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Monday, January 27, 2014

Saguaro NP - A Prickly Subject

Saguaro National Park lies just a few miles outside Tucson, Arizona.  It is broken up into two districts:  the Rincon Mountain District to the east of the city, and the Tucson Mountain District to the southwest of the city.  We decided to explore the Rincon Mountain District today.

The main feature of the park in this district is an 8-mile one-way Loop Road, which winds through the desert prairie and foothills, giving a great overview of the Cactus Forest:

As with any other natural wonder, however, there is nothing like getting "out into it," and we did just that.  With a park ranger's help, we mapped out an 8-mile route through the Cactus Forest, emphasizing climbs up into the foothills to give us some grand scenic views of the valley floor.

It didn't take David long to find a spiky friend.  Kathy tried to get David to raise his hands and imitate that Cactus Vulcan Salute, but David was a little shy today:

Saguaro cactus have a classic and immediately recognizable shape.  However, it didn't take us long to realize that there are millions of variations on the theme.  The big plants loomed above us like benign spirits, watching over our journey across the landscape.  Here, two of these fine spirits waved to us from the nearby hill:

Of course, not all saguaros, and certainly not other types of cactus, have the classical shape.  Here are a unique looking group of saguaro, standing at attention behind a flowering barrel cactus:

The landscape was filled with mesquite trees and creosote bushes, and was creased in all directions by dry washes that must have raged with water at some time.  Here, Kathy demonstrates this unique landscape and gives it some scale:

Some of the saguaro looked as if they were about to flower.  They had powdery white nodules on the caps of their arms.  Most of the arms, of course, pointed up, but occasionally we found an arm that was low to the ground and pointing laterally.  The designs were breathtaking:

The National Park Service warns that the desert is filled with an abundance of animals as well as flora.  We saw an eagle circle overhead, noticed many other birds and lizards.  But the only other animal we saw was a VERY BIG jackrabbit, who was kind enough to strike a pose long enough for us to get a good photo of him:

One thinks of the desert as bone-dry, and much of it seems to be.  However, the plant life in the desert must have moisture for sustenance and some water is available, especially just beneath the surface in the washes.  Occasionally, the water pushes through to the surface with striking effect:

The park contains many types of cactus, the most common of which are the cholla --

-- the barrel cactus (here tempting Kathy to give it a spiky kiss) --

-- teddy bear cholla --

-- hedgehog cactus --

-- and other colorful plants we couldn't even name:

We saw some red-leafed prickly pear cactus as well:

As we planned our hike, the ranger who helped us suggested we be alert for the Crested Saguaro we found along Garwood Trail.  It was unique among all the saguaro we saw:

The ranger also suggested we be on the look-out for a family of 10 saguaro, all standing together.  Here, David joins the family and pats Junior on the head:

Most of this section of the park had once been a ranch, and the owner had dammed some of the watersheds to preserve water for his livestock and other ranch uses.  One of the dams, the Garwood Dam, still stands across a deep wash up on the hillside overlooking the desert plain:

As the day grew later, the sun started to sink to the Western horizon, and shadows started to play across the mountains to the northwest of us:

Hiking back out to the trailhead, we encountered perhaps a dozen hikers walking in to climb Pink Hill (so named because of the pink-colored soil, created from white quartz granules and red sand mixing together) to get photographs at sunset.  Our feet were tired but our spirits were light as we passed them.  All we could think about was the wonderful sights we had seen and the gorgeous sunset we were driving into as we wound our way home to a piping hot crockpot dinner of cherry chicken accompanied by a glass of wine.

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