Saguaro National Park

May 21, 2011

Having never seen a saguaro cactus in the wild, it was a special treat to us to be immersed in a forest of hundreds of them at the Saguaro National Park near Tucson.

After a long travel day yesterday, we turned in early, and then headed out from Phoenix at 5 am! Well, it was really 8 am Atlanta time, and our internal clocks had not yet adjusted, so it didn't seem so early. Down I-10 a few miles from Phoenix we got this nice pink glow above the mountains to the east.

The sun finally peaked over this ridge at 5:30 am as we rolled toward Tucson.

We passed the unusual shape of Picacho Peak at 6am. Delon Barfuss had suggested the recreation area there as a place for nice hikes, but we opted to go to Saguaro National Park instead.

The GPS guided us off I-10 at exit 236, which I thought was about 15 miles too soon, so we stopped at a convenience store and I asked the lady who worked there whether this was a logical way to get to Saguaro National Park. She said "O Lord, yes!" and proceeded to draw me a map to get around some construction on the route the GPS had picked. Though busy with her 6:30am going-to-work rush, she was very friendly and it was a particularly pleasant reminder of how nice rural working people can be. We got some wonderful apple turnovers and sat at the store to have a cup of coffee with them.

Shortly we were on North Sandario Road and began to see saguaros. Upon crossing into the Park, we began to see very large ones like these beside the road.

This shows the roads we traveled and the locations where we stopped and explored.

I was delighted to almost immediately see one of the woodpeckers who inhabit the saguaros. I have seen many pictures and videos of them. It was nice to note that they sounded and flew almost exactly like the yellow-bellied sapsuckers we feed at home in Georgia. The coloration was different, but they were otherwise very nearly the same.

It was a pleasure watching the woodpeckers making their circuit around the saguaro blooms.

On this incredibly clear day, the moon was just hanging in the blue sky. It was easy to position it near one of the saguaros. This was at 7am local time in Tucson.

We were driving almost south on North Sandario Road, and this view of the big saguaros was on our right so that we were getting the nice early morning sun on the saguaros. The saguaros develop the side limbs with age, so the single column specimens at left above are younger saguaros.

Later, at the Visitor Center, we learned a bit more about the saguaro cactus. Saguaros start very slowly and a thumb-sized plant may be several years old. The literature there suggested that they reach maturity and develop the side branches at about 75 years of age. The large, multi-branched ones are called "ancient giants" and can be 175-200 years old. Then they decline and seldom exceed 200 years. The old giants can weigh more than 7 tons and be taller than a four-story building.

There were other varieties of cactus among the saguaros as well as other shrubs.I take the one on the right to be a cholla cactus. A range of mountains to the west of us added to the beauty.
Though not a shot of great beauty, this shows the mix of varieties in the area. Behind the baby saguaro is a large specimen of palo verde, which roughly translates to "green stick". These don't appear to have any leaves, but the green of the bark looks like photosynthesis occurs there. There are also prickly pear cactus right and left, and a huge example of what appears to be cholla in the right rear.

This is what we came to see. We weren't even in the main part of the Saguaro National Park yet and were getting saguaro views like this!

We turned left from N. Sandario Rd onto the Bajada Loop Drive, which was a dirt road. We now saw the saguaros up on the rocky hillside and with a different lighting angle.

We were now turning more into the sun, and walking among the backlit saguaros was a reverie!

We were traveling along the north side of the Bajada Scenic Loop Road, which was a sand road through the saguaro-studded hills.

There was a dramatic difference looking south as in the left view above where you got the strongly side-lit saguaros and looking west as in the right view where you got full sun on the cactus.

Wow! It was still just 7:45 am and we were enjoying all these wide vistas of saguaros under a clear blue sky and very comfortable temperature. We had launched out from Phoenix early without knowing what we would see, and now we were in the middle of the Saguaro National Park.

Each turn of the little sand road brought new vistas. Everything was well preserved and we were grateful for the protection of the National Park to make such views possible.

Sometimes the side lighting of a southern view gave the most intense colors in the landscape.

Along the Bajada Scenic Loop Road we continued to get these great views of the saguaro forest. The south view just before 8am gave us the nice sidelighting from the morning sun.

The smaller cactus and other desert plants among the saguaros sometimes reminded me of the soft corals along the larger reef structures, like we found at Hen and Chickens Reef in the Keys.

To Ez-Kim-in-Zin Picnic Area

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