The Sonoran Desert is the only place on earth where you can see an actual forest of giant saguaros, those classic icons of the American Southwest. As familiar as the cacti may seem, you don't really know them until you've walked among their oddly human forms. For one thing, they're massive, standing up to 50 feet tall and weighing as much as 10 tons. Yet they do delicate work, sheltering gilded flickers, Gila woodpeckers, and elf owls. At Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Ariz., 1.6 million of them reach their arms skyward in a salute to the sun. (520) 733-5100, nps.gov/sagu .
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, in the desert east of Los Angeles, takes its name from the strange yucca plants growing there. With no rooms, gas, or food on its 800,000 acres, the park is an antidote to modern life: silent, spooky, and unforgettable. (760) 367-5500, nps.gov/jotr .
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This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.