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The stately saguaro cactus, symbol of the American Southwest, is the king here, dominating the entire landscape. Although Saguaro National Park preserves a sizable chunk of the Sonoran Desert, it is one of America's few national parks dedicated to protecting one plant. Saguaros are plants with personalities. They often look human, standing tall and proud, their arms reaching toward the sky or pointing the way. Though some achieve heights of 50 feet and weigh up to 8 tons, saguaros grow slowly. It usually takes 15 years for them to reach 1 foot in height, and they don't flower or produce fruit until they're about 30. They take about 100 years to reach a height of 25 feet. Their maximum life span is about 200 years.

One of the hottest and driest parts of North America, the Sonoran Desert has an amazing variety of life, more than any other desert on the continent. Although the saguaro forests dominate the horizon -- and are consequently the first thing we notice here -- this desert is home to dozens of other cacti, grasses, shrubs, flowers, and trees, as well as several hundred species of birds, mammals, and reptiles. Many of them are uniquely adapted to the demanding environment of this dry land. For instance, javelinas, those odd-looking piglike animals, have mouths so tough they can bite through prickly pear cactus pads in search of moisture, and kangaroo rats never need to drink -- they extract all the water they need from seeds.

The park consists of two separate sections. The Tucson Mountain District, also called Saguaro West, covers 32 square miles of Sonoran Desert west of Tucson; the Rincon Mountain District, also called Saguaro East, covers 104 square miles of saguaro forest, desert, foothills, and mountain terrain on the east side of Tucson. The two sections are about 30 miles apart.

Both districts have scenic drives and trails, with good wildlife viewing and bird-watching. When the spring rain cooperates, there are also spectacular shows of wildflowers and cactus blooms.