Saguaro National Park, Petrified Forest National Park bring Arizona desert to life

Saguaro cactus in bloom in the national park of the same name.

Arizona desert comes to life at Saguaro National Park and Petrified Forest National Park!

Saguaro cactus in bloom; fruit will develop in a few months, a favorite of birds and other creatures!

We had the opportunity to do a 10-day housesitting gig in North Tucson (through the Affordable Travel Club) and used the trip to visit several old and new national parks and Native American sites. On the way to Tucson, we spent two days in favorites Joshua Tree National Park and three additional days near the Grand Canyon.

But it was the Tucson area that offered the appeal to us, since we never seen much of that part of this vast state before. We consulted our AAA maps (I prefer paper maps, over trying to plot destinations via GPS) and plotted a route to Saguaro National Park, Petrified Forest National Park and Canyon de Chelly National Monument, a bit further to the north.

Saguaro National Park is easiest to reach, since two park sections are separated by metro Tucson. The Western District is due west of the city, while the Eastern/Rincon Mountain District is just east. Together, they preserve 91,000 acres of the green and verdant Sonoran desert, including the park’s namesake, the saguaro cactus.

Prickly pear cactus also coming into full bloom!

This part of the Sonoran desert has two rainy seasons, July through August and December through January, receiving about 10 inches of rain throughout the year. Saguaro cactus, prickly pear cactus, fishhook cactus, barrel cactus, mesquite and creosote bush all thrive in this alien environment. The interesting Palo Verde tree, tall with electric green leaves and bark, makes for a tall and lush desert environment.

The park is also home to the American kestrel, Lucy’s warblers, cactus wrens, purple martins, rattlesnake, Gambels quail, road runners, redtailed hawks, desert tortoise and Gila monsters. We saw a fair share of road runners, a variety of birds and hawks, but none of the balance.

We were lucky, with both saguaro cactus in bloom, with big, creamy white flowers and prickly pear cactus bursting forth with lush yellow flowers. Eventually, saguaro fruit ripens in June and July, with each fruit containing as many as 2000 tasty seeds, popular with birds, coyotes, foxes, squirrels and javalinas.

Prickly pear blossoms are stunning, up close!

We toured the 8 mile loop road, stopping at a number of overlooks, with the option to walk back into the desert for best views and photos. The park offers 21 backcountry campsites, though no traditional drive-in campgrounds. Camping is available at nearby state parks, county parks and US Forest Service – pick up a flyer at the visitor center.

A number of easy hikes meander through the park, including the Freeman Homestead Trail, a one-mile round-trip, taking you into an old homestead and offering mute testimony on the hard life of pioneers in this rugged land.

From the Tucson area, we pressed east and then north to reach Petrified Forest National Park. It’s in remote Arizona country, leading to light visitation compared to many of the 59 national parks.

Petrified wood in Rainbow forest (National Park courtesy photo)

Petrified Forest National Park (about 250 miles northeast of Tucson) was established as a national monument in 1906 to preserve and protect the petrified wood for its scientific value, becoming a national park in 1962. Some 220 million years ago, sediments buried old tropical rain forests, when this property lay much closer to the equator.

Over the eons, minerals leached into the buried wood and rock layers were laid down over the dead trees, leading to their petrification. At the same time, that portion of the earth’s place was moving tectonically north, part of the ancient Chinle Formation, from which the colorful Painted Desert gets its name. Millions of years of erosion bared many of the old petrified trunks, which lie all over the park, perhaps no where more dramatic than the Rainbow Forest Trail near the park’s south entrance!

Huge petrified logs like this one, some 45 feet long, lie along the Rainbow Forest trail near the park's south entrance.

The park is recognized today, both for its incredible petrified wood, including from the Late Triassic paleo-ecosystem, and deep human history dating back thousands of years.  The park offers amazingly clear star-lit skies, a fragile grasslands ecosystem and colorful Painted Desert vistas.

Remains of Puerco Pueblo, dating back over 1,000 years, in Petrified Forest National Park.

Sharp-eyed visitors may see jackrabbits, collared lizards, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, tarantulas, several varieties of rattlesnakes and other wildlife in the park.

Over 13,000 years of man’s presence is preserved in the park, right up to a section of the old “Mother Road”, Rt. 66, that cut across the northern end of the park, helping send millions of Americans west from Chicago to California, from 1926 to the mid-1980s. But it’s early Native American people’s settlements, including Agate House and the Puerco Pueblo, that offers evidence of man’s ingenuity in living and prospering in a harsh environment.

Remains of an old Studebaker mark a section where old Route 66 once cut throught the north edge of the park; Petrified Forest National Park is the only national park to contain a portion of the old "Mother Road".

While the park allows back-country camping, it offers no developed, drive-in campgrounds.  A host of private campgrounds surround much of the park, and state parks in Arizona and New Mexico and Forest Service campgrounds can be found in this scenic part of the west.

What’s nearby: Colossal Cave Mountain Park is just south of Saguaro National Park East, Karchner Caverns State Park is further south and Chiricahua National Monument is to the east. Canyon de Chelly is about 150 miles north of Petrified Forest.

The colorful and vast Painted Desert lies just north of the park's North Entrance.

For more information: Affordable Travel Club,; Petrified Forest National Park,; Saguaro National Park,; Canyon de Chelly National Monument,; for camping on public lands,

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in your world!

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