A day trip to San Xavier Mission & Saguaro National Park

San Xavier Mission

 I’ve always had a touch of explorer blood in me, always wanting to know what’s on the other side of that mountain, what’s around the next bend in the road. On Wednesday, December 1st my wife and I, decided to do a little exploring around the Green Valley area and see what we might find that would interest us. Some friends who had recently visited this area suggested that San Xavier mission and the Saguaro National Park west.   It was well worth a look.

San Xavier mission can easily be seen west just off Highway 19 and 10 miles south of Tucson.is south of Tucson about 10 miles and just off Highway 19. While I’ve spent time visiting European cathedrals, US cathedrals never seem to measure up for me, so I was curious what the appeal of this mission might be.

A National Historic Landmark, San Xavier Mission was founded as a Catholic mission by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692. Construction of the current church began in 1783 and was completed in 1797.

The oldest intact European structure in Arizona, the church’s interior is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings. It is a place where visitors can truly step back in time and enter an authentic 18th Century space. This is a working mission and not a historical site like you might be thinking. There is a school next door where children were attending the day we were there. There is ongoing  restoration work done on the building . For more information see their web site:  http://www.sanxaviermission.org/Index.html

The School

 We spent an hour or more walking around the site and enjoying the splendor of this place. Here is a little walk-through of what we saw:

Across the dirt parking lot, there is  Native American arts and crafts plaza and a couple of the business where open. As the mission is on the San Xavier Indian Reservation, this is an important location to market their crafts. It’s a pretty “artsy” place and we spent a few minutes looking around. Here is a little of what I saw:

 We drove west from the mission on our way to Saguaro National Park West. About a mile we came to the local cemetery. I was amazed at how it had been recently decorated and carefully groomed. A sign on the fence said “No Trespassing”.  Someday I will come back when it’s open to the public and get a taste of the history of the people who lived here.

It was only about another 15 – 20 mile from the mission to the Saguaro National Park. This park has two locations, one on the east side and one on the west side of Tucson. On the way out there, we drove past the Old Tucson studios, where all the great western movies and TV series where shot.  We drove by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Both will make excellent destination for another day.

Saguaro National Park - West

The drive out to the park is beautiful and we were amazed at the rich variety of desert environment. If you haven’t been there or don’t have a national park permit you will need to stop by the visitor center. The center is well worth a visit anyway and has a wonderful view of the surrounding desert. The entrance permit is $10 a car and is good for a week. If you are lucky enough to be 62 or older, you can get a senior pass for $10 and it’s good at all the national parks and monuments and it’s good for the rest of your life! For more detail on passes see: http://www.nps.gov/sagu/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm

The Visitor Center

Enormous cacti, silhouetted by the setting sun, for most of us the Giant Saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. And yet, these majestic plants are only found in a small portion of the United States. Saguaro National Park protects some of the most impressive forests of these sub-tropical giants on the edge of the modern City of Tucson.

Saguaro cactus forest

 The Saguaro Wilderness Area was officially designated as wilderness in 1976. This large, roadless backcountry consists of 57,930 acres within the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park. It is bounded on three sides by the 38,590 acre Rincon Mountain Wilderness Area, which lies within the Coronado National Forest.

 I Wikipediaed Saguaro to get a little in data on this huge cactus and here is what it said:

Saguaros have a relatively long life span. They take up to 75 years to develop a side arm. The arms themselves are grown to increase the plant’s reproductive capacity (more apices equal more flowers and fruit). The growth rate of saguaros is strongly dependent on precipitation; saguaros in drier western Arizona grow only half as fast as those in and around Tucson, Arizona. Some specimens may live for more than 150 years;[1] the largest known saguaro is the Champion Saguaro. It grows in Maricopa County, Arizona, and is 13.8 meters (45.3 ft) tall with a girth of 3.1 meters (10 ft). These cacti can grow anywhere from 15 to 50 feet. They grow slowly from seed, and not at all from cuttings.

Land of giant cacti. While you’re at the visitor center be sure to pick up a map of all the roads and trails. With my permit and map in hand we headed off to drive a loop route around Hokokam Road and come back on Golden Gate Road. We had seen a beautiful picture of a spiral petroglyph on the wall of the Center and the lady at the desk said we would find it at Signal Hill picnic area. Please note that these roads are not paved and are a bit rough in places. They can be navigated by the average passenger car and you don’t need a high clearance vehicle with 4WD. That isn’t to say that they are smooth and won’t require you to drive carefully to avoid the numerous ruts and rocks.

Driving Through the Desert

 We stopped at the Wild Dog trail head and took a short quarter mile trail over to a ridge to get a view of  the Avra Valley to the west. As it was getting late and we still wanted to see Signal Hill, we didn’t stay long. This is a beautiful park with many miles of hiking trails and we were impressed with the diversity.

Avra Valley looking Northwest.

This Signal Hill picnic area is very nice and was built by the 3-C’s. The facilities are very solidly constructed and well maintained. It was easy to spot the trail to the Rock Art site as it was a small knoll to the northwest.

Signal Hill Picnic Area

 A short trail from the picnic area leads to the rock outcrop on the top where the rock art is found. Wow, this is much better than I had imagined! The picture at the visitor center did not begin to encompass all that is found here. In this area, the rock art appears to have been done by the Hohokam people who lived in this area from about 300AD to 1450AD. The Hohokam people were farmers, gathers and hunters who lived along the rivers in the nearby valleys.


By now it was getting late and we needed o leave the park before it closed. It had been a wonderful day with so much to see. I’m sure we will go back again to both places and take in a little more. 

Looking East from Signal Hill

Enjoy the pictures and the adventure with us and don’t forget to be looking for the beauty and the wonder in your world.


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