Southeastern Arizona’s Saguaro National Park is a place of timeless beauty. Even though we’ve ridden here before, we never tire of the magnificent display of saguaro against the Sonoran Desert background. This tree-like cactus species is an iconic symbol of the Sonoran Desert and the American Southwest. It has been called the monarch of the Sonoran Desert, renowned for its size and unusual shapes.
This national park preserves the saguaro, as well as other members of the Sonoran Desert community, including different kinds of cacti, desert trees, shrubs, and wildlife. In fact, the Sonoran Desert surpasses all other North American deserts in terms of lushness and variety of life.
Saguaro National Park consists of two units: the Tucson Mountain District (Saguaro West) and the Rincon Mountain District (Saguaro East). These two districts are separated by the city of Tucson. Both units together preserve more than 91,000 acres of Sonoran Desert and contain 165 miles of trails.
The best time of year to visit the park is October to April. In the summer, temperatures can easily soar over 100 degrees. The Red Hills Visitor Center offers park information, including trail maps. For more information, visit nps.gov/sagu.
You may bring your own trail horse and ride the park’s extensive trail system. Here, we’ll tell you where you can stay with your horse and where to ride. We’ll also give you information on guest ranches in the area if you’d prefer to leave your horse at home.
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Rocking M Ranch
Rocking M Ranch (rockingmranch.net) is a convenient, friendly place to stay with your horse adjacent to Saguaro West. The location allows you to ride your horse directly into the national park, yet is close to town for shopping and tourist activities.
This ranch has been owned and operated by Lou and Pam Mindes since 1995. Lou and Pam, a vibrant, happy couple, told us the most rewarding aspect of this business is the variety of interesting people they meet. Their guests come from all over the world.
Rocking M can accommodate living-quarters trailers; it also offers corrals for guest horses and nice accommodations for riders. Amenities include a great room, a saloon, and a cozy fire pit.
From the ranch, you can ride directly into the park on the Veteran’s Trail, an equestrian trail the Mindeses built and donated. This trail is so-named because it was completed on Veteran’s Day.
We did several rides here. Our first ride was with Mike Moen and Donna Van Barriger. Mike spent five winters at the Rocking M before purchasing his own property nearby. His mount, a 15-year-old buckskin Quarter Horse named Cole; Donna rode her 15-year-old mare, Ella Rose. Her horse was very well gaited and loved to go “zooming” along the trail.
Trails don’t always line up with trail maps and special spots aren’t necessarily noted. So we appreciated doing this first ride with Mike and Donna. Our destination was a panel rock covered with petroglyphs.
Most of the rock art found in Saguaro National Park was created by the prehistoric Hohokam and is in the form of petroglyphs. These are created by etching, pecking, or scraping designs into the dark patina on the surface of sandstone and other rocks. These petroglyphs are well-preserved and of various designs.
Most trails were marked; trails were sandy with rocky portions interspersed with soft dirt or sand. From the Veteran’s Trail, we veered over to the Vertical Cliffs trail. This intersected with the Gila Monster Trail. We followed this short section until we could take the right-hand Cactus Canyon Trail.
The Cactus Canyon Trail more than lived up to its name. There were so many cacti! Riding among the saguaros, we let our imaginations soar. Some of the cactus appeared to be giant mothers with protective arms wrapped around their little ones; others looked like loving couples.
The Cactus Canyon Trail took us to the Picture Rocks Wash Trail. After a right-hand turn, we rode down the wash and began encountering folks who were also interested in the 1,000-plus-year-old petroglyphs.
By taking the Coyote Pass Trail on our return, Mike and Donna succeeded in taking us on a very pleasant loop ride.
Wandering the Desert
Our next ride was a meandering, exploratory ride with just the two of us and our geldings. We really enjoyed the feeling of being completely alone in this amazing desert.
The brittle bushes were ablaze with bright-yellow blossoms. This ubiquitous desert shrub has a long history of usefulness. Indigenous people and early pioneers used the plant resin for glue and waterproofing. Old-time cowboys used the stems to brush their teeth. And the indigenous children? They chewed the resin like gum!
Somewhere in our wanderings, we came across an abandoned windmill near a dried-up wash that had once been a creek. It was a shadow from the early days of ranching. Strangely enough, this windmill wasn’t the only shadow from the past. Across from it was a huge slab of rock that offered evidence of domestic work done by ancient indigenous people. We counted 14 grinding holes on the rock’s surface.
By paying attention to intersections and the map, we had a good ride and didn’t run into any problems finding our way back.
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White Stallion Ranch
Conveniently located next to Saguaro West is White Stallion Ranch. We’ve been to this ranch a couple of times and have always left with smiles and precious memories.
White Stallion Ranch was built in the early 1900s as a cattle ranch. It was bought in 1965 by the True family and has remained in the family for three generations. The ranch offers an outstanding horse program, plus extra amenities, such as a pool and hot tub to ease after-ride muscles, tennis courts, a movie theater, and a fitness center.
The Trues offer a mind-boggling variety of rides, including the ultimate challenge ride. According to ranch owner Russell True, it could be the best ride of your life—or the absolute worst. We decided it was one of the best. Riders can expect a 20- to 25-mile day, eight hours in the saddle, and an excellent lunch in a lovely setting. By the end of the ride, you’ll be totally hydrated with scenic beauty!
Saguaro East is around an hour drive from the Rocking M Ranch. Wildhorse Trailhead at the eastern end of Speedway Boulevard gives riders access to an area covered with trails, making it easy to do loops or figure-8s. The parking lot isn’t large, so plan a weekday visit when there are fewer people.
In Saguaro East, there’s a visitor center with information about the park. In addition to the regular park map, you may wish to get the “Hiking in the Cactus Forest Rincon Mountain District” map, which provides a closeup of the interconnecting trails with mileage from the Wildhorse Trailhead.
Before unloading our horses for our ride, we turned our rig around before parking it alongside Speedway Blvd. Hours later, when we returned and saw all the vehicles, we were very glad we were pointed in the right direction!
Follow the Map
Using our Rincon Mountain District map, we did a fun 10-mile loop. Trails are mostly soft sand and well-marked. We looped around the outside of the trail system. We began with the Garwood trail, turned right on Carrillo, rode down Squeeze Pen, followed Mesquite, and had lunch at the Mica View picnic area. Here, there were hitching posts for the horses, picnic tables, and restrooms.
Our map gave us information on the plants, wildlife, and other items of interest to look for on the trail. We also encountered families with hot, tired children. Our geldings, Jake and Cody, love seeing the little ones; they know they’ll be able to perform tricks for treats. Kent looks at the children and says, “Let me ask my horse if he thinks you’re the best hikers he has ever seen. And, you know, horses never lie.”
The little ones pay rapt attention to Kent and Cody, their tiredness forgotten. “Cody, if you think these kids are the best hikers ever, give them a big smile.” Cody happily shows his large, discolored teeth with all the enthusiasm he can muster. The kids love it! Most don’t notice the pellet Kent slips into his mouth as a reward.
No One Get’s Left Behind
Of course, Jake doesn’t want to be left out. He takes an educational approach to entertainment. “Jake wants you to know that he likes folks that don’t litter and—oh, no I dropped my glove!” Charlene will say. Folks step forward intending to pick up the glove.
But then Charlene will add, “No thanks, Jake will pick it up.” Sure enough, Jake will put his head down, clamp the glove in his mouth, and turns his head toward Charlene who’ll remove the glove from his mouth. Jake, like Cody, always gets a pellet, as well as some delighted applause.
We tell the children that our horses would appreciate a little nose rubbing. Watching the expressions on the children’s faces as they bond with our geldings is priceless. Many times, these encounters are the highlights of our rides.
After our picnic at Mica View, we rode back on the Cactus Forest North Trail, turned right on the Cholla Trail, left on the Loma Verde Trail, and right on the Shantz Trail, which continues all the way to Wildhorse Trailhead.
Tanque Verde Ranch
Tanque Verde Ranch is conveniently located near the Wildhorse Trailhead and borders Saguaro East. We’ve stayed here several times and can state, unequivocally, that this is one of our favorite guest ranches. Their well-trained staff wants you to feel special; they work hard to give you the ultimate ranch experience.
Tanque Verde began as a cattle ranch and eventually became a guest ranch. The present ranch has 640 acres; it also leases 60,000 acres from the U.S. Forest Service for its cattle operation. Guests today can experience miles of trails that wander through spectacular desert and mountain scenery. In addition, the ranch has four tennis courts, two pools, hot tubs, and a spa.
Each morning, more than 100 horses are gathered in the main corral for the day’s ride. There are walking rides,
loping rides, breakfast rides, and sunrise and sunset rides. Our favorite ride was the mountain adventure ride. This ride ascended into the Rincon Mountains and involved elevation gains and a few narrow trails. A packed lunch
There’s no better way to explore the sights, feelings, and sounds of the Sonoran Desert and Saguaro National Park than by horseback. But perhaps John Muir said it best: “In every walk with Nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”