When most folks think of “wilderness” the vision that comes to mind involves mountains and trees but in Arizona these wilderness areas seem much more stark, and often more amazing. Saguaro National Park and Chiricahua National Monument are both within driving distance of my base here in Tucson.
“I grow very fond of this place, and it certainly has a desolate, grim beauty of its own, that has a curious fascination for me.” Theodore Roosevelt
The saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) is one of the Sonoran Desert’s most loved plants. More about these majestic cactus:
Saguaros are the largest cactus species in the U.S. growing more than 40 feet tall and are thought to live up to 200 years old. Compare this to the Cardon cactus we enjoyed down in Baja that is the largest species in North America growing more than 60 feet tall and living up to 300 years old. Placed side by side (although not naturally found that way) there are subtle differences between the two majestic and fascinating species.
The Saguaro are large, tree-like columnar cacti that develop “arms” (branches) as they grow. Their arms generally stretch upward and can number over 25 on a single cactus. Covered with protective spines, they flower white flowers in the late spring, and red fruit in summer. Saguaro cactus will grow from sea level to about 4000 feet in elevation. If the elevation is too high, the cold weather and frost can kill the saguaro. Saguaro are a very slow growing cactus. A 10 year old plant might only be 1.5 inches tall. When rain is plentiful and the saguaro is fully hydrated it can weigh between 3200-4800 pounds. Most of the saguaros roots are only 4-6 inches deep and radiate out as far from the plant as it is tall. There is one deep root, or tap root that extends down into the ground more than 2 feet. When the Saguaro eventually dies, the soft flesh rots and the woody infrastructure, the saguaro’s ribs, are left standing. Looking almost like an upside down witches broom they add texture to the desert landscape.
To the local Tohono O’Odham people, the saguaro cactus are even more important. These giant cactus are not plants to the Tohono O’Odham, but a different type of humanity, and are viewed as respected members of the Tohono O’Odham Tribe.
Saguaros—which make for expensive lawn adornments—have become black market commodities, with poachers raking in a few thousand dollars for their hauls. Fortunately Arizona has strict regulations about the harvesting, collection or destruction of this species and of course the individuals that are growing in the National Park are protected by the Federal Government.
On March 1, 1933, in the last days of his presidency, Herbert Hoover signed a Proclamation establishing Saguaro National Monument in the nearly empty desert, 15 miles east of what was then the small town of Tucson. Wrenched by the Great Depression and awaiting a new administration, few seemed to pay any attention to President Hoover’s action. But it was a victory for both botanists and dedicated Arizonians who’d worked for years to protect this grand stand of saguaros. In 1961, at the urging of the people of Tucson and Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall, President Kennedy added 25 square miles of splendid cactus lands in the Tucson Mountains to the Monument. Finally, after setting aside over 70% of the park as wilderness in 1976, Congress elevated Saguaro to National Park status in 1994. From the Saguaro National Park map: “Wilderness areas preserve the land’s natural conditions and provide opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation. Preserving wilderness shows restraint and humility and benefits generations to follow.”
“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.” President Lyndon B. Johnson on the signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964
There are two separate areas of Saguaro National Park, the East section and the West section. Located about 30 miles apart and separated by the City of Tucson they include 91,000 acres of Sonoran Desert. Both include visitor centers, trails, picnic areas and scenic drives. This trip I visited the West (Tucson Mountain District) section.
There is a great trail to Signal Hill with beautiful prehistoric rock art created by the Hohokam people. These petroglyphs were picked into the stone more than a thousand years ago.
I do have difficulty biting my tongue at times when I hear individuals around me in the parks spouting blatantly false information in order to sound smart to their family and friends. So to set the record straight……. The word petroglyph comes via the French from the Greek word “petra” (or petro) meaning “stone”, and glyphein meaning “to carve”. And no, I did not correct the “smart” park visitor as I remember from my working days….. “pick your battles”!
Located in the Southeastern corner of Arizona Chiricahua National Monument consists of just over 12,000 acres of beautiful rock pinnacles. The Chiricahua Apache called these volcanic formations “standing up rocks.” With over 84% of the park as designated wilderness there are a number of hiking opportunities. The park is a “sky island” rising to 9,763′ in elevation above the desert floor. The drive up into the park starting in cactus and mesquite and passing through sycamore, juniper and oak before arriving in the cypress, pine and fir woodlands
I mentioned before that my very short stint as the Chief of Operations for Arizona State Parks (just after retiring from CA) was not just a lesson learned about jumping in before doing good research but is was an opportunity to meet some wonderful friends that make my life better.
Recently there have been some investigations into the Arizona State Parks Director. The most recent article (here) having come out this week mentions my concerns that were voiced in a letter I sent to the governor’s office shortly after resigning. Hopefully there will be some action taken to solve these problems
Now back to the Chiricahua visit! The best park of visiting the Chiricahua’s was being able to hang with Annette and Brent (friends from Arizona State parks) for the day.
We hiked Brent’s favorite trail, the Sugarloaf Trail, built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, up to the fire lookout at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.
The scenery from the top was outstanding, mountain ranges in all directions. Peloncillo to the east, Dos Cabezas to the northwest, Rincon to the far northwest, Dragoon to the west and Chiricahua to the south.
After our hike up the mountain we hung around the trailhead parking lot sitting in the bed of Brent’s pickup enjoying a beer and great company until the sun was ready to set on the day. Can’t think of a better way to spend a day.
“Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.” – Woodrow T. Wilson