SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
The two times we have been to Arizona, it was in passing along I-10, once moving out to California, and once moving back to Florida. Both times I was sad we couldn't pass lower and see the icon of the American Southwest, the saguaro cactus.
We were both very excited to see this plant that represents America to so many, and will start our journey through cowboy America. As we got closer to Tuscon, we started to see one saguaro here and there. Then, all of a sudden as you start heading west out of the heart of the city, BAM! Saguaro forests. Standing tall everywhere, these remarkable succulents dotted green over the blanket of brown and red on the rest of the desert hills. IT WAS SO COOL!!! I freakin' loved it. AND we were so stoked to be here when they were in bloom!
We headed straight to Gilbert Ray Campground in hopes to secure a site for a week to get us through our first horrible camping holiday, Memorial Day. Turned out we had no need to worry. Tuesday morning and about 5 campsite taken of about 120. We took our time picking the best one (most private) and set up camp amid the most picturesque Sonoran Desert landscape. This campground also provided electric hook ups included in the $20 a night which meant we got air conditioning! With temperatures heading into the 90's for the highs, we were once again so thankful for the trailer so we could take advantage of this amenity.
After setting up our home and heading into town for food and chores, we spent the late afternoon in the western part of Saguaro National Park. This national park is broken into two districts, west and east, and they straddle the city of Tuscon. The western district is a younger saguaro forest but was more dense in relation to the eastern side. We were in awe at how alien the landscape looked even after spending a month and a half in other desert environments. There was another new plant besides the saguaro that added to the strangeness of the land. This was a fully green tree called palo verde, which had small bright yellow blooms on its wilted branches. Along side this, were several varieties of cholla cactus and gigantic prickly pears, all dotted with their own beautiful flowers.
The rich diversity was not limited to the plant life. There were tons of reptiles, birds, and insects to observe as well in this bio-diverse region. One of our favorite sightings was of the lesser nighthawk feeding at night. The campground had large streetlamps that attracted a shit load of moths and other insects, which brought out these Nightjars for a buffet of juicy bugs. We sat on the curb and stared up at these silent fliers as they dive-bombed for their supper. Every once in a while, one would land nearby and we were able to take a good look. They were adorable!
As far as birds go, I saw a number of new ones to check off my list. The top two being the most famous birds in the saguaro forests. Gilded flickers are only found through parts of Arizona, southern Nevada, and southern California so I was ecstatic to catch a few in flight and feeding on the saguaro blooms. Almost exclusively found in southern Arizona and western Mexico is the Gila woodpecker. This bird is known for making nests in the saguaro cactus, and carves out the many holes found along the cactus which is then used by elf owls and other animals as a home (though we did not see the owls). In addition to these sightings, the curve billed thrasher and the cactus wren all added to the myriad of sounds that surrounded us every day. Combine that with cool geckos, lizards, spiders, and snakes, I could have explored this land for a long time.
On the east side of the park we hiked a portion of the Tanque Verde Ridge trail. While neither of us particularly enjoy elevation gain in our hikes, it is always worth the climb when a trail can take you through ecosystems that change with altitude. Starting the hike on the valley floor, we passed huge palo verde and many armed saguaros ('can I take your hat sir?') These quickly gave way to large strands of ocotillo that yielded to low yucca, fishhook barrel cactus, and desert scrub. Occasionally we crossed a large wash teeming with extremely healthy plants, thanks to the wet winter. Had we continued our hike to the trails terminus, we would have passed a few more desert environments that would have eventually become sub-alpine lodge pole pine forests. However as this final transition occurred after another 6 miles (one way) of hiking and 3000 feet of elevation gain we turned around content with the ridge line view we made it to.
While touring around the rest of the east side, we came across a guy walking around with a machete held under his arm. We are a bit skittish of people in general, mostly because the more I work with the general public, the more I confirm that there are a lot of dumb people with good intentions/ crazy people out there. We were walking on the short nature trail when we crossed his path, and both of us got the heebeegeebees immediately. Quietly waiting for him to get far away enough, we quickly walked back to the car. There is no reason that anybody should have a large fixed blade, or any weapon in general, in a National Park. Not only is it illegal, but it serves no purpose. He was either harvesting saguaro (highly illegal) or uneducated enough he would be a danger to himself or others. This was not our first call to the non-emergency line in a park (thank you Park Rangers!)
We rewarded ourselves for hiking in the best way, with a meal from In-n-Out. We were happy to revisit this beloved California tradition, and look forward to devouring many more hiking treats throughout our travels.
The sunsets most days were stunning, but difficult to predict. Since the sun set around 8:30pm we were usually in the process of cleaning up camp before going to bed when the sky would burst into a million colors. The day we decided to go search out a photo opportunity, the sunset was meh. This has been the case literally everywhere we visit. The trend also dictates that the first night in any new park has the best sunset, when we are tired from set up and moving or have grand plans for a big cook. Either way, we might not have the best sunset shots from our travels, but I hope we remember we did witness a lot of spectacular evening displays.
The only touristy thing we did outside of the National Park was the Mt. Lemmon Scenic by-way. This was great because it allowed us to causally drive through all the different ecosystems from desert scrub to sub-alpine. It was odd to spend the afternoon in 65 degrees surrounded by creeks covered in aspen, spruce, and fir trees. We were able to observe a few new hummingbirds at the visitor center and caught a glimpse of an Abert's squirrel darting across the road.
This mountain retreat within close proximity to Tuscon makes the city a viable candidate for a future home. Skiing would be crowded, but available. Cool temperature camping would still be available in summer, and the desire to hike in forests could be satisfied. The biodiversity of the low desert is also an attraction. We decided that if I got into an awesome grad program, or Eric got the perfect job, Tuscon would be a cool city to live in. Best if rich and we could afford those cool adobe style mansions with a pool. In fact, I'll take mansion with a pool in any city, thanks.
10/10 would chase lizards all day again.
Song: Edge of seventeen – Stevie Nicks