10 Reasons Why Saguaro National Park Is a Symbol of the American West

Saguaro National Park in Arizona

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Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona is made up of two sections on either side of Tucson. Named for the distinct Saguaro cactus native to the desert environment there, the park also protects historic petroglyphs, pictographs, and several other cultural resources.

While the park was established as a national monument back in 1933, it didn’t become an official national park until 1994, shortly before Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park.

Saguaro National Park Is Divided Into Two Distinct Districts

Saguaro National Park is separated into two parts: the Rincon Mountain District to the east of the city of Tucson, and the Tucson Mountain District to the west. Together, the national park encompasses over 91,000 acres of desert landscape.

It’s Not Just Desert

Montainview in Saguaro Park West
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The national park also contains mountainous regions—some of which reach over 8,000 feet above sea level.

Full of pine and coniferous forests with a total of six biotic communities, the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro ranges from 2,670 feet to 8,666 feet in elevation. Annual precipitation in this region is about 12.3 inches and the high elevation helps support a different variety of animals than the rest of the park, including black bears, king snakes, and white-tailed deer.

About 3,500 Species of Plants Grow in the Park

Due in part to the varied elevation within the park, a wide assortment of different species have adapted to survive there. There are an estimated 3,500 plant species between the park’s two districts, and at least 80 of them are invasive.

Saguaro National Park Is Threatened by Invasive Plants

Buffelgrass, an invasive plant

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A drought-tolerant species called buffelgrass is widely considered the biggest invasive plant threat to Saguaro National Park.

Native to countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, buffelgrass was intentionally brought to the United States in the 1930s for cattle forage and erosion control. As it turns out, the plant proved too strong for its non-native environments, crowding out local plants for nutrients and water, altering habitats, and creating continuous fuel for wildfires.

Park officials control buffelgrass by hand pulling or spraying glyphosate-based herbicides by helicopter to destroy more dense patches.

The Giant Saguaro Is the Nation’s Largest Cactus

Saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park

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Long known as an iconic symbol of the American west, Saguaro National Park’s namesake cactus plant is found in only a small portion of the United States.

These famous desert plants can grow to heights of 45 feet and are only found in areas with elevations ranging from sea level to about 4,000 feet.

Saguaro Cacti Grow Very Slowly

Despite their massive size, giant saguaro cacti are very slow-growing plants. Inside the park, a saguaro will grow between 1 and 1.5 inches throughout the first eight years of its life.

The roots of a saguaro cactus grow only several inches under the ground in order to catch as much water as possible during heavy rains, though they also absorb and store moisture in their flesh thanks to a network of expanding pleats.

Saguaro National Park Is Also Home to 24 Other Species of Cactus

Pink hedgehog cactus in Saguaro National Park

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The saguaro may be the most recognized cactus inside the national park, but it’s only one of 25 species of cactus found there.

A sharp contrast to the towering saguaro, the mammillaria cactus is the smallest type of cactus in the park, while the pinkflower hedgehog cactus shows off bright, almost neon-colored pink flowers while in full bloom. Other common species include the fishhook barrel cactus, the Staghorn cholla cactus, and Engelman's prickly pear cactus.

The Park Is Teeming With Unique Reptile Species

As one would expect with a vast desert terrain protected from outside influence, Saguaro National Park provides habitats for many different reptile species. Among these include the desert tortoise, the western coral snake, and at least six species of rattlesnakes.

The large Gila monster, known as the only venomous lizard native to the United States, also thrives there.

Saguaro’s Famous Gila Monster Lizards Are Elusive, But Not Exactly Rare

Gila monster lizard in Saguaro National Park

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Studies show that, while the chances of spotting one of these sizable reptiles during surveys can be less than 0.01%, the protected environment of the park supports a healthy and robust population.

The Park Uses Citizen Scientists to Aid in Conservation

When it comes to Saguaro National Park, there are hundreds of citizen scientists who help conduct essential research, such as measuring and mapping saguaro cacti, monitoring stream levels, and studying Gila monsters. For example, every ten years the park organizes a citizen science saguaro census to study the long-term health of the plants.

View Article Sources
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  2. "Plants." National Park Service.

  3. Paretti, Nicholas V., et al. "Occurrence, Fate, and Transport of Aerially Applied Herbicides to Control Invasive Buffelgrass within Saguaro National Park Rincon Mountain District, Arizona, 2015–18." United States Geological Survey, 2021., doi:10.3133/sir20215039

  4. "Saguaro Cactus." National Park Service.

  5. "Saguaro Cactus Question and Answer Guide." National Park Service.

  6. "Cacti/Desert Succulents." National Park Service.

  7. Farrar, Victoria Sophia, et al. "Elusive Does Not Always Equal Rare: Genetic Assessment of a Protected Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum) Population in Saguaro National Park, Arizona." Amphibia-Reptilia, vol. 38, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-14., doi:10.1163/15685381-00003079

  8. "Saguaro Census 2020." National Park Service.