Great Western Loop – Saguaro All Around Us

Day 4 – Saguaro National Park East & Tohono Chul

 The saguaro-lined route from our campsite down the mountain to the park.

The saguaro-lined route from our campsite down the mountain to the park.

The Saguaro National Park is divided into two parts and borders Tucson to the east and west. Since the temperature has been rising daily, we decided to visit the east park early in the morning to avoid the afternoon heat. We paid our daily camping fees, laid out the tablecloth to mark our spot and headed along the glorious, saguaro-lined route down the mountain.

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Saguaro (pronounce that sa-hwah-row, just in case you didn’t know) cactus are found exclusively here in the Sonoran Desert, primarily in southern Arizona and western Sonora, Mexico. Their tall stature and branching arms are symbolic of the Old West.

 Arizona's state flower: the saguaro cactus flower

Arizona's state flower: the saguaro cactus flower

In fact, the saguaro cactus flower is Arizona’s state flower. We were hoping that we’d be just in time for the bloom. The cholla, prickly pear, ocotillo and other desert plants were nearly past flowering, but it appears we were just a little too early for the saguaro. Some were in bloom, but most were still budding.

 A few saguaro blooms, but lots of buds ready to burst.

A few saguaro blooms, but lots of buds ready to burst.

We followed the 8-mile Cactus Forest Loop Drive that winds through the saguaro forest and stopped at every opportunity to walk the short interpretive trails. Even at 0730, the desert was hot, parched and dusty. Although we enjoyed visiting the park, quite honestly, there were more saguaros and outstanding vistas on the scenic road heading up the mountain to our campsite than there were in the park. 

After a quick stop at the Visitor Center to check out the park video and refill our water bottles, we headed to Tohono Chul Botanical Gardens and Park on the other side of town.

 Tohono Chul garden exhibit

Tohono Chul garden exhibit

The garden bistro restaurant is shady, inviting and absolutely lovely, albeit a bit on the $$$ side. We strolled along the paths within the gardens. A few hummingbirds flitted around, but most of the birds and animals were much smarter than we were and had sought shade and shelter from the heat and scorching sun. Even the tortoise was in hiding. We lingered on a bench under a shady tree by a tiny stream and watched damselflies light on rocks and a hummingbird on a branch ... even they seemed logy. We finally determined, like most of the other animals, that it was just too hot to enjoy the gardens.

 Even the damselflies and hummers seemed logy with the afternoon heat.

Even the damselflies and hummers seemed logy with the afternoon heat.

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By 3pm, we retreated back up the mountain to the respite of our much cooler campsite. The heat had definitely taken its toll and we felt drained of energy. Nothing some cool air and a glass of wine couldn’t heal.

Day 5 – Saguaro National Park West & the Desert Museum

 Javelinas by the roadside. 

Javelinas by the roadside. 

Up early again, we headed to Saguaro National Park West which was decidedly more interesting than its eastern counterpart. We started the day by spotting a small herd of javelinas along the roadside just before entering the park.

 Mountainous desert terrain

Mountainous desert terrain

The western part of the park, the Tucson Mountain District, is more mountainous and definitely more scenic. The saguaro forest seemed to stretch for miles, the mountains providing a beautiful backdrop.

We had not intended to stop at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, but oh my, we’re so glad that we did. It was outstanding. Despite the heat, we spent the better part of six hours exploring every aspect of the Sonora Desert that you can imagine … animals, insects, reptiles, minerals, geology, grasslands, woodlands, caves, rivers, aviaries, dinosaurs … and I’m still not sure we saw it all.

 Rare cristate saguaro

Rare cristate saguaro

The most appealing part of this open-air museum is the extraordinary replication of natural habitat for the animals and plants of desert. River otters and beavers in the Riparian Corridor … just a glimpse of the switching tail of a mountain lion hanging out of a mountain cave … a Mexican wolf pacing in front of its reclining mate … black bears, coati, javelina, deer, owls. Then we got to the reptile house to view the rattlers, gila monsters and iguanas. My skin was crawling and the hairs on my arms were at full attention as we viewed the scorpions and tarantulas.

We lunched on a prickly pear yogurt and fruit parfait, then continued on our exploration. There were automatic water bottle refill stations and sunscreen dispensers throughout the park. Everything here was well thought out, well-presented, informative and thoroughly enjoyable.

 The unrelenting Sonoran Desert sun

The unrelenting Sonoran Desert sun

A bit museumed-out, we finally reclaimed Blue who seemed oblivious to the heat and actually entered the national park lands. We stopped at the Visitor’s Center quickly then, at the recommendation of the ranger, pointed Blue in the direction of the Bajada Loop Drive. Poor old Blue and crew bumped along this rutted gravel, tooth jarring 5-mile drive that seemed to take forever. We stopped for a couple of quick walks, but the temperature hovered just over 100F and was certainly not conducive to leisurely strolling .

Back at the campsite, we revived in the cool of the evening. We’d met another traveler, Richard from North Carolina, who joined us for dinner and lots of van travel chat. Not so different than sailing/boat/cruising talk! I did the dinner dishes in the dark … add a lantern to the ‘buy list’!

Total Miles – 669 … we’ve put on quite a few miles since we’ve been here!