National Park Number: 39 of 59
We came to Saguaro National Park from David’s parents’ place in Way North Scottsdale, where we’d been pulling all-nighters trying to catch up on work and showering to our heart’s content. Their part of Scottsdale, near Tom’s Thumb and Pinnacle Peak, is insanely scenic where it’s undeveloped, covered in saguaros and palo verdes and all the beautiful bits of the Sonoran Desert, but it’s also home to many malls and shopping centers and subdivisions with “Rancho” in the name. Visiting Saguaro felt very like being at David’s parents’ house before there were houses there; this, we realized, is what much of southwest Arizona must have looked like once.
The Sonoran is one of the most diverse deserts in the world; its combination of soil type, weather patterns, and twice-yearly rain “events” means it can support more kinds of life than any other desert. This is my favorite thing about deserts: from a distance, they look brown and baked and largely lifeless, but as you get closer, you see that they are teeming. Stand still in the desert and you will see unexpected movement—a zebra-tailed lizard or cactus wren or hummingbird—and every single thing that lives in the desert is, by necessity, clever. It is a wonderland of evolutionary brilliance.
It is also one of the starkest examples I can imagine of symbiosis. In every ecosystem, plants and animals have relationships that allow both to survive. But in the desert these relationships seem even more crucial; where resources are so scarce and the environment so harsh, the balance between species is fundamental and fragile.
In this respect, the saguaro is a real team player. Though as seedlings they are delicate, usually requiring a nurse tree for shelter and growing only an inch in their first decade, they grow into giants: up to 50 feet, weighing 6 tons or more, and often living til they are nearly 200 years old. As adults they provide food, water and shelter to everything from sparrows to hawks, packrats to mule deer. They are perfectly designed to make the most of every rainfall, pleated so their flesh can expand to absorb all available moisture.
But my favorite thing about saguaros is that they are characters. These are trees with personality; every one of them starts out as a single spear and then they take off into any number of irregular, quirky, Seussian shapes. Some look stalwart and proud, some playful, some whimsical. Some look depressed, some shy, some like they’re twirling a skirt. These trees are fun.
Before I visited Arizona for the first time, two years ago, I’d never seen a saguaro before and had sort of suspected they were made up. Like, I knew they existed, but I figured there could only be maybe 100 total saguaros in the world—they’re just too outlandish to exist in any significant numbers. Driving to David’s parents’ from the Phoenix airport, my face was a series of O’s—wide eyes, open mouth—and I couldn’t believe that these picture-book trees were really there, growing in great numbers: in yards and road medians and strip mall parking lots.
If I’d known then that there was a whole national park chock-a-block with these beauts, I might have lost my head then and there. As it is, I’d had a little more time in Arizona to wrap my head around the landscape so that by the time we arrived at Saguaro, I could do a little more besides exclaim “Woah!” over and over again.
We started our visit, as always, at the visitor center, then popped out back for a little stroll around the Javelina Wash Trail.
Then we hopped over to the Desert Discovery Trail to discover some desert before starting on the gravel Bajada Loop Drive.
While there are longer hikes to do here, we kept it simple with a series of short ones, stopping along the loop drive for a walk on the Valley View Overlook Trail, with an excellent view over Avra Valley and Tucson, and the Signal Hill Petroglyphs Trail which features, you might have guessed, petroglyphs!
Saguaro National Park is divided into two sections, east and west, with about an hour’s drive between them. We originally planned to spend the morning in one and the afternoon in the other, but after exploring the western Tucson Mountain District, the kids were dying to see some desert creatures and for that, there is one excellent place to go: the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Not part of the park but along its border, the desert museum is part zoo, part botanical garden, and 100% awesome for learning more about the Sonoran Desert ecosystem.
The O’odham people, indigenous to the Sonoran, have a creation myth wherein God turns a human into the first saguaro tree. It’s a way for the people to be able to look at themselves, to see, from a distance, who they are. The desert, I think, has this quality of reflecting our selves back to us: to look at this place of scarcity and symbiosis makes me wonder about my own use of resources and my own contributions to other beings’ way of life. I can’t go to the desert without adjusting my behavior afterward, from how long I stay in the shower to how much I appreciate each glass of water I drink. It’s a crucial reminder to be aware, and it makes me think we could all use a little more time to just sit in the desert and think.