“A moderately technical up and down between two desert foothills.”
— Brendan Ross
Trails in Saguaro National Park's Tucson Mountain District are open daily from sunrise to sunset. Pets are prohibited beyond parking and picnic areas. Bicycles are not permitted on any of the National Park's trails; however, the adjacent Tucson Mountain Park offers areas open to cyclists.
Many trails in the Tucson Mountain District are rocky and rugged. Veteran trail runners will rise to the challenge without much trouble, but less-experienced visitors should pace themselves until becoming used to the terrain. Trail shoes are recommended.
The western section of the park is entirely within the desert, and appropriate precautions should be taken. Avoid the hottest portions of the day during the summer months. Flash flooding is a possibility during the rainy season, so while this is the best time to catch the plant life in bloom, plan around thunderstorms. Regardless of the season, bring plenty of water and make sure someone else knows where you'll be, and when you should be back. Cell phone reception is poor through most of the district. Running after dark is not recommended and is outside of official hours.
Steer clear of the many open mine shafts nearby the trails. Signed and fenced off by barbed wire, they are usually uncovered and are not safe to explore.
Shortcutting the longer routes of Brittlebrush
and Coyote Pass/Gila Monster, Cactus Canyon is a slightly more challenging passage to Thunderbird
. The northern end of the trail is found on the side of Picture Rocks Wash
, almost exactly between Ironwood Forest
. Look for a sign marking the intersection, where a dirt singletrack exits the wash.
The initial quarter mile of Cactus Canyon is a moderate grade, lightly technical climb. Additional rocks, some light erosion, and twists make the ascent a little more difficult than the standard area trails, though experienced runners won't have any trouble. A number of young saguaros grow close along the path.
The trail flattens near the left turnoff for Coyote Pass. Bear right and continue on Cactus Canyon. The steady climb continues as the route makes a U turn and circles around a hill to the east; again, while the grade isn't bad, it's a steady push with no breaks. As the trail approaches the hill, it becomes occasionally slippery, so step carefully.
As the path levels and is headed south, keep an eye out for a sharp L turn to the left. A couple of small cairns mark the turn, but it's easy to miss and continue straight onto a false southbound trail.
The remaining section of Cactus Canyon is a descent between two hills. The saguaros tower high above the path through here. Some nice views of Tucson can be had directly ahead and to the left as the path exits the narrow valley and connects to Thunderbird
and Gila Monster. If joining the trail from this end, note that the trail sign is set far back from the actual intersection; look west and up the hill for an orange trail marker along the singletrack.
Flora & Fauna
With both desert and mountain areas, including the sky island of the eastern district, Saguaro National Park is home to an impressive number of plants and wildlife.
Over four hundred plant species call the Tucson District home. The most prominent are the saguaro cacti which give the park its name. Living well over a hundred years and growing forty to sixty feet tall, they live exclusively in the Sonoran Desert and can be seen by the thousands here. Arms won't grow until the plant is 75-100 years old. Ocotillos, cholla, prickly pear, creosote, mesquite, and palo verde are common sights.
Many animals associated with the desert can be found on the trails. Visitors may see roadrunners, horned lizards, Gila monsters, kangaroo rats, and collared peccaries. Owls and woodpeckers may fly overhead, with some making their home in the saguaros. Tortoises are uncommon, and give a wide berth if coming across one of the park's six species of rattlesnakes.