Sunrise Hike in Saguaro National Park

Updated on October 23, 2018
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Having lived in Arizona for over 30 years, Chuck and his wife enjoy the great outdoors of the American Southwest.

Fiery Sunrise in Tucson's Saguaro National Park West

Even before it emerged above the horizon the morning sun was providing a colorful backdrop against the waiting Saguaro Cacti
Even before it emerged above the horizon the morning sun was providing a colorful backdrop against the waiting Saguaro Cacti | Source

An Early Morning Wake-up Sends us Out to Photograph a Colorful Sunrise

After our little dog woke us up a little before 5:00 a.m. on a recent weekend morning my wife decided that, rather than going back to bed for another hour or so, we should head out to Saguaro National Park West to take pictures of the sunrise.

My wife and I both enjoy photography and she has built up a large following on Instagram with her stunning photos.

Sunsets at Saguaro NP are Also Spectacular

My wife heading toward a looming Saguaro, camera in hand and ready to capture a sunset.
My wife heading toward a looming Saguaro, camera in hand and ready to capture a sunset. | Source

Dressing Quickly We Drove Toward Saguaro National Park in the Inky Darkness

On this morning the trip to Saguaro National Park West would be unplanned in contrast to some trips this past summer when my wife would talk me into getting up a 4:00 in the morning to go view the sunrise.

So, after quickly stepping outside and seeing that the sky was mostly clear with a number of big, fluffy cumulus, stratocumulus and cumulonimbus clouds scattered across the sky, I quickly put some coffee on and got dressed.

Taking the coffee with us we set out on the 40 minute or so drive from our home to Saguaro West National Park. It was still completely dark as we headed west from our home along the dimly lit streets of northwest Tucson (astronomy is major industry in Tucson with astronomers from all over the world coming here to study the night sky so outdoor lighting is kept to a minimum in our city) toward the nearby pass through the Tucson mountains.

There Was Enough Light to See the Cactus Covered Desert Ahead of Us

Making our way through the abundant verities of Cacti and other Succulents
Making our way through the abundant verities of Cacti and other Succulents | Source

The sun had not yet emerged above the eastern horizon when we arrived but the sky was becoming lighter which meant that we could see our way as we walked through the field of Saguaro and other cacti across from where we parked the car.

This meant that we could see out way and avoid tripping over rocks, get around cacti and other bushy succulents all covered with thorns, as well as the occasional rattlesnake resting in our path (note: while I keep an eye out for them, in the 30+ years I have lived and hiked in Arizona I have only seen, usually at a safe distance, 4 rattlesnakes in the wild).

Despite the sun still lurking below the horizon, its rays were already silhouetting the mountains in front of it and clothing the fluffy clouds hovering above the mountains in bright colors.

Rattlesnake Napping Next to a Log in Saguaro National Park West

One of the four rattlesnakes I have seen in the wild.  I used a telephoto lens to take this picture.  This was taken while hiking in Saguaro NP West in the summer of 2017
One of the four rattlesnakes I have seen in the wild. I used a telephoto lens to take this picture. This was taken while hiking in Saguaro NP West in the summer of 2017 | Source

When my wife saw the quality of pictures I was taking on my iPhone a few years ago she had me upgrade her to an iPhone and she quickly put it to use taking pictures on our travels. She has a good eye and, until then, undiscovered artistic talent.

It didn't take long for my wife to become an avid photographer who not only knew how to spot, frame and take a good picture, she also became very good at using an app to enhance her pictures.

Both of us have since upgraded to Google Pixel phones and continue to look for interesting things to photograph.


On numerous trips to Saguaro National Park we have built a huge library of photos of Saguaro and other cacti. In the spring numerous varieties of cacti are in bloom. While the flowers vary in size and color the bad news is that most cactus flowers only last for a day or two. They bloom, attract bees, butterflies and other insects who collect and distribute their pollen and then die. The good news is that each cacti generally produce numerous flowers that bloom over the course of weeks or even a month or two.

We have made many trips to Saguaro National Park and other places to photograph these flowers.

Delicate Flower of a Buckhorn Cholla Cactus against Setting Sun

Saguaro National Park is home to many verities of cacti. The cholla cactus is one of the many cacti that bloom in the spring.
Saguaro National Park is home to many verities of cacti. The cholla cactus is one of the many cacti that bloom in the spring. | Source

Crested Saguaro Cacti

A little over a year ago my wife heard about crested Saguaro Cacti. Technically known as cristate saguaros these rare saguaros sport a fan-like growth on them.

Plant biologists who study saguaros don’t know what causes this odd growth on a few saguaros. Some biologists theorize that these odd growths on the saguaro are the result of the saguaro being hit by lightning or it having freeze damage to the crested area due to frost. Others speculate that the cristate is due to a genetic mutation.

While the cause remains a mystery, the result in many cases is a spectacular addition to the affected saguaro.

Crested Saguaro Cactus

Crested Saguaro Cactus in Saguaro National Park West
Crested Saguaro Cactus in Saguaro National Park West | Source

Crested saguaro cacti can be found wherever saguaro cacti grow. However, because they are rare the odds of finding them are improved in places where there are numerous saguaro cacti. According to the National Park Service there are about 75 known crested saguaro cacti located within the boundaries of the two sections of the National Park.

However, finding the crested saguaros can be difficult as they are a part of a huge forest of saguaros. Even with the maps marking the location of some of the crested saguaros that are available at the visitor centers at each section visitors have to look carefully to spot the crested saguaros.

My Wife Photographing Crested Saguaro Cactus at Saguaro National Park-East

Cresting took place at the top of the main trunk of this Saguaro in Tucson's Saguaro National Park-East
Cresting took place at the top of the main trunk of this Saguaro in Tucson's Saguaro National Park-East | Source

Saguaros Bloom in the Spring

In addition to the sunrises and sunsets and the crested saguaros, there is also the flowering of the saguaros in late Spring followed by the fruit in early summer.

Beginning about late April through the end of June (the length of the main flowering period varies from year to year) the saguaros produce numerous delicate white flowers.

Saguaro Cactus in Bloom

Saguaro Cactus along Salt River in Tonto National Forest - Mesa, AZ
Saguaro Cactus along Salt River in Tonto National Forest - Mesa, AZ | Source

The buds on the Saguaro generally start opening sometime after midnight with most of them having wilted by late afternoon. There are exceptions with some opening shortly after sunrise and not wilting until late afternoon or early evening. However, since many mature saguaros produce numerous buds which open at different times visitors have about a month or more to visit and see flowers on the saguaros.

Saguaro Cactus Flower

Close up picture of Saguaro Cactus flower at tip of arm with 5 buds below waiting to bloom
Close up picture of Saguaro Cactus flower at tip of arm with 5 buds below waiting to bloom | Source

Saguaros Produce a Sweet Red Fruit

The flowers of the Saguaro, like other flowers, produce nectar which attracts bees and other insects as well as certain species of birds and bats In getting to the nectar they pick up pollen which they then carry to the next Saguaro flower where it rubs off and fertilizers that flower.

After the fertilized flower dies at the end of the day it begins turning into a sweet red fruit that contains thousands of tiny black seeds. Many birds and desert animals eat the sweet fruit including the seeds which, in most animals pass through their digestive system and begin growing into new saguaros after being excreted.

Humans, especially the native Tohono O'odham peoples who have a long tradition of harvesting and boiling it down to produce a syrup or fermenting it into an alcoholic beverage. The Tohono O’odham were doing this long before the Europeans arrived.

Other locals pick, peel and eat the fruit like any other type of produce. It should be noted that, while citizens of the neighboring the Tohono O’odham Nation have permission to harvest Saguaro fruit in area national parks, harvesting the fruit by others is illegal. Others who wish to pick and consume the fruit have to obtain it from their own property or other areas to which they have legal access.

Saguaro Cactus Fruit

Red pods are the ripe fruit of the Saguaro.  Green pods are the not yet ripe.  Very ripe fruit splits open revealing thousands of tiny black seeds.
Red pods are the ripe fruit of the Saguaro. Green pods are the not yet ripe. Very ripe fruit splits open revealing thousands of tiny black seeds. | Source

The East and West Sections of Saguaro National Park are at the east and west end of Tucson, AZ

A
Saguaro National Park - West:
Saguaro National Park, Arizona, USA

get directions

B
Saguaro National Park - East:
Saguaro National Park East, Arizona, USA

get directions

Author Among the Saguaros in Saguaro National Park West

Author hiking in open desert among Saguaros and other cacti in Tucson's Saguaro National Park West
Author hiking in open desert among Saguaros and other cacti in Tucson's Saguaro National Park West | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Chuck Nugent

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      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        3 weeks ago from Tucson, Arizona

        Peggy Woods -Thanks for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the Hub. As to the snake I wasn't so much scared as much as focused on reminding myself to pay even more attention to the area through which I am walking.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        3 weeks ago from UK

        Fair point, Chuck. You put the advantages of digital photography very well. Having been away recently and also attended two family events I am feeling a little inundated with photos that need sorting out. Thanks for your comment about my Prague article. It's taking a while to get it through the editors to Wander Wisdom

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Your photos are fantastic! You and your wife are fortunate to live so close to the Saguaro National Park. I have only been able to see it on several trips through that area but it was always during daylight hours. Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos with us.

        You are very fortunate that the rattlesnake was sleeping and not disturbed by your stepping over it. I'll bet your heart rate skipped a few beats when you realized how close you had come to that rattlesnake! Yikes!

      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        3 weeks ago from Tucson, Arizona

        Paul Levy - Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the Hub As to the rattlesnake while I did take the photo with a telephoto lens from a distance, I actually stepped over the snake before I saw it. If you look closely in the picture the snake is curled up sleeping against a log. I came at him from behind and stepped over the log and snake and didn't notice the snake until after I had stepped over him. My wife and I keep a close eye on the ground ahead of us when we are hiking. Not so much to avoid snakes but to avoid rocks and other things we can trip over especially when on hiking on narrow and rocky mountain terrain. This also helps to see snakes. I saw flat ground the other side of the log (which actually concealed the snake and my foot was a good foot or more in front of the snake when I set it down. I noticed the snake as I was passing over the log and made a point to take a few more large steps before turning around to view & take a picture of the snake. As for the snake, he slept through the whole thing. Thanks again for your comment and concern.

      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        3 weeks ago from Tucson, Arizona

        Liz Westwood - Thank you for your comment. I agree that in today's digital age one accumulates thousands of pictures. However, in the pre-digital age not only was the cost of film and developing expensive but we also had to wait until we finished a roll of film and received our pictures back before we could view and evaluate the pictures we took. Now we can view them instantly. Also, with our phones doubling as cameras we are able to snap a picture any time we see a good shot without having to drag a camera around all the time. Finally, since the cost of taking a picture is zero I don't have any problem experimenting and taking lots of pictures of something and deleting the ones I don't like without feeling guilty about having wasted money on the ones I delete.

        Thanks again for your comments and, by the way, I enjoyed all the pictures you displayed in your Hub "A River View of Prague"

      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        3 weeks ago from Tucson, Arizona

        Emmy Ali - Thank you for your comment. Saguaro National Park is a beautiful place to visit anytime and it is even worth the effort to get up before dawn and drive out there to watch the sun rise over it.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        3 weeks ago from UK

        This is a very well-illustrated article. I especially like taking photos of sunrise and sunset. The problem I have in this digital age is that I end up with so many photos and then struggle to pick out the best ones.

      • Emmy ali profile image

        Eman Abdallah Kamel 

        3 weeks ago from Egypt

        Very nice place and informative article. Sunset photos are wonderful. In fact, everything natural around us calls for long meditation.

      • livetech profile image

        Paul Levy 

        3 weeks ago from United Kingdom

        Looks like a beautiful place for a walk, such amazing detail on these cacti! Before I read the caption on that rattlesnake photo I thought you must have been mad to get that close to it - relieved to see that you remained a safe distance and used a telephoto lens. Thanks for sharing.

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