Travel: Majestic cactuses stand watch in Tucson over Saguaro National Park
TUCSON, Ariz. — In truth, saguaros have no more intellect than petunias or kumquats. But I can never gaze upon a saguaro cactus and not ponder what the spiky fellow might be thinking.
A large saguaro often resembles a tall, green person with two (or more) arms akimbo, standing resolute and alone and in dire need of a shave amid the harsh Sonoran Desert landscape. Many look as if they could use a hug — but you should resist the temptation, unless you’re into do-it-yourself acupuncture.
Not surprisingly, one of the best places to ponder the anthropomorphic Sonoran icon is at Saguaro National Park near Tucson.
The park consists of two large districts on different sides of the city. My wanderings took me to the Tucson Mountain District west of town and its Red Hills Visitor Center, located near the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in the adjacent Tucson Mountain County Park.
The national park protects vast stands of saguaro, which can grow as high as 60 feet tall and live as long as 200 years. The cactus can store enough water from a single large rain to last throughout the year. They also produce a fig-like fruit important to wildlife and the local Tohono O’odham Indians, who use the fruit for food, wine and in religious ceremonies.
The cactuses do not, as far as is known, laugh behind the back of a human visitor foolish enough to try to pick up a needle-shaped lobe of a cholla cactus from a hiking trail.
The saguaro are also home to Gila woodpeckers, gilded flickers, elf owls, screech owls and many other birds that make nests in cavities in the cactuses’ trunk or arms.
Visitors have many options for seeing the park’s desert landscape.
Trails range from the easy, level and wheelchair-accessible Desert Discovery Nature Trail to the Hugh Norris Trail, a strenuous 10-mile hike through cactus forests and along unusual rock formations to Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountains.
Perhaps the easiest and most comfortable way to encounter the desert is on the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive, a 5-mile, graded but unpaved dirt loop. The drive takes visitors through the Tucson Mountain foothills with several scenic pullouts, picnic shelters and hiking trailheads on the route.
Along the way are vast stands of saguaro, looking like vast undisciplined ranks of green troops, frozen in time while marching up the mountain slopes.
Among the other cactus varieties to be found along the drive and elsewhere in the park are barrel, fishhook, prickly pear, ocotillo and teddy bear cholla, which looks cuddly but is downright dangerous, with needle-sharp barbed spines that easily embed themselves in exposed skin. (Believe me on this.)
Creosote bushes and mesquite trees add to the desert flora and provide shelter for rattlesnakes, kangaroo rats, desert tortoises, Gila monsters, pig-like javelinas and many other desert creatures.
A short walk from the Signal Hill Picnic Area, about half-way along the scenic drive, takes hikers to 800-year-old petroglyphs etched into the rocks by prehistoric Hohokam Indians.
Fall and winter are great times to visit the park and the Sonoran Desert, with daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s. The temperature can fall quickly, especially at night, so prepare accordingly.
Most park visitors will also want to stop at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a combination zoo, desert botanical garden and natural history museum located just a short drive from the national park’s Tucson Mountain District entrance.
Here visitors can see usually elusive desert creatures such as mountain lions, black bears, Mexican wolves, javelinas, big horn sheep and coyotes in naturalized enclosures.
The museum also has a large aquarium and a reptile, invertebrate and amphibian display, as well as a walk-in aviary and a free-flight hummingbird aviary.
The botanical displays include various themed gardens focusing on the plants of desert grasslands, riparian corridors and mountain woodlands among others. The museum also has its own desert loop trail, offering an easy but dry and dusty desert hike.
Hikers should be sure to stay hydrated and fill water bottles or get a drink at the many museum water stations. Sunscreen is also indispensable and is available free from dispensers in the museum’s public restrooms.
Visitors who are interested in desert flora and fauna could easily find themselves spending most of a day at the museum. Families, especially, will find the many children’s activities entertaining and gently educational. And after exploring the many exhibits, I was happy to take a break and pick up some souvenirs at the museum’s art gallery and gift shops and grab a bite at the on-site cafe.
The stark desert sun was beginning to set as I finally said goodbye to the fascinating Sonoran Desert. And as the pure light began to soften and turn red, I could easily imagine that the saguaro in my rear view were giving a stiff-armed, barely perceptible wave back.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SteveStephens.