Our next stop on our journey west was Tucson, AZ, just an hour’s drive from Benson, AZ. Mission View RV Resort (review coming) would be our home base for our four night stay there.
Tucson is known as the home of the nation’s largest cacti, Arizona’s state symbol and the supreme symbol of the American Southwest, the saguaro (pronounced “sa-WAH-row”). Protected by Saguaro National Park in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, these majestic plants are found only in a small portion of the United States to the east and west of the modern city of Tucson. Saguaro National Park is divided into two districts, the Tucson Mountain District (West) and the Rincon Mountain District (East).
The Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park ranges from an elevation of 2,180 ft to 4,687 ft and receives approximately 10″ of rain annually. It’s landscape is dotted primarily with desert scrub, and desert grassland.The Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park ranges from an elevation of 2,670 ft to 8,666 ft (Mica Mountain) and gets over 12″ of rain a year. It’s landscape also consists of desert scrub and desert grassland at lower elevations, but at higher altitudes, oak woodland, pine-oak woodland, pine forest and mixed conifer forest are the norm. Saguaros were more sparse in the East District, some trampled by cattle prior to the land being protected by the National Park Service, while others were killed by freezing temperatures in 1937 and in 1962. Because of their slow growth, recovery takes a very long time.
On one day, after a hardy breakfast of bacon, eggs, hashbrowns and toast for $7.89 at the Sunny Daze Cafe (cute place with good food and tacky flamingos), we headed out to the Tucson Mountain District (West).
It was a pretty drive along South Kinney Road where we made a brief pit stop at “Old Tucson“. We learned that this has been the site for more than 300 film and television projects since 1939 and is one of the most active filming locations for Western-themed movies, television, cable shows and commercials in the United States. In addition to tours ($18.95 per person, $16.95 for seniors, children ages 4-11 $10.95 and ages 3 and under free), they have rides and games, living history experiences, dinner experiences, etc. Knowing we would need a full day to explore Saguaro National Park, we decided to skip this attraction.
Some people we met during our travels recommended Gilbert Ray Campground so we made a short detour to check it out. Nice park with 130 sites, all with 30 amp service. But only a few sites in Loop A would accommodate rigs of our size. No reservations, first come first serve policy.
Finally we arrived at the Red Hills Visitor Center. Wow, quite an elaborate Visitor Center with spectacular views of mountains and of course, saguaros. Inside there are cultural and natural history exhibits of the Sonoran Desert and a 15 minute program offered every 30 minutes called “Voices of the Desert”, giving a Native American perspective of the Sonoran Desert which was quite interesting. An audio and written narration highlights the desert and the Indians’ perspective of the park’s namesake — the saguaro. When the show ends, the screen slides up and curtains dramatically open to reveal the sweeping desert vista through a huge window. That wasn’t expected, causing oohs and aahs from the audience.
Outside the cactus garden trail was a wonderful paved walk where all the cacti and shrubs were labeled and explained. Gulp! “Beware of rattlesnakes” signs were everywhere. Good thing it was winter so those critters were hibernating! A few steps led down to another short trail, “Javelina Wash Trail” where we could actually walk along a “wash” (dry gully that becomes a river during heavy rains). No live javelina sightings though!
It was here that we learned so many fascinating facts about this monarch of the Sonoran Desert. Did you know that…
- Saguaro or Carnegiea gigantean means “giant candle” and was named for philanthropist Andrew Carnegie whose Carnegie Institution established the Desert Botanical Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona, in 1903.
- Saguaro life facts:
- A 10 year old Saguaro might only be 2 inches tall and a 30 year old plant might only be 2 feet tall.
- Saguaro can grow to be between 40-70 feet tall.
- The cactus is considered adult when it is 125 years old. It is estimated that saguaros can live on average 150-200 years.
- Arms grow only when it is over 70 years old but not all cactus grow arms. Scientists are not sure why some do and some don’t.
- The flowers appear on the saguaro when the cactus is 35 years old and only open at night, close during the day.
- Young saguaro cacti depend on Palo Verde, Ironwood or mesquite trees to serve as “nurse” trees, shading them from the harsh sun and extremes of weather. As the Saguaro grows and becomes more acclimated to the desert sun, the nurse tree may die, leaving the saguaro alone, or as the Saguaro grows larger it may compete for resources with its nurse tree, hastening its death. Consequently, young saguaros are often seen near trees, but old saguaros are not.
- The saguaro’s roots are just 4-6 inch deep and radiate out as far from the plant as it is tall, catching water from the rains. There is one deep root, or tap root that extends down into the ground at least 5 feet or more to reach the water table.
- The saguaro is one of the heaviest plants.
- Because it mainly consists of water, an adult saguaro can weigh up to 8 tons.
- Spongy tissue allows a fully-grown saguaro to take in up to 200 gallons during a heavy rain.
- The skin of the saguaro cactus is covered with a thick waxy coating that waterproofs the plant and reduces water loss to the air through transpiration.
- Temperatures below freezing for longer than 20 hours can kill the saguaros so they seldom grow in elevations above 4000 ft.
- After the saguaro dies its strong woody ribs can be used to build roofs, fences, and parts of furniture.
Armed with all this knowledge about saguaro, we left the Visitor Center to drive along the 5 mile scenic Bajada Loop. Although it was unpaved, it was well graded so it wasn’t a bad drive and very enjoyable with its many scenic pullouts and hiking trails.
Everywhere, and I mean everywhere, we looked there were saguaros of all shapes, sizes and ages. With their all-too-human shapes, they almost seemed (at least to us) comical and appeared to have personalities. Gigantic ones towering above the desert landscape, standing like sentinels with their arms in the air, protecting the surrounding territory. Babies so small, barely visible, shyly hiding under their mesquite or palo verde “nurse” trees. Others so close together, they almost seemed like they were hugging or kissing. Tall and short ones standing close together looked like a family about to set forth on a family outing.
Although the saguaros were magnificent to see, the highlight of the drive was a .3 mile climb up stone steps through a wash to the top of Signal Hill where we were not only rewarded with a magnificent view of the desert, but dozens of petroglyphs etched in the rocks as well. No one knows exactly what the rock art means but archaeologists have determined that the art was created by the Hohokam, prehistoric North American Indians who lived approximately from ad 200 to 1400.
You’d think by the end of the day we’d never want to see another saguaro again but not so! They were so wicked cool! A trip to the East District of the Park was quickly added to our agenda for the next day.
The following day we headed seventeen miles east of Tucson to Saguaro National Park East which is larger and more remote than the west section. On our way out of Tuscon, driving along East Valencia Road, there seemed to be miles of aircraft in a field bordering the road. We later discovered that this was the Davis-Monthan Air Force Boneyard, which according to their website is “the largest aircraft boneyard in the world”. Tours are offered by the nearby Pima Air & Space Museum – we’ll add that to our bucket list for next time!
Although not as large and dramatic as the Red Hills Visitor Center in the West District, the East Visitor Center still had some very informative exhibits. Here we would traverse the 8 mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, a paved, combination one and two-way road. With the winding roads, hills and panoramic vistas, this drive was totally awesome even though the saguaros were not as dense. Along the way we stopped at the Desert Ecology Trail which was an easy .25 mile walk with numerous interpretive signs.
Another trail, the Freeman Homestead Trail (1 mile easy to moderate trail) was a historic path through a grove of large saguaros and a cool desert wash, to the site of an early desert homestead owned by Safford Freeman who was granted 640 acres under the Homestead Act to farm, graze or mine. In the early 1930’s he built a three room adobe house, outbuildings and a well.The National Park Service purchased the homestead in the early 1950s.
Interpretive signs not only described the plant life but also gave us a flavor for what it must have been like living in this rugged home in the desert. Not sure what we expected to see but it was a little disappointing that the ‘homestead’ was nothing more than a portion of raised ground with a piece of the 20′ x 24′ concrete slab still there. Oh, well, it was a lovely walk anyway and a perfect end to a perfect day.
So which park did we like the best? It would be really difficult to pick one over the other as we thoroughly enjoyed both of them. A lot of similarities between the two but each was different enough to be worthy of a visit. If time was of a concern, then I guess perhaps the west district would be the one to choose since the Visitor Center is more extensive and there are a lot more saguaros throughout the park. However, the East has more elevation changes and spectacular views and the loop road being paved is a big plus.
Since it was getting late in the day, on our way out of the park we stopped at the Saguaro Corners Restaurant. I had a Turkey Melt ($14), house smoked turkey breast, bacon, caramelized onions, grilled tomatoes, avocado, spinach, smoked gouda and herb mayo served with fries. Rob had the Prime Rib Cheesesteak ($15), prime angus beef, sweet & hot peppers, American cheese, cheese sauce on an Amoroso roll. Delicious lunch! Highly recommend a visit here if you are in the area.
Speaking of food, trying a Sonoran Hot Dog during our stay in Tucson was on our must do list. Always open to experiencing the local cuisine, we decided to pay a visit to BK’s Tacos & Hot Dogs, a kind of Mexican fast food joint, where they serve up their award winning Sonoran dogs in addition to other Mexican dishes.
What is a Sonoran Hot Dog you might be asking? Certainly different than a usual hot dog slathered with mustard and relish, but perhaps a local variant of a Coney Island Hot Wiener and it’s yummy Rhode Island descendant the New York System. At BK’s, it is described as a hot dog “wrapped in bacon with whole pinto beans, grilled and fresh onions, fresh diced tomato, decorated with mayonnaise and a dash of mustard, finished with our secret jalapeño sauce with a side of a plump, tasty, grilled yellow pepper” and served in a bolillo bun (a crusty Mexican roll with a soft center). What a healthy choice! NOT! As if that weren’t bad enough, we also ordered 2 Toritos, which were “yellow hot peppers filled with ham and cheese deliciously wrapped in bacon, grilled to perfection”. Anything wrapped in bacon must be good, right? Maybe they were, hard to say because those peppers were so hot, they brought tears to my eyes! Loved the dog, the Toritos not so much!
After a four night stay in Tucson, we would be on the road again heading to Quartzsite to join an Entegra coach rally and spend over a week totally off the grid. Stay tuned to read about that very interesting and educational experience!