Arizona’s Giants – the Saguaro Cactus

Nov 2013

The Giant Saguaro Cactus is one of the most well-known symbols of Arizona and the American Southwest generally. Famous westerns feature scenes of cowboys, indian tribes, and railroad bandits galloping across open desert with towering giant cactus behind them. The story may be set in Texas or New Mexico, but the truth of it is that within the United States you’ll only ever see these mysterious giants in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, a perfect reason to take an Arizona hiking tour.

The Saguaro Cactus (pronounced sa-wahr-o) is in many ways not so different from a tree. Cactus are plants that have adapted to live in arid environments, spines are simply modified leaves that prevent excessive loss of moisture by evaporation. Because they lack leaves, cacti photosynthesize their food in their stem and have adapted to create folds and grooves to increase the surface area that is exposed to light. Below you will find some fun facts about the Giant Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea).

giant saguaro cactus - photo by Diana Zalucky

Saguaro Cactus Facts

  1. Saguaro cactus grow about a foot a decade. They typically will not grow their first “arm” until at least 50 years of age.
  2. Saguaro cactus can live up to 150-250 years. Some specimens are thought to be even older. It is impossible to accurately identify the age of a saguaro cactus due to their sensitivity to variations in climate and environment. Aridity and sunlight have a distinct effect on how quickly a saguaro grows.
  3. The state of Arizona has laws protecting saguaro cactus. In order to move a saguaro cactus off of your property or construction site you must obtain a permit (read more).
  4. The roots of a saguaro cactus are only about 6 inches below the surface of the ground. This allows it to efficiently gather rainwater that doesn’t sink deep into the hard dry desert ground. Each individual cactus has a single taproot that extends as far as 5 feet deep by the time it has reached maturity. Cactus that are uprooted often are unable to re-establish sufficient root systems to survive the move.
  5. Cactus wear their bark on the inside! Inside the plant run “ribs” that are in fact similar to tree bark in appearance.
  6. Saguaro cactus flower in late spring. Their blossoms open late at night and they are pollinated by long-nosed bats.
  7. Cactus fruit has been harvested and eaten by indigenous groups for centuries. The saguaro is an important source of food and shelter for the Tohono O’odham people native to southeastern Arizona and northwestern Mexico.
Giant saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona
This granddaddy saguaro lived in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. Sadly, this cactus died in a storm in 2015.


Hiking in Arizona’s desert is unique largely because of the prevalence of such an unusual plant. Walking among these giants is truly a rare treat. On all of our guided tours here, our professional guides educate our guests about the amazing flora and fauna of the surrounding desert. Taking a guided mountain biking tour allows our guides to lead you to less-accessible places where the desert wilderness appears to have been hardly touched by humankind. Interested in learning more about our guided day tours in Arizona or renting a mountain bike to cruise the desert?

Give us a call at 866-455-1601 or contact us online.

Giant Arizona desert cactus against mountains and blue sky
Road cyclists bike by giant desert cactus under Scottsdale sunset