We certainly enjoyed visiting Saguaro NP – East. Most of the Rincon Mountains Unit is wilderness and only accessible on foot; no dogs allowed. But the cactus Forest Loop Drive was scenic, with views of the Rincon Mountains to the East, and saguaro everywhere!
Really couldn’t seem to get enough saguaro! The highlights of this day were finding another crested saguaro while hiking an area Luna could enjoy, standing next to some shoulder high fishhook barrel cactus, and enjoying the Phainopeplas with their shimmery black feathers.
If you’re up for more saguaro botany, read on. This post will be dedicated to this largest of all North American cactus, Carnegieagigantea. (Beware. This post is long, so settle in!)
This day we explored areas as far as 50 miles north of la Casita. Following the old highway between Tucson and Phoenix, we first came upon a roadside rest area and memorial to the legendary cowboy, Tom Mix, who died at this spot 83 years ago. Tom who? Of course we had to stop and learn more about this interesting bit of history.
Then on to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument where history dates back more than 1700 years, well before the first Spanish explorers showed up, exploring. Even Luna was permitted to wander around this cultural monument, but we may have appreciated the stories surrounding the Hohokam more than she did.
Then to complete our tour for the day, we came upon a lonely ranch road on the way back to la Casita, where the saguaro stood tall over countless cholla, barrel cactus, iron trees and palo verde. It was here, in the middle of “where-are-we-now?” that I peered under a creosote bush and found the weirdest puffball fungus ever.
Before getting too far ahead of myself, I thought it would be a dandy idea to build a map of the circles we traveled in and around Tucson. This will not only aide those of you who are following along on our travels to see just where all these places are, but it helped me relive the week and will refresh my memory in years to come when browsing my journals.
Read on to view our trip highlights, and see just where all those parks, monuments, and mountains are found, and where to go to soak up the flora and fauna unique to the Sonoran Desert. Also, this map gives you a sneak peak of journal posts to come.
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!
Wow! 50! Can’t believe we’ve been together for so many years. Can’t believe it seems like yesterday. Countless adventures, miles, laughs, memories. How the good times fly! 50 years on December 12th, and I wasn’t about to let the winter doldrums keep us hunkered down at home. Surely a road trip was in store to properly round out our year of desert discoveries! I booked us a week at a little one room home about 25 miles north of Tucson, AZ ….. in the land of the mighty saguaro cactus ….. where Roy and I, and of course Luna, could soak in some southwest winter sun and take our time exploring this new-to-us area of the Sonoran Desert.
Come along with us for 7 days of discoveries in the Sonoran Desert!
For years we’ve hiked (carefully) past hundreds of stately cane chollas, many with what looks like wads of dried grasses caught tightly in and around the numerous spindly and haphazard arms that grow all over this desert cactus. On closer examination, we’ve discovered the cholla does not actually capture grasses blowing in the wind. Instead, an industrious and very chatty little bird collects great quantities of dried grass to build a football-sized cavity nest woven protectively and securely on and between the many arms of a cholla.
Meet the Cactus Wren.
Once you’ve heard this gregarious wren chatter and sputter hilariously, you’ll never forget it’s call! As we were walking along the trail one day, I instantly recognized a wildly vocalizing cactus wren. Scanning the skyline (because I know they also love rattling from a perch), he readily showed himself, and did not shy away as I approached. He was calling from the highest (10 feet) arm of a pretty stout cholla, and then quickly jumped down into the center of the branches to inspect an old nest.
This nest may have been old, but apparently this little guy felt a facelift was in order and began tidying up the tunnel-like entrance. He then collected a wad of grasses he’d plucked from the entrance and plunged himself down the tunnel, grasses included! What? What was this crazy bird doing …… nest building?
Turns out cactus wrens build several nests in the spring within their territory, and maintain them year-round. I have to believe they use their nests throughout the cold winter months to keep warm, and it looked like this guy was fixing up the interior of this particular nest with super soft bushmuhly grass stems. I would’ve loved an invitation to peek inside, but hiked on, leaving the cactus wren to his chores.
I’ve been by this nest several times in the past few weeks, hoping to catch the wren at home, but to no avail. Maybe he’s tending another nest somewhere else, as this one is in disarray.
The Sketch My sketch, mostly from memory, was done all in graphite using the “subtractive” technique. I don’t usually sketch in his manner, because it can get quite messy ….. laying graphite down then using my mono zero eraser to create the image …. but it was an effective way to illustrate the complexity of the nest and so many cholla spines. Let me know what you think!
It’s always a grand idea to save leaves raked up in the Fall into big piles scattered about your yard. These cast leaves provide important habitat for overwintering birds, small mammals and insects. In the Spring they break down forming compost which helps recharge the soil with nutrients and microbes that fertilize new seedlings and build soil structure.
But what about that lone leaf, now brown and crunchy, alone on the ground? That leaf, once part of a network of thousands that once beautifully graced a massive shade tree growing bravely alongside a busy city street? That leaf, now fallen to a surface covered in concrete or pavement, is skittering about in the late morning breeze searching fruitlessly for an organic resting place.
After leaving our favorite Albuquerque Mexican restaurant the other day, I stepped into the parking lot and noticed a giant sycamore leaf scratching and skidding across the pavement. Seconds later, an incoming car full of hungry customers about to park, was on a collision course with this abandoned leaf! Yikes! Quickly playing out the scene out in my mind, I dashed across the pavement and scooped up this big brown leaf, rescuing it from being smashed into bits and pieces.
Whew! That was a close call. Naturally this leaf deserved better treatment and a chance to contribute to Earth’s complex web of resources. And that’s what would happen ……. after a few sketches in my journal, of course.
This big, brown, crunchy sycamore leaf is now a part of one of the various compost piles we keep scattered about our yard. If leaves could feel, I’d like to think she’s so much happier being rescued than the alternative. Would you agree?
Our Smoke Tree is always one of the last to drop its leaves. While this tree tenaciously clings to its thousands of food makers, the leaves go through many stages of decay. Some remain purple-green but are polka-dotted with rusty red spots. Some more quickly change to brilliant yellow-orange with rusty splatters. Some display hints of green-brown and it’s these leaves that show the most insect spotting and damage.
One day, probably soon, the tree will get tired of the display, and just before a heavy frost or wet snow, it will stand bare with piles of multi-colored leaves lying on the ground, having dropped in one big fall.
Here’s a page from my perpetual journal that I created yesterday from a few leaves plucked from this pretty Smoke Tree.
Enjoy your seasonal changes wherever you may live!
We usually know where we’re headed in the morning, but how we get there is another story. As we left Indian Bread Rocks we talked about optional routes to reach our destination …. City of Rocks State Park. There were several choices, and since we’re not interstate highway fans (unless absolutely necessary) we opted for the road less traveled; through New Mexico’s “Bootheel” in the extreme southwestern part of the state. Going this way we might just catch a glimpse of that infamous Border Wall too.
Although this route was the long way to City of Rocks (200 miles versus 110 miles), it was definitely eye-opening. As we traveled lonely roads, dodging no less than 3 huge rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the pavement, the only vehicles we saw were border patrol. It was windy and hot as we approached the Mexican border, and we strained our eyes to see something resembling a Wall off in the distance. Between Hachita and Columbus, NM, we could make out what looked to be a RR bed in the valley bottom. Binoculars weren’t much use, as this very straight line wasn’t resolving into a Wall, until ….. all at once we saw the RR track climb straight up a pretty substantial hill. That answered the question …. that faux track was indeed the Border Wall, and we had already seen miles and miles of it.
A short distance out of Columbus, driving very close to the border, we found a side road that appeared to lead down to the Wall, so we went to investigate. Coming within about a quarter mile of the Border Wall we saw how very tall it was, and how it was built with metal slats too close for a person to squeeze through, but spaced and angled just so to see Mexico beyond.
We’re both glad to have seen this Wall for ourselves. Rest assured I’ve no intention of turning my blog posts into political commentary, but I have to say this obscene border wall is absolutely embarrassing and offensive.
On to Columbus, North to Deming and to City of Rocks State Park.
Our assigned campsite was a pull through and it was a snap to get The Felix all set up. Then it was off for a nice romp through the assortment of boulders that were created from volcanic tuff and eroded over years to form what appears like, from a distance, a city of high rises. There’s a marked trail through the rock formations that lead you to some of the best rocks and views. But it’s more than okay to wander wherever your legs take you … and sometimes it’s like a maze with many dead ends. The Park also has a nice botanical garden, many “outside the city” trails, and a super visitor center with helpful volunteer staff offering info like lists of plants, birds, insects, reptiles and mammals you might encounter in the park.
Before a big cold front blew in bringing rain and winds, I was able to do some sketching, we spotted lots of new-to-us plants (still in bloom) and a gorgeous rainbow grasshopper. Several birds (cactus wren, curve-billed thrasher and canyon towhee) paid us a call at The Felix. About to go searching for the covey of scaled quail making quite a racket somewhere in the rocks, we changed that plan ….. a good decision as we would’ve gotten drenched with rain!
This was our third trip to City of Rocks, and not likely to be our last. It’s a fun place to visit for a short time or an extended stay.
We were going to enjoy one more day in SW NM east of Las Cruces before returning home, but the weather forecast for the next many days called for high winds, rain and snow ….. so, not at all disappointed in all the ground we covered we came home a day early, driving all 283 miles in good time thanks to a tail-wind assist.
(Turns out the next day, had we stayed one day longer, would’ve greeted us with rain, freezing rain and snow by the time we got home. I could feel it in my bones!)
All in all it was a great Escapito #6, all 4 stops and the 922 miles in between, and a fun way to close out the 2022 camping season (or is it?!). Stay tuned!
Another short (96 miles) drive took us from Clifton, through Safford (to find ice cream ….. it’s getting warm!), and then south of the nearly deserted town of Bowie to visit a sprawling garden of giant granite boulders called Indian Bread Rocks. We seem to find the most amazing collections of boulders and rocks around, and this area didn’t disappoint. Unable to find out the origin of the name “Indian Bread Rocks,” this new-to-us recreation area sits in the foothills on the northeast fringes of Dos Cabezas Mountains Wilderness Area …. both areas managed by Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Public lands “Rock!”
To access Indian Bread Rocks (maybe the name came from the big loaf-shaped boulders?), you must first pass by a few miles of pistachio orchards looking ready to harvest. Wonder where the irrigation water for these big trees comes from way out in this desert? We then made a southwest turn onto a gravel road (Happy Camp Canyon Road) and in 3 miles we arrived at the designated Indian Bread Rocks picnic area, “sandwiched” between extremely large boulders. No camping here tho … so we continued on up the deteriorating two track road, pushing bawling cows out of our way. These free-range Brahman bulls, cows and calves turned into camp visitors after we set up about 3/4 mile beyond the picnic area.
With the rocks calling louder than the bellowing livestock, we brought The Felix to rest and took off on foot, walking further up the dusty road to scope out the area for a longer hike after temps cooled down a bit (85 sunny degrees and loving it!).
The surrounding granite boulders really were very excellent, and seemed to be animated as well. Many looked like bakery goods; loaves of bread, pancakes, popovers and muffins. Some reminded me of dinosaurs like T-Rex and triceratops. There were precariously balanced hoodoo-like boulders, and many with dark hiding places that make perfect roosting places for bats (which we enjoyed at sunset).
Indian Bread Rocks plants consist of Chihuahuan desert species with impossible-to-navigate and tire penetrating thorned mesquite, and 6 foot tall spiny prickly pear choking the valley floors. But up small riparian areas (mostly dry washes where water may flow during the monsoon season) we found large oak trees, ocotillo, intermittent water dependent mesquite and cat claw mimosa, sotol and many other shrubs, wildflowers, ferns and grasses. We didn’t hear many birds, but they were around, and we found an assortment of insects (grasshoppers, true bugs, beetles and wasps) flying, hopping and snacking on desert plants.
One of the most common insect was the Comanche paper wasp; seen flying everywhere, with exaggeratedly long yellow hind legs hanging down as they flew. I learned this species of wasp is common here, and colonies of 25-30 build paper nests between the rocks and in the dense vegetation. They didn’t seem aggressive but we were careful to keep The Felix well buttoned up while we explored, as we camped in a small opening surrounded by large velvet mesquite.
I dare say Indian Bread Rocks was the highlight of our Escapito. It’s always fun to explore new areas. But revisiting familiar areas is also lots of fun. Our next stop, City of Rocks State Park, north of Deming, NM is one of our favorite places ……. for rocks! Can’t get enough.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of this Summer Sequel: Indian Bread Rocks, AZ to City of Rocks, NM