CATALINA STATE PARK, Part 3—Desert Delights

           Due to technical difficulties beyond our control (can you believe??? no Wifi in Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks), we have been unable to send out our subsequent posts. Now back on the grid, we look forward to continuing where last we left off.  Hopefully, we haven’t lost too many of our followers during this hiatus. We thank you for your patience!

Tucson is a high desert town, having an elevation out in Catalina State Park of around 2,800 feet. Ringed with mountain ranges known as sky islands, the days are warm in the winter, but nights could be considered cold, sometimes dipping into the 30s. The rising sun brings back the warmth that was lost overnight, so there’s really no lingering cold to complain about. On the plus side, the city is blessed with many public parks, nature preserves and botanical gardens that focus on the uniqueness and beauty of a desert landscape. During our two-week stay we took in some of the more notable ones. Although they had taken in these places many times before, Mike and Barbie accompanied us on our visits, proving that a single visit to places of such beauty and variety is never enough. Each time can bring different aspects into focus.

Arguably, top on the list of attractions in the Tucson area is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It is extensive in scope, polished in its presentations, and shows off the best features of a Southwest desert. You could easily spend a full day here and it wouldn’t be enough. Guaranteed it would not be a boring day.

The setting strikes you soon after entering. Located on high ground just west of the city, this outdoor museum has a view that stretches out over the Sonoran Desert, to where the jagged outline of the Tucson Mountains highlight the horizon. It is a vista to give you pause, and it is there to enjoy and take in from every vantage point in the Museum. This alone could easily be worth the admission cost.


The Desert Museum can be considered a cross between a zoo and a botanical garden, with exhibits and individual presentations adding more substance to what you’re seeing with your eyes. Housed in their natural environments, there are more than 300 different animals and more than a thousand plant species, all indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, to be seen. Not so much artificially displayed, you simply walk among and pass by the desert flora and fauna, the habitats in harmony with the landscape.

Photo by Mike Tupper

Photo by Mike Tupper











Photo by Mike Tupper

On rare occasions, you might even be able to interact with the creatures. Chris and his new friend, the river otter, spent several minutes playing together. They put on quite a show for us.

Undoubtedly, the most popular show here at the museum had to be the Raptor Flight. Put on twice daily, it drew large crowds each time. You had to arrive early in order to get a prime position for photography. It began with an introduction of what desert raptors are commonly found in the neighborhood. Then the stars of the exhibit flew out from their “home” and perched in nearby branches.


Great Horned Owl--photo by Mike Tupper

Great Horned Owl–photo by Mike Tupper


The Harris Hawks were truly the show-stoppers. With their proud bearing, they swooped and soared, flying far out into the surrounding desert. They climbed high, nearly out-of-sight, then plunged back to earth to snag an unsuspecting prey. Free of any straps or hoods, it was a rare treat to watch a hawk operate in its native environment. Taking weeks of constant interaction with the trainers, they aren’t expected to “do tricks,” but rather just be free, ignore the crowds, behave like hawks, and eventually return to their “home.”


Photo by Mike Tupper


Photo by Mike Tupper

With the time drawing short by the end of our day, we saw the sun dropping low when we departed the Desert Museum. One more prime destination was left for us, the place where I wanted to end our day.  desert landscape shows its best side in low-angle light, its earthy colors appear to glow. The Saguaro National Park had all the ingredients for a perfect Southwest sunset scene. We headed over—only a short drive away.

5z-jcw-1549“The best place to photograph the Sonoran Desert is Saguaro National Park” is written in the park’s website. I can’t argue with that, nor even try. If you are someone who sees the desert as a desolate, dry place of sand dunes and scrubby vegetation, then coming to this place will be quite an awakening. At Saguaro National Park, you enter a lush world filled with plants and animals that have evolved to live in a dry, hot climate.

Established to protect the saguaro cactus, found mainly in Arizona, the park is divided into two segments on opposite sides of Tucson.

Rincon Mountain District is the eastern section. It is the more popular segment of the national park, but many of the saguaros here were destroyed by a wildfire. It consists of 70,000 acres and was established in 1933.

The Tucson Mountain District is the western section. It contains the most impressive collection of giant saguaro cactus that you will find anywhere. It is composed of nearly 21,000 acres and has a newly expanded Visitors Center. You will find several nature trails as well as the Bajada Loop Drive which consists of several dirt miles through stands of the park’s namesake.

And that is where the fading evening light found us. Taking the Discovery Nature Trail, we wound through dense stands of saguaros, looking for just the right composition. There were simply too many specimens to make the best shot.


When the ambient sun is low, the Saguaros seem to take have a special glow on the landscape.

The Saguaro Cactus is the large, tree-sized cacti that have curved “arms” which usually reach skyward. Native to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona as well as the Mexican state of Sonora and a small part of Baja, California, these cacti have a relatively long life span. They take around 50 years to develop a side arm; and without that appendage it is known as a spear. Its growth rate is strongly dependent on precipitation; saguaros in drier western Arizona grow only half as fast as those in and around Tucson. Some saguaros can live for more than 150 years They grow slowly from seed, which comes from first the flower, then the fruit, which sprout off the end of its appendages. With roots spreading out close to the ground surface, they soak up rainwater which enables it to visibly expand, holding the rainwater. It conserves the collected water and slowly
consumes it. Native birds, such as the Gila woodpecker, purple martins, and gilded
flickers live inside holes they create in the saguaros. The nest cavity is deep, the family is hidden completely deep inside.

When the saguaro dies, its soft flesh decomposes, but leaves the callus tissue formed around a nest cavity intact. This “saguaro boot” remains behind after the saguaro’s soft flesh begins to rot. This “saguaro boot” was used by natives for storage and it was an integral part of their lives.  It is illegal to harm a saguaro in any manner, and when houses or highways are built, special permits must be obtained to move or destroy any saguaro affected.
It is that radiance that photographers work so arduously to capture.


Mike and I were working hard as the light was fading and the colors were glowing.

If you don’t think a desert landscape suits you, I suggest you visit Saguaro National Park at the end of a day. Check out a short trail or drive the scenic loop and keep an open mind. With its mountain backdrop and an Arizona sunset to set off the desert landscape, I believe it would give anyone pause for reflection, if not admiration. A unique place for sure . . . if not exactly to your taste, nevertheless, you won’t soon be forgetting.


Along the trails with a couple of good friends,

5z-jcw-1545Airstream Travelers,
Chris and Melinda


About AirstreamTravelers

A 2016 Pendleton Airstream suits our lifestyle perfectly. It's a commemorative edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of our national parks. In our efforts to see as many of those parks as we can, the two of us are now spending several months each year on the road. We hope our posts and accompanying photos give a vivid description of where we travel, illustrating to our followers what's out there, just over the next horizon.
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