Saguaro National Park Petroglyphs – Tucson Mountains, AZ

February 2016 – We have spent a lot of time in the Sonoran Desert in Central Arizona, but have not spent much time in Tucson down in the southern part of the state, other than racing the wildly insane El Tour de Tucson 100+ mile bicycle race long before we dreamed of becoming full-time travelers.

So, a trip to Saguaro National Park was long overdue for us.

Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona field of cactus

A view in Saguaro National Park (western district in the Tucson Mountains)

Saguaro National Park is split into two sections, the Western section (the Tucson Mountains) and the Eastern section (the Rincon Mountains). Amazingly, these two vast national park systems hug the east and west flanks of the bustling city of Tucson, which is home to about a million people.

Field of cactus Saguaro National Park Tucson AZ

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The first thing we noticed as we drove through the park is that because the land is under strict preservation management by the National Park Service (as opposed to the looser standards that exist in the National Forests like Tonto National Forest up by Phoenix), is that there are lots of old saguaro cactus skeletons standing and lying around.

Saguaro skeleton Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona

We were surprised to see cactus skeletons all over the place.

These unique relics are prized as garden and household decorations, and in the open Sonoran Desert that lies all around central and southern Arizona, they get hauled away by energetic folks to be re-purposed for interior decorating and outdoor garden ornamentation.

It was neat to see so many cactus skeletons in their natural desert home.

Cactus skeleton Saguaro National Park Tucson Mountains Arizona

The skeletal trunk of a saguaro cactus

Saguaros like to be warm, and they often get bent out of shape when there is a heavy frost. They drop their arms and never put them back up again!

swoopy cactus

After a heavy frost or snow, the saguaros surrender with their arms down.

Saguaro National Park was first established in 1933. as a National Monument, and President Roosevelt’s CCC built some wonderful stone picnic ramadas that still stand today. The undersides of the roofs are lined with saguaro cactus ribs.

Picnic ramada built by CCC Saguaro National Park Tucson AZ

The CCC created wonderful stone picnic shelters lined with saguaro cactus ribs

Reading about the early history of this National Park, it was interesting again to see the differences between the National Park Service, which is a bureau of the Department of the Interior charged with preserving America’s natural treasures, and the US Forest Service, which is an agency of the Department of Agriculture charged with sustaining the health and productivity of the nation’s forests.

CCC picnic shelter Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona

Cool view from the picnic ramada

Back in the 1930’s, the US Forest Service had been managing the land where the proposed Saguaro National Monument was going to be, and they didn’t want to give up cattle grazing on it, something the National Park Service would require. Fortunately, they eventually agreed to the concept of a National Monument in this forest of bizarre human-like trees. In 1994 it became a National Park.

The main loop drive through the cactus forest is a graded dirt road called the Bajada Scenic Drive, and there are several short hiking trails that go from there.

The Signal Hill hike follows a short path up to a pile of big boulders. Eons ago, the ancient Hohokam people pecked out a bunch of symbols and artwork on these boulders.

Petroglyphs at Signal Hill Saguaro National Park Tucson Mountains Arizona

At Signal Hill there are lots of intriguing petroglyphs

Some of the petroglyphs are like wheels with spokes while another popular image is an animal with long swept back horns.

The horned animal is a common motif seen in rock art all over southern Utah and Arizona, and usually it is referred to as a big horn sheep. But if you look at the horns on a big horn sheep, they are tightly wound and are nothing like the gently curved horns of these rock images.

big horn sheep petroglyph Saguaro National Park Signal Hill AZ

A “big horn sheep” petroglyph

I found an interesting photo-essay by a fellow who thinks these are not big horn sheep at all but are actually an extinct animal that roamed before the last ice age, an idea that would date the rock art to a far earlier period than is currently thought.

Talk about rocking the boat of the academics!!

Big Horn Sheep

The horns on a big horn sheep are a lot more curved than ancient rock art images typically depict…

I don’t know if his theory holds water or not, but I love it when new ideas make us look at history and pre-history with fresh eyes.

A very large and tightly wound spiral image dominates the rock art on these boulders.

Signal Hill Spiral petroglyph Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona

A large spiral image is the biggest petroglyph by far

Looking at this carefully pecked imagery, it is interesting to ponder what motivated those early people to make their art, and why they did it on these particular rocks, and whether it was just graffiti, or a warning, or a bit of news for the next folks coming down the path. Or perhaps it had some deeper spiritual meaning.

Spiral Petroglyph Signal Hill Saguaro National Park Arizona 2

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Petroglyphs Saguaro National Park Tucson AZ

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wheel sun sheep petroglyphs Signal Hill Saguaro National Park Arizona

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Back on the path that leads from the parking lot to the mound of boulders, there is a bunch more rock art that is easy to miss on the way up. Just turn around as you begin to descend and keep an eye on the rocks. There is quite a bit there, fairly high up.

Signal Hill petroglyphs Saguaro National Park Arizona

If you don’t catch them on the hike up the hill, turn around on the way down and look up.

If you are really into rock art, taking along a pair of binoculars or a long camera lens is a great idea! I was glad to have my 28-300 zoom..

Spiral and people petroglyphs Saguaro National Park Signal Hill Arizona

Cryptic message, or spiritual symbols, or plain old graffiti?

Saguaro National Park is very large, and there are other hiking trails that can really get you out into the cactus forest. For this trip, we were just doing an overview and getting feeling for what is there. We’ll dive in more deeply next time.

Hikers at Saguaro National Pak Tucson Arizona

We enjoyed this little foray into Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is a really beautiful place to see Arizona’s Sonoran Desert scenery, whether you are an Arizona resident or are in the Tucson area as a snowbird RV visitor in the winter months. There are oodles of hikes and lots of ranger led events too, and there are links for more info below.

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Sometimes on this blog I put up a post with some beautiful photos only to discover later than I missed a few special ones that I’d really like to share. That happened with our earlier stay during the rains at Roosevelt Lake. The other day Mark and I were reminiscing about the bitterly cold week of rain and snow we experienced out there last month, and we came across these stunning photos of his. So here they are. Better late than never!!

Desert rain Roosevelt Lake Arizona

After the rain at Roosevelt Lake

While were camped at Roosevelt Lake, Mark snuck out of bed in the wee hours of the night and got this jaw dropping image of the stars:

Roosevelt Lake starry sky at night Arizona

Starry, starry night…

What a fabulous image!!

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6 thoughts on “Saguaro National Park Petroglyphs – Tucson Mountains, AZ

  1. We love Saguaro NP and always visit when we stay at nearby Gilbert Ray County Park. Aren’t those petroglyphs amazing on Signal Hill, and so easily accessible? We also enjoy the Valley View Overlook Trail, another short and gorgeous trail off of the loop drive. For a longer hiking adventure, Wasson Peak is outstanding (it’s a good steep 10-miler). Your starry, starry night photo is spectacular!

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