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As a kid, I dreamed of trips to theme parks. But as an adult, I crave time in natural parks. It’s the trees that draw me in — the thick-trunked sequoias of the eponymous national park, and their even taller cousins, the redwoods, to the north.
But some national parks boast wildlooking flora that are decidedly not trees. There’s the yucca plants inaptly named Joshua trees. I’ve walked and rock climbed around these marvels multiple times, and it never gets old to be near them. On a recent break from Zoom school and remote work, my family and I decided to seek a new-to-us natural sight. We drove further west from our Los Angeles home in search of saguaro cacti.
Saguaro National Park is split into two sections that sit on either side of Tuscon, Ariz. This makes for a unique national park experience in that travelers can easily combine wilderness experiences with city comforts. Here’s how we recommend enjoying the region with young children.
What to DoPack a do-it-yourself attitude for this national park. What it lacks in snack stalls and in-park accommodations, it makes up for with easy-to-find trailheads right off the main road and volumes of plants and wildlife to observe.
Since the west side of the park has a denser saguaro forest, we started there, at the Red Hills Visitor Center. We took the short interpretive trail right outside, where educational placards describe the surrounding ecology. A quick drive up the road will bring clients to the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, which we found to be suitable even for strollers. On both paths, we were surrounded by slowgrowing saguaro giants and birds of all kinds flitting from cactus to cactus. Having a pair of binoculars for every family member is a good plan — even Dad didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see adorable gamble quail skittering along the desert floor. (Pro tip: Try the out-and-back King Canyon Trail to spot petroglyphs drawn by the Hohokam people.)
Though it’s technically just outside the west park’s boundaries, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is an absolute must-visit for families. My oldest daughter loved this mostly open-air site, where it was easy to look at spiny barrel cacti or blooming prickly pear cacti up close.
Outdoor exhibits also let visitors see desert species that are difficult to spot in the wild, from bobcats and coyotes to my personal Sonoran Desert favorite: the javelina. Entry prices range from $12 to $24 (children under 3 years old are free), and tickets with timed entry must be purchased in advance to ensure social distancing.
Because the eastern side of Saguaro National Park is more mountainous and at a higher altitude, you’ll find fewer saguaros, but still plenty of trails and wildlife. The elevation provides good sunset viewing spots, too. Take the short Tanque Verde Ridge Trail to watch a beautiful sky show at dusk.
Where to StayJust outside of the west side of Saguaro National Park sits JW Marriot Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa. Families will find all the amenities they might want at this desert property, including a giant pool, a lazy river and a waterslide. There are multiple on-site dining options and some easy grab-and-go spots for those folks packing up meals for park adventures. There’s a Starbucks, too, for parents’ caffeine needs.
On the opposite side of Tucson, and right by Saguaro National Park’s eastern half, clients will find Tanque Verde Ranch, a sprawling cattle ranch that’s been in operation for more than 100 years. The property offers horseback riding, swimming, tennis and an incredible range of programming for kids — think horseshoe painting, tie-dyeing, guided nature walks, fishing excursions and archery — all with the Sonoran Desert as the backdrop. We visited the ranch not as overnight guests but for its annual Thanksgiving buffet, which was held on the property’s grand lawn by the beautiful barn.
What to EatTucson has a busy food scene, so we made a point to try a different local eatery after each hike we took. Sonoran-style food, which is influenced by the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora, is great at El Charro Cafe — my daughter’s eyes lit up after a taste of the restaurant’s chimichangas. Sandwiches from Beyond Bread are amazing, and behind the sandwich shop is the related (and cleverly named) Back Dough, where pies abound. We may have picked up three too many mini pies in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Then, there’s coffee. You could fill a whole week drinking lattes in Tucson coffee shops, but we ended up at Freight Train Coffee, a little spot in a shipping container complex in the downtown area. My daughter was thrilled to order her own hot drink — a mint-flavored steamer — and we read while sipping our treats. Then we were on the road and onto the next trail, surrounded by saguaros.
The DetailsJW Marriot Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spawww.marriott.com
Saguaro National Parkwww.nps.gov
Tanque Verde Ranchwww.tanqueverderanch.com