Many might think that summer would be a seared, drab, colorless season at sun-baked Saguaro National Park east of Tucson.
Some desert plants, including the barrel cactus, come into brilliant bloom in August, even in the absence of summer rains.
But when monsoon moisture bathes the park, other scenic splendors appear. Several kinds of desert wildflowers show their colors, desert trees and shrubs morph from dull sage hues to vibrant greens, and dry washes suddenly flow with water. After especially heavy downpours, the park’s Bridal Wreath Falls might come to life and cascade over a cliff.
Jeff Wallner, park guide at Saguaro, noted these additional benefits of a summer visit:
- You’ll find plenty of elbow room to see the touchable saguaro model in the visitor center.
- For those too-hot-to-hike days, come for a scheduled ranger talk in the visitor center theater (or an audio-video program shown every half hour).
- Look for park reptiles along the loop drive, especially after thundershowers: desert tortoise, Gila monsters and many snakes have recently been sighted.
- Even if the rain stays away from the park, the views of towering cumulus clouds over the Catalina Mountains and the Tucson Basin are spectacular.
- You might stumble upon unusual monsoon-season critters like desert millipedes and centipedes, tarantulas and hefty Sonoran Desert toads.
One way to view the verdant landscape without braving a hike in the summer heat is to drive the park’s 8-mile Cactus Forest Loop Drive.
Short walks — on the paved quarter-mile Desert Ecology Trail along the drive, for example — are possible with sun protection and plenty of water.
But only very fit hikers with knowledge of the terrain and weather should consider longer walks — preferably in early morning hours or when it’s cooler after a rain.
The entrance to Saguaro National Park East is at 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail. Admission is $15 per vehicle.