saguaro national park

The Arizona national parks have been on our radar ever since my sister Mary moved there two years ago from Cleveland. You might remember that Mary also visited Cuyahoga Valley with us when she lived in Ohio! In 2021 Mary and I daydreamed about visiting Saguaro together, and we shopped the Madewell x Parks Project collab for matching shirts to prove we were serious about these plans. A year later, Greg and I were ready to pack up our family and fly across the county for a wild week of cacti, canyons, and dust.

Now that we’re safely home from the trip, I do wonder why no one said, “Arizona parks + little kids seem like a bad mix! Aren’t you worried about the berries wrestling with a cactus? Getting lost in the painted desert? Falling into the Grand Canyon?” It’s really not a safe place and Rachel was stuffed into the carrier more times than she preferred just to keep our stress levels reasonable.

A fun prelude to this trip was a delivery at our front door about a week before we left. Greg surprised me with a new suitcase full of “swag” for our trip. He said I earned the trip for being one of our family’s top contributors, an idea based on my brother-in-law’s recent all-expense-paid vacation in Cancun. It’s fun being married to a Enneagram 7, let me tell you.

The logistics: we got up ridiculously early and connected through Atlanta in order to save $1000 on our six tickets to Phoenix. (I would be advertising all kinds of random hiking gear and protein drinks if we didn’t want to pay our own way on this national park challenge. The costs are getting serious and they’re only going to get higher because we won’t have a free infant pretty soon, plus, you know, Putin’s price hike.) The flights were fine even though my kids – to their delight – were sprinkled all over the plane next to total strangers. Gluten-free KIND bars and North Pole nature documentaries are the way to our collective Bartos hearts.

Two new experiences for us: using TSA Pre-check, which is worth every penny, and checking all of our luggage (two suitcases, a travel crib, and our cooler), none of which was lost!

We were in Phoenix by noon, thanks to the 3-hour time difference, and ready to explore a new city. After a quick grocery run, we went downtown with Mary and walked around Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, a scenic park loosely based on the National Mall. With Shavuot right around the corner, it was hugely exciting to spot a sculpture of the Ten Commandments! It was just as exciting to stock up on kosher deli meat at the Imperial Market (the kosher meat options in Charlotte are quite meager).

Monday morning, we drove out to the Saguaro Red Hills visitor center with Mary, stopping for coffee and a peek at the Casa Grande Ruins on the way. We saw a interesting film at the visitor center which described the petrification process of dead saguaros and subsequent prickly pear harvesting methods used by resourceful Indian tribes, along with the suggestion that the saguaros are, in a sense, our brothers, and should be treated respectfully. The film ended with a gorgeous reveal of the surrounding landscape.

Saguaro is a sharp place. We found this out right away because Eva kicked a cactus with her shoe (why??) and ended up with a bunch of spines in her sneaker. After a quick loop around the visitor center and our first up-close look at the giant saguaros, we hiked the Desert Discovery trail – our favorite of the day. Next was the Valley View Overlook. Then lunch and a climb up to see the Signal Hill petroglyphs before we melted in 106-degree heat (our hottest hike yet).

We spent the rest of the afternoon right down the road at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a fascinating place which is really more of an outdoor zoo (kind of like Riverbanks in Columbia). “Museum” is actually a misnomer that implies air conditioning. The first thing we did was order a half dozen icy fruit smoothies to sip on as we wandered through exhibits of native flora and fauna. Highly recommend a stop here! We left after several sweaty but educational miles, with a set of cactus magnets for me and a puzzle for Mary.

The Talmud teaches that when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, on Shavuot (Pentecost, to the church), the desert burst into bloom. That’s why it’s traditional to decorate with flower garlands for Shavuot. I love that we got to experience a desert filled with colorful plants!

Our Saguaro daytrip ended with tasty faux-Mexican food at Nando’s and hasta la vista to Mary. We spent the rest of the week at the Grand Canyon and came back to Phoenix for a holiday weekend – Shabbat and Shavuot! We hosted Mary for Erev Shabbat dinner and gave her the honor of putting on our very last omer sticker. She surprised us with the news that we are getting a new niece (or nephew)!! My favorite part of this Saguaro trip was watching Mary hike with my kids, drive them around, and snuggle Rachel in the carrier. She is a wonderful aunt and she’s going to be a great mom too!


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