There are four deserts in North America: the Mojave, Great Basin, Chihuahuan and Sonoran. While at Joshua Tree National Park, we visited the Mojave and Colorado (part of the Sonoran) deserts. The Sonoran Desert is the most complex and diverse of its counterparts, with its physical features ranging from mountain ranges to arid plains to grassy plateaus to lava flows. It also contains a cactus found nowhere else: the saguaro.
The saguaro (pronounced sah-WAH-row) is the largest cactus in the United States. They can grow higher than 50 feet tall and weigh more than 4,500 pounds. The classic cactus has arms; these don’t begin to grow until a saguaro is about 50 years old. Some may live as long as 200 years.
Like Joshua Tree National Park, Saguaro was elevated from national monument to park status in 1994. In 2016 Saguaro National Park was 25th in visitation (about 820,000 people) out of 59 parks. This park has two parts, separated by 30 miles and with the city of Tucson, Arizona between them. We visited the west, or Tucson Mountain, section first. This portion of the park has the greatest concentration of saguaros and it was evident in the hike that we took. We made a “lollipop” loop of three different trails climbing to the top of Wasson Peak (4,687 feet).
As we hiked up the hillsides we marveled at all the saguaros around us. They reminded us of people, each different in their own way. Some had no arms, others one, still others had multiple, and the limbs were in many different shapes.
It was another hot day in the low 90s F, and we were tired at the end of our 9.6 mile trek. We cooled off by driving the park’s scenic loop and pausing at several viewpoints. Signal Hill was a favorite of Darren’s as it contained many petroglyphs. The Hohokam people carved them 800 to 1,000 years ago while hunting and gathering.
The next day we ventured to the east side of the park. The Rincon Mountain section is twice as big as the west district and it comprises six eco-zones, ranging from low desert to mountain peaks. We opted for a 8 mile hike through the cactus forest. The terrain was a contrast from the Tucson Mountain side, as the saguaros here were interspersed with many other plants and some blooming flowers. We even saw a Gila monster and a roadrunner.
With our time in the Sonoran Desert at an end, we are heading north to another of Arizona’s national parks at Petrified Forest on the Colorado Plateau.