Saturday March 20 was all about needles, pins, spikes, thorns, and spines. Can you think of any other synonyms for the sharp pointy extensions that protrude from a cactus plant?
Jane and I decided to visit Saguaro National Park on Saturday and saved the Sonoran Desert Museum for Sunday. Saguaro National Park is divided into an eastern area (Rincon Mountain District) and a western area (Tucson Mountain District). The city of Tucson separates the two. Since the Sonoran Desert Museum is just outside the Tucson District, we combined those two destinations on Sunday and explored the Rincon Mountain District on Saturday.
The eastern Saguaro National Park is less visited than the west, and only a small portion of the total acreage is easily visited without a long hike. Since we only had a day to devote to the eastern park, we followed the herd and drove the Cactus Forest Drive starting from the visitor center. The circle is mostly one way, so we slowly cruised the loop and stopped at several points along the way. We were surprised by the number of bicyclists pedaling the hilly desert terrain. When we began our visit, the temperature was in the eighties, but it quickly climbed into the nineties by the early afternoon.
Half way around the circle Jane and I parked at the Loma Verde trailhead and completed a 3.4 mile round trip that combined several trails. This was a relatively easy hike with minimal change in elevation. The heat and bright sun were the main factors to be aware of, so we lathered up with sunscreen and carried plenty of water.
The Sonoran Desert is an amazing place to me. How can so many plants and animals inhabit such a forbidding environment? The soil is sand, rocks and gravel; and moisture is a rare commodity. Yet the ground is covered with a fairly dense array of plant life that adapted to this harsh environment and even appears to thrive. The most striking plant of course is the saguaro cactus, and we passed through numerous cactus forests. Just typing the term cactus forest strikes me as odd, since I grew up associating forests with leaves, and it is quite a stretch to call saguaro needles leaves. But in reality they are the cactus’s answer to leaves. Unlike normal leaves, the needles serve a different purpose in the life of a saguaro. They shade the plant, shield it from drying winds, and discourage animals.
We also learned that the pleated surface of the saguaro trunk and limbs allow the cactus to rapidly expand and hold water captured during rare rain events. The spongy flesh in the trunk and limbs enable the saguaro to store water in a gelatin form that is slow to evaporate. The saguaro is an amazing adaptation to the harsh desert environment. Of course I could not help matching the saguaro shapes to human forms. In many cases the branches appear to be arms, and it is fun to visualize the cactus taking various human poses.
In addition to the namesake saguaro, many other cacti and desert plants covered the Sonoran landscape. We learned to identify barrel cactus, chollo, ocatillo, and prickly pear as well as the palo verde and mesquite, which are non-cactus desert trees. Walking among this dense population of desert vegetation in an arid forbidding environment was a unique thrill for Jane and I. Because it was early spring, there were also many low flowering shrubs that displayed yellow flowers, and this added quite a bit of color to the cactus forest.
Near the end of our loop we pulled into a parking space at the javelina picnic area, where we found a ramada and prepared our lunches. Several birds entertained us by perching on the nearby cactus. I put my binoculars to good use and concluded that they were cactus wrens, although I am not a bird identification expert. We were guardedly hoping to see some javelina, but that never happened, and we were probably better off since they travel in packs.
Since we came from Colorado where it was still winter; the sun, heat and dry air took its toll, and we departed the park by 2:30. We both felt extraordinarily drained despite drinking liberal quantities of water. We returned to our air conditioned hotel room and relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon, and then we decided to explore downtown Tucson for dinner.
Fortunately we began this adventure early. I found a brochure describing the Old Town Artisans block, so we parked nearby and explored the shops that surrounded a courtyard. From here we walked south to Congress Street and followed it eastward toward the University of Arizona. This street was comparable to Colfax Avenue in Denver with numerous restaurants and shops distributed among abandoned storefronts. There was a similar mix of pedestrians ranging from nicely dressed diners to street people asking for charity handouts.
We did not find a restaurant that appealed to our Saturday night appetites along Congress Street, so we retreated to an establishment across from our parking lot called El Charro. The Mexican restaurant spewed delightful smells from its chimney, and a crowd of diners milled about on the sidewalk waiting to be seated. We expected to have a long wait, but amazingly our buzzing device beckoned us after only fifteen minutes. The choice proved to be fortuitous one, as Jane and I enjoyed one of the best meals on the trip.