Tohono Chul Park: one of Tucson's must-see destinations for succulent lovers

One of the places I visit regularly when I'm in Tucson, Arizona is Tohono Chul Park. It doesn't have the name recognition of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and because of that it's far less overrun. In fact, every time I've been there, I've been one of only a handful of visitors (the fact that I usually go right when they open at 8 a.m. might have something to do with it).

There are many reasons I like Tohono Chul. It's in Tucson, one of my favorite places in the world, and it combines both the natural desert environment and man-made elements, such as a series of compact demo gardens showcasing desert-appropriate landscaping in residential settings. And it has a small but well-stocked nursery which offers everything from travel-sized souvenir cacti for tourists to unusual succulents for collectors to perennials, shrubs and trees for local homeowners.

I've taken so many photos of Tohono Chul over the years that I'm afraid I might begin to repeat myself—not that that's an issue unless you look at my old posts side by side. But it's very easy for me to get swept away by the beauty of the place. When that happens and I'm in the “zone,” I let myself go with the flow and respond to what I see before me. Getting lost like that is the thing I look forward to the most when I visit the desert.

Speaking of the desert, this quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, perfectly expresses how I feel. Saint-Exupéry was referring to the Sahara, not the Sonoran Desert, but the magnetic pull is the same.

Tohono Chul (“desert corner” in the language of the Tohono O'odham, the indigenous people of southern Arizona) is the labor of love of Jean and Richard Wilson, a Tucson couple who had a vision and the commitment to see it through. In 1966, they started to buy land in northeast Tucson in order to protect it from development, eventually owning 49 acres. They lived on the property and ran a successful bookstore for almost twenty years. In 1980 they began to add paths to create a park in the desert that would be open to the public. 

Five years later, Tohono Chul Park was formally dedicated. At the ceremony, Richard Wilson said: “We wanted to keep something natural in the middle of all the [surrounding] development so that people could come easily for a few hours and get out of the traffic and learn something at the same time. It’s probably contrary to what most people would do, but we feel it’s really important for people to have something like this.”

Today, most visitors to Tohono Chul don't know how it all started, probably assuming that the park was created by the city of Tucson or some other public entity. But so often it's unsung heroes like the Wilsons who leave us a lasting legacy.

Agave parryi

The first set of photos were taken on the Saguaro Discovery Trail and the South Loop Trail. They take you through native vegetation and allow you to take an up-close look at saguaros, chollas, barrel cactus and native trees and shrubs.

Chain fruit cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida)

Chollas and prickly pears

Path through a small mesquite bosque

Agave franzosinii (as per tag) with more pronounced banding than I've ever seen on this species

Agave decipiens (as per tag)

Yucca valida

Barrel cactus and prickly pear

Prickly pear and palo verde

Mammillaria grahamii growing in a clump of prickly pears

And another Mammillaria grahamii. I guess I had my desert eyes on already!

These three photos show the relationship between saguaros and palo verdes acting as their nurse trees

Desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum) growing on a mesquite tree

These saguaros are very happy on this exposed hillside where they get full sun all day long

I saw quite a few saguaros marked with different colors. I meant to ask a docent about this but I never had the opportunity. I assume it's to study growth patterns.

Tohono Chul's famous crested saguaro

Agave palmeri

Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) and two palo blancos (Mariosousa willardiana)

In addition to the natural areas that make up the largest part of Tohono Chul, there's a number of themed gardens where the photos below were taken. Interpretive signs convey a wealth of information about a range of topics—from animal and plant life to history, ethnobotany and geology to xeric gardening.

Blue hesper palm (Brahia armata)

It's great to see rocks take on a focal role

This photo was taken in the Outdoor Living Garden

Outdoor Living Garden

Ocotillo fence and fig tree in Barrio Garden

Another ocotillo fence

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Two palo blancos (Mariousousa willardiana), an acacia from the Mexican state of Sonora

Mexican grass boulder (Calibanus hookeri)

Agave lophantha 'Quadricolor'

Large boulders with copper carbonate minerals: malachite (turquoise) and azurite (blue)

The only kind of wildlife photography I'm good at: taking pictures of animal statues

Taking a picture of Kioko Mwitiki's horse sculpture surrounded by Mexican fence post cactus (Pachycereus marginatus) has become a tradition

The horse with holiday head dress

Ironwood tree branches (Olneya tesota) on the left, dogweed (Thymophylla pentachaeta) on the right

Dogweed or fiveneedle pricklyleaf (Thymophylla pentachaeta) is a common sight in the Southwest

Rain water harvesting system: Tohono Chul practices what it preaches

Tohono Chul is located in Casas Adobes, a suburb in the northern metropolitan area. You can easily combine a visit to Tohono Chul with a trip to Bach's Cactus Nursery 5 miles (about 15 minutes) to the northwest.

If you decide to go to Tohono Chul first thing in the morning (like I usually do) and want a good breakfast first, stop by Beyond Bread on Ina Road less than a mile away. Their omelets are fantastic—as are they baked goods.

Conversely, if you go in the afternoon and are ready for dinner afterwards, the Tucson Tamale Company on N Oracle Road is just five minutes away. It's an unpretentious eatery with the best tamales anywhere.

Finally, don't forget to check out Tohono Chul's plant shop. They have a great selection of Arizona natives as well as cacti and succulents.


December 2019 Arizona trip index
December 2018 visit to Tohono Chul Park
December 2015 visit to Tohono Chul Park
December 2013 visit to Tohono Chul Park

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  1. Beautiful backstory, beautiful place, and your most beautiful photos yet from Tohono Chul. Thanks for helping us all "get lost" for a bit!

  2. The colours in the Outdoor Living Garden are incredible. Your photos really capture the depth of colour. The banding of the Agave franzosinii is enviable. So many interesting plants especially the fruiting cholla.

  3. There certainly are many people who just don't get the desert.Maybe that's a good thing considering the over-tourism that some destinations are having to deal with. You are fully justified in taking more photos--you have a new camera since the last time right ? That purple wall with the vine...very nice !

  4. The use of colored walls as backdrops was inspired. This particular desert garden struck me as leafier than most, with lots of trees and shrubs among the cactus and succulents.

  5. Beautiful! This will have to be on my list of places to visit one day. I love getting lost in beautiful garden parks.


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