When planning our December roadtrip, a stop at the Saguaro National Park was an absolute must-see for my husband Frank. Frank loves cacti of all shapes and varieties. He has kept a cactus collection for more than twenty years through moves from California to Texas and back, with only a few casualties along the way. He loves cactus so much that Alex and I teased him throughout the trip by pointing at every wilted, dried out cactus we encountered and saying, "Hey, Dad, look! A cactus! Don't you want to take a picture of it?"
We thought it was hilarious. Frank just rolled his eyes, and endured.
We arrived at the park around 9 am, and stopped in the Visitor's Center on the way in, to secure a map and find out what route we should take. The road in is a giant circular loop through the desert, with vista points and parking at various trailheads. We didn't have time to hike much, even though the weather was clear and not too hot for hiking.
I have to admit, cactus don't really thrill me that much. I do, however, like birds, and after seeing the American White Pelicans at the Salton Sea, I decided it was time to learn a little more about them on the trip. We stopped off at the visitor's center on our way in, and I decided to buy a copy of a bird field guide. I asked one of the park rangers which book he would recommend, and he pointed out the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. He told me that this was the best one for identifying birds in the field, and that he led the bird walks in the park. He pointed out a few birds we might see or to keep our eyes out for on our trip around the park.
The road around the park was paved, and wound around stunning desert vistas, with dramatic mountain backdrops. I always think of the desert as brown and flat, but in this part of Arizona is more rugged, with hills and valleys and green brush around. One of the vistas labeled, aptly enough, "Riparian View" had a small stream trickling down the hillside. I have to say that this portion of the desert was really lovely
When most American think of the west, visions of Saguaro cactus likely come to mind first: those tall, spiny green ghosts in a permanent "stick 'em up" position, poised along some lonely trail like guardians of the desert. In movies, from John Ford westerns to the opening scenes of Twilight, Saguaro cactus have come to represent face of the American West. Growing up in Ohio, I thought these cactus were all over the western United States, and was disappointed that they didn't grow in Texas when I actually moved there. In fact, Saguaro's only grow in parts of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Mexico, and in a small area of Baja and California.
Saguaros take a long time to grow, and according to information in the park, it can take up to 8 years for a new Saguaro to grow 1-2 inches in the first years of life. A single arm can take up to 75 years to grow. It is believed that some are more than 200 years old, and weigh up to 6 tons and 50 feet tall.
Throughout the park, we encountered thousands of Saguaros and their spiny relatives, like the Cholla or "leaping" cactus. Frank explained that these cactus get their name from how they seem to leap onto animals, birds, and people to spread. Chollas have very fine, long needles that are somewhat hard to see, so you might not know you have gotten too close until you find a little hitchhiker attached to your pants or your shoes.
Frank ended up with one on his shoe without even knowing it until he looked down. He flicked it off, but later realized that there was something itchy on his foot. He took off his socks to find a Cholla needle had penetrated his shoes and thick socks. The needles didn't even look long or sharp enough to do that. If you're hiking in the desert, be forewarned about the tricky Cholla.
The only other type of cactus I actually recognized or knew anything about were the flat, green prickly pears. My mom has a prickly pear cactus in her garden in Ohio, and we have some in our cactus collection in California. These hardy survivors seem to be able to grow just about anywhere.
On one of our stops along the road, I finally got to see some birds. There was one noisy little creature that kept flitting about, not staying still for long. I was able to use the Kaufman guide to determine that this was a Verdin, based its yellow head and red markings on the wing. Verdin are tiny songbirds that live primarily in the Southwest, according to Kaufman and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Trying to figure it out was a like solving a mystery, and kind of thrilling. I can see why people keep life lists and go on birding expeditions now.
All in all, I really enjoyed our visit to the Saguaro National Park. I can understand why Frank loves the desert and cactus in particular. Without him, I would probably know nothing about it. The Saguaro National Park has a vast, wild beauty all its own, unlike anything you will likely find in any other state. It is well worth a trip to Tucson to experience this unforgettable place.