Distance: 4.0 miles (6.4 km)
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss: 526 feet (160m)
Net Elevation Gain/Loss: 209 feet (63 m)
Date visited: April 20, 2017
Garwood Trail Map (KTNP)
Our intention was to visit as much of Saguaro National Park as we could. Crisscrossing desert trails in the northwest corner of the Rincon Mountain (east) District are known as the Cactus Forest. We wanted to hike somewhere up there, so we reserved a full day for it. Our initial plan was to do a longer loop, but we were exhausted after backpacking to Manning Camp, so we decided on a shorter hike. A ranger at the Rincon Visitor Center recommended a 4.0 mile out-and-back on Garwood Trail. This option has many connecting trails, so it could easily be part of a loop or longer hike.
Garwood Trail has multiple points of interest. First, there was a cristate or “crested” saguaro along the trail. A cristate saguaro is a mutation that causes a saguaro’s cells in the stem to divide outward, rather than in the normal circular pattern. As a result, the saguaro grows a large fan-shaped crest at the top. Also along the trail is a cluster of 11 saguaro cacti growing within inches of each other. Our hike would end at Garwood Dam which was built in the 1940s. You could go beyond the dam and spend a full day on the Cactus Forest trails; we just went to the dam and back.
After our stop at Rincon Visitor Center, we headed to Douglas Spring Trailhead. The trail leads to the backcountry, and eventually to Manning Camp, though we decided on another route due to frequent overnight break-ins. We figured it would be safe to park there for a few hours, though. At the trailhead was a ramada (an open shelter with a roof), a picnic table, and a few other parked cars.
Our route began on Douglas Spring Trail, which intersects with Garwood Trail in 0.2 miles. There isn’t much elevation gain, so this trail is more about views of cacti than landscape views. We found a lot to like about the trail, and encountered some surprises.
We enjoyed the scenery, which included many saguaros, cholla, and other desert plants. About 1.1 miles into the hike, shortly after the intersection with Wildhorse Trail, is the cluster of 11 saguaros – there were 13, but a few have died over the years. It was unique to see all the saguaros close together, although I imagine more may die off as the cacti grow in size.
We continued the hike and very quickly, we saw our next point of interest: the cristate saguaro. It’s nothing like the other saguaro, it’s very intricate and otherworldly. It’s right next to the trail, and has a unique fan-shaped head, so you can’t miss it. Cristate saguaros are rare; they comprise only one out of every 200,000 saguaros. As of 2013, there were 30 in the Tucson Mountain (west) District and 27 in Rincon Mountain (east) District. During our time in Saguaro, we only saw one other cristate saguaro, along the road near the Tanque Verde Trail parking lot.
We continued along the trail, Kristin in the lead, to get a better view of the cristate saguaro. Suddenly, Kristin stopped. She started backing up, so I asked what was wrong. She whispered, “there’s a snake on the trail.” I looked ahead to see a coiled up snake, with a diamond pattern, lying in the middle of the trail. It was a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, a venomous snake found in the southwestern United States. It made no sound, rattle, or movement, as we stared at it. Given its coloration, it blended easily into the trail, so we didn’t see it until we were close.
Naturally, I took out my camera and started taking photos. Of course the snake was unaware that it was lying on a trail, just that it was nice and shaded. Kristin wanted to turn back, I wanted to go around it somehow. We sure weren’t going to jump over it! I wanted to get a better look at the Cristate Saguaro, as well as the dam. The snake picked a bad place for a nap.
We scoped out a way around on the left side of the trail. I blazed a path beyond the snake with K following. We moved slowly, quietly, and carefully, trying to avoid cholla berries or other snakes. Soon we stepped out onto the trail beyond the snake. We wouldn’t go off trail normally, but I think the situation called for it. We look back at the snake, it’s still lying there lazily. When I took my next photo, the snake’s eyes were open – was it watching us? After snapping some quick photos of our new friend and the cristate saguaro, we continued on the trail past a wash. Always exciting!
After about another 0.2 miles from the cristate saguaro, we turned left on Carrillo Trail. We spotted the dam about 0.2 miles away, and start quoting National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation. There were several pools of water down in the “canyon.” There is no off-trail hiking in Saguaro below 4,500 feet, so visitors can only get so close to the dam.
The dam itself was built in 1948, before the land was part of the national park. Back then it was owned by Nelson and Josephine Garwood, who constructed the dam to provide water for their ranch. The property was sold off in 1950s and ’60s, until it was acquired by the park service in the 1970s. The National Park Service has an article about Garwood Ranch if you’re interested in learning more.
After checking out the dam, we turned around and our thoughts went back to the rattlesnake. Would it still be on the trail? Of course it was; the trail was still shady. So we went around the rattler again, giving it plenty of space. Always respect nature, and be aware of your surroundings. You never know what you’ll run into! A month later, near Mary’s Rock in Shenandoah National Park, we ran into a Timber Rattlesnake. This one surprised us by rattling as it crossed the trail.
Overall, we enjoyed this short hike in the cactus forest. If we had more energy, it would have been nice to hike a longer loop. My favorite part was the cristate saguaro, and I’d recommend the trail just to see it. After our hike, we went into Tucson to grab lunch, then returned to the park to drive around Cactus Forest Loop Drive to see what else we could find.
Total Distance: 4.0 miles (6.4 km) round trip
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss: 526 feet (160 m)
Net Elevation Gain/Loss: 209 feet (63 m)
Time: 2 hours hiking with a couple breaks, mainly snake-related detours
Trail Markings: No cairns or blazes, but the trail is well-defined and there are signs at each intersection
Crowds: None, we saw no one
Water: Some small pools of water near the dam
Directions to Douglas Spring Trailhead: Google Maps Directions
- Mile 0.0 – Start at Douglas Spring Trailhead, and go on Douglas Spring Trail.
- Mile 0.2 – Turn right onto Garwood Trail. After 180 feet, you’ll pass another intersection with the Stock Bypass Trail. Continue straight on Garwood Trail.
- Mile 0.5 – You’ll pass Converse Trail on your left; continue straight on Garwood Trail.
- Mile 1.0 – You’ll pass Bajada Wash Trail on your right, continue straight on Garwood Trail.
- Mile 1.1 – You’ve reached a four way intersection with Wildhorse Trail. Continue on Garwood Trail, and in only 530 feet you’ll reach the clustered saguaros.
- Mile 1.5 – The cristate saguaro is on your left
- Mile 1.7 – Turn right onto Carrillo Trail
- Mile 2.0 – You’re at the dam! After checking it out, head back the way you came.
- Mile 2.3 – Head right onto Garwood Trail. Continue straight until it dead ends.
- Mile 3.8 – Turn left onto Douglas Spring Trail.
- Mile 4.0 – Back at the parking lot
Highlights: History, Water Features, Wildlife, Wildflowers, Solitude
Date Visited: We hiked this trail on April 20, 2017
Garwood Trail Map (KTNP)
Saguaro National Park Rincon District Map (NPS)