To learn more about the park’s dinosaur past, visit the nearby Rainbow Forest Museum, where exhibits depict a once-wild world of giant crocodilians.