In the mild winter weather there is possibly no better place to be than southern Arizona. Warm sunny days and cool nights amid mountains, desert and cacti forests; stunning views, fascinating vegetation and birds from Mexico in their northernmost reaches.
Whilst the rest of the States is gripped in what the weather industry have dramatically termed a “Polar Vortex” the temperatures here have plummeted to the mid-to-high sixties and we are reduced to wearing our shorts for only a few hours a day.
The climate accounts for the northern stretches of the Sonoran Desert reaching into this area bringing the two great columnar cacti to be found in the US: the saguaro and the organ pipe. Our first encounter with the former is at Saguaro National Park outside Tucson. It is an unusual park, split into two comparatively small sections on either side of the city, has no camping and day visits have to suffice.
A quick note about pronunciation before I go on. Saguaro is a word originating in the language of the Mexican Mayo Indians that came into the English lexicon via the Spanish and hence the soft ‘g’ sound: Sa-wah-ro.
Saguaros are delightful: they make me smile and sometimes laugh out loud. The stereotypical two armed variety are entertaining enough, some looking as though they have suddenly stopped whilst out on a stroll. Occasionally a new arm bud strategically located looks like a nose. But these are the tamer ones. The really entertaining individuals have multiple arms contorting into delightful, amusing shapes a little like balloon animals gone wrong. The strangest of all, and the rarest, are those with a cristate; a strange deformation of a wrinkled fanlike growth at the top of the cactus. They are truly fascinating plants: they don’t flower until about sixty five years old, don’t grow arms until around ninety and then only if conditions are favourable, and have a structure and shape that is beautiful in both life and death. They also have boots! When birds hollow out nests in the cacti the plant protects itself from undue moisture loss by forming a hard skin over the entire inner surface of the hole. The only evidence whilst the plant is alive is the entry hole on the surface, but once the plant dies and the skin and inner spongy material decomposes, the hardened linings from the holes are left. They look like boots and that’s what they’re known as.
As you can tell, I’m rather taken with the saguaros, boots and all, and this may partly be because I have my own personal specimens in north Wales. About twenty years ago my sister, Solanna, brought me a packet of Saguaro seeds from Arizona. I planted them in a pot on a windowsill and waited. Patience pays and I can proudly report that they have already reached the impressive height of two and a half inches. Unfortunately they are forever marooned in the U.K. and when we sell the house will be passed into someone elses care. Maybe I’ll plant up another batch of seeds in the camper and nurture a new cluster of them here.
When left to their own devices in the wild, saguaros form forests and the National Park protects two areas where they are thick upon the ground. It’s a landscape like no other and for a desert it’s remarkably green. The saguaros might take centre stage but numerous other cacti and plants flourish here and while the soil looks dry and barren it supports a teeming ecosystem.
We leave Tucson and the flat open plain, taking a winding road through the saguaro covered slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains. We continue up past the cactus equivalent of tree-line to Molino Basin campground in the Coronado National Forest. Although it’s just off the road, it’s still quiet with virtually no traffic at night. There is something really pleasing in it’s dry yellow grasslands and surrounding mountains and we spend a few days getting some work done.
We come back down and head to Tucson Mountain Park, just west of the city. The campground is almost like a garden and we park surrounded by cacti, coyotes trotting past during daylight, yelping and howling by night. We had intended a short stay but are so delighted, we stay for Christmas. For us, raised in temperate maritime and humid continental climates respectively, there is something other about the Sonoran desert. It‘s very dry: low annual rainfall and low humidity. It incredibly different in appearance: the wide open valleys cut by washes, the mountain ranges stark, craggy and dry, the distinctive vegetation, especially the saguaros unseen elsewhere in the US. I love wandering the trails, looking at the cacti and other spiny plants, gazing off to the mountains, watching the unusual birds, the Phainopepla, Verdin, and Gila Woodpeckers. It’s a perfect place for some relaxation and we take advantage of the opportunity. We have Christmas dinner outside in the warm afternoon sun followed by some serious lounging in the chairs with a glass of wine. What could be better?
We drag ourselves away and arrive in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument a few days before New Year where we find the second of the great columnar cacti native to the States; the Organ Pipe. Common in Mexico, north of the border it only grows in this small area of Arizona, protected by the NPS.
We had been a little concerned about the campground having looked at a diagrammatic representation online but it’s another delight with abundant cacti and wonderful views across the wide open valley to the Ajo Mountains in the east and Mexico to the south.
The Organ Pipes prefer the hot, south facing slopes, the Saguaros favour the flatter valleys while the creosote, ocotillo and chollas seem less discerning. A little rain has fallen not long before we arrive and the more opportunistic plants have responded accordingly. Many of the ocotillos, in particular, sprout tiny leaves within forty eight hours of rainfall, suddenly clothing their long arching stems in a vibrant green coat. A few take the opportunity to flower out of season and the bright red blooms attract an occasional Costa’s Hummingbird.
We have walked most of the trails during our stay, out across the valleys, along the bajadas and into the mountains where the cacti are left behind in the cooler canyons. Out in the open, in the warm air of mid-afternoon, the desert mistletoe fills the air with a delightful light citrusy scent, the berries luminescent in the speckled shade of their host tree.
Much of the wildlife in the Sonoran has adapted to the hot desert climate by taking shelter either in holes excavated in the cacti or the ground. In the Sonoran, the packrats dig their nests in the sandy earth protecting them with a pile of cholla offshoots and other prickly deterrents. The nests are inherited along the maternal line, and are inhabited over surprisingly long periods. Some of the midden piles associated with nests have been carbon dated at over fifty thousand years old. They contain a wealth of material valuable in studying changes in environment, climate and vegetation among other things. The packrats themselves are nocturnal beasties and the only evidence we see of them are the piles above ground. We are always inclined to think fondly of the wildlife but the park service warns of another of their habits: stripping insulation and other materials out of engines and RVs under cover of darkness.
A couple of backcountry unpaved drives give access to much less used areas of the park. The North Puerto Blanco Road extends into a permit only area passing by the Pronghorn captive breeding station and ending at a short trail to Dripping Springs. The views from the slopes of the Puerto Blanco Mountains out over the soft tones of the wide open Ajo Valley to the distant peaks of surrounding ranges are a real pleasure. A little extra interest is added to the afternoon by a rock caught between one of the dualies and requiring the attentions of a club hammer before being dislodged.
We have been here for two weeks, enjoying this particular corner of the Sonoran Desert, the last few nights out at the primitive campground that sits at the mouth of the Alamo Canyon. It has only four sites and while it is closed to RVs, the truck camper is viewed as a tent by the Park Service for these purposes. The campground is idyllic and even though it’s only January we can guarantee that it’s going to make the favourite campsites list for 2014.
Finally, one very different aspect of the park requires a mention. The thirty mile southern edge of the park runs along the international border but that entire area is closed to the public as are other significant tracts of land. In fact there is as much of the park closed to public access as is open. While some are closed to preserve the wilderness and safeguard the endangered Sonoran pronghorns, much is to prevent public interaction with smugglers and human traffickers. Border Patrol are more active in this area than anywhere else we’ve been. There are five hundred officers based a few miles up the road in the tiny town of Why and their presence in the park is formidable. We have seen drones flying over, helicopters tracking people on the ground whilst heavily armed teams set off on foot across the desert to intercept them, parachute flares at night and numerous patrol vehicles combing the area. The issues driving undocumented migrants north across the border are complex and contentious and I may well try to pull my previous writing, along with other thoughts on the subject, together in a special log entry.