A Festive Anniversary Week in the Sonoran Desert. Part 2: Saguaro National Park West – Tucson Mountain District

(December 11-17, 2022)

December 12th! Happy Anniversary!

We woke early and excited, ready to explore. But wait! We woke to snow! What? Snow in Tucson?!!!  Not unheard of, but a surprise-for-us coating of fluffy white covering everything. No matter ….. we changed out of our shorts, donned long pants and heavy coats and set off from la Casita south, towards Tucson and Saguaro NP West, the Tucson Mountain District.

Come along and see what we discovered this day in the Sonoran Desert!

But first ….. a bit of history…….

Today, Saguaro (sa-WAH-row) National Park, in the Sonoran Desert, is divided between two distinct units; the higher elevation East or Rincon Mountain Unit, and the lower elevation West or Tucson Mountain Unit that protects the largest number and densest population of saguaro between both units.  The National Park was created in 1994, but protections were put in place as far back as 1933 when 62,000 acres of what’s now the East Unit was designated a National Monument. Then in 1961, the West Unit was added.  To further protect high elevation desert, 71,400 acres within and adjacent to the East Unit was designated as a Wilderness Area in 1975.  

Local conservationists, as early as the 1930s, were wise to petition for protection status of these unique desert lands, because both Units of Saguaro National Park lie on the outskirts of Tucson, the second largest city in Arizona with a growing population of more than one million.

Close-up of my journal page showing more petroglyphs and a few desert spiny things!

Back on the road and our first Crested Saguaro!

Today’s visit to the park took in many of the dog-friendly hiking and driving areas of the West or Tucson Mountain Unit.  Located 15 miles west of the city, we had to wind our way through traffic and residential areas to finally reach park boundaries. After a brief introductory tour of a native plant garden, and armed with maps, we headed for Bajada Scenic Loop.  

On the way we discovered, only a few hundred yards off the road, our first Crested or “Cristate” saguaro! This discovery started us on our constant search for more of these mutants …. our long distance gaze constantly scanning the tops of the hundreds of saguaro we encountered this day and the rest of the week.  

Close-up of the crested saguaro

(It was later in the afternoon that we discovered our second crested saguaro, the “Camel,” out in the desert behind la Casita ….. but I already told you about that in Part 1!).

The wet dirt road of Bajada Loop. 

Wow! It’s true what they say about the saguaro population! Everywhere, and all heights and number of wildly branching, twisting and turning arms can be found.  Amazing as these Wild West icons are, the diversity and density of all the cactus was literally mind blowing, and for the reckless, leg shredding! There are over 30 species of cactus in the park, ranging from prickly pear, hedgehog, and pincushion to barrel. Apart from the saguaro, the second most numerous cactus species must be the cholla. Related to prickly pear, these often profusely spined, cylindrical and highly branching plants fall into seven species …. and have names like buckhorn, staghorn, pencil, Christmas, cane, chain-fruit and teddy bear (anything but cuddly!).

Keeping a healthy distance away from a chain-fruit cholla!
Beware the insanely crazy saguaro forest!

Half way up the Bajada Loop, we detoured down Golden Gate Road and came upon a dog friendly trail perfect for Luna.  We hiked for a bit and ooohed and aaaaahed at the desert around us. There must’ve been thousands of cactus plants covering every inch of desert. The elevations ranged from 2550 ft to 3,500 ft, and from this trail we could see Wasson Peak rising up to 4,687 feet. Needless to say, hiking was easy for the three of us, if you watched your step!

Back on the Loop 

Roy and Luna posing behind a fishhook barrel cactus trio with saguaro and prickly pear in the background
Close-up look at the wicked spines covering a fishhook barrel cactus

Our last detour was up the spur road to Signal Hill, an area of petroglyphs pecked and scraped into the granite-like rock by the Hohokam people between 450 and 1450 CE. It’s uncertain what these symbols meant to these people, but it’s thought they may have created the petroglyphs while on hunting and gathering expeditions.  From the top of Signal Hill, a 360 degree view unfolded before us ….. and oh so many saguaro! I definitely will be learning more about the saguaro for future posts. Just couldn’t get enough of their majesty into my system!

Close-up of my journal page …. Crested saguaro and petroglyphs at Signal Hill
More wild saguaro branching action

We had a fun anniversary day! Even the morning snow and 40 degree day didn’t slow us down.  After a romantic dinner in Tucson, it was back to la Casita and other activities, including making plans for tomorrow!

Saguaro National Park – West

Stay tuned for Part 3: The Map of Adventure

Saguaro National Park – West

6 Comments

  1. An incredible anniversary adventure through the Saguaros! This N.P. is one of my most favorite — all of the cactus you saw and look at all those spikes everywhere! It truly is a magical experience winding through the Saguaros. It’s fascinating that some only grow their first arm at 75 years old! Interesting petroglyphs, too. Thanks for sharing your journey!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for such exciting comments, Karen!

      Like

  2. Jean Mackay says:

    Thanks for sharing your journey, Barb. I enjoy seeing and reading about cactus. It’s fun to think of you out there, exploring the desert for your anniversary. What a treat!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Jean! Can’t think of a better way to celebrate! Hope you’re still on the mend!

      Like

  3. sgoodman56 says:

    Happy belated anniversary to you and Roy! An exceptional trip, thank you for sharing all the cactus facts.

    Like

    1. Thank you Susan! Chasing down all that’s interesting about cactus seems never ending. Stay tuned for more!

      Like

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