There is nothing quite as impressive as a sea of saguaro cacti poking up at the sky for as far as the eye can see; for about 143 miles to be more precise. Just outside of Tucson, Saguaro National Park offers hiking trails through its eastern portion and amazing views of a dense saguaro “forest” on its western side.
As we traveled from New Mexico to Arizona, the landscape changed ever so slightly. Roadside signs advised on how to deal with dust storms, while the land leading to tall rocky mountainous formations lay flooded. The storm rumbled away and left behind a cheerful display of a rainbow as a welcome sign to our campsite, Grande Vista RV Park, in Willcox, Arizona. Another hours’ drive brought us just east of Tucson at Cactus Country RV Park.
Social Media has a bit of a bad rep, but it still has its advantages, for sure. I was surfing through Facebook and found out that an old friend had just moved to Tucson, so we reconnected over a quiet meal at La Cocina Cantina (LaCo Tucson). This delightful small business has suffered since COVID hit, but when it does reopen, I encourage you to visit its delightful courtyard, hidden in the heart of Historic Presidio District of Downtown Tucson.
The next day, we visited Saguaro National Park, the east side, bordering the Rincon Mountain District.
Saguaros are as impressive as they are unique. The tallest saguaro reached 78 feet before a storm brought it down, while most normally reach a height of 40-60 feet. Native to the Sonoran Desert, the mighty plant looks more like a tree than a mere cactus—some cacti develop branches or arms as they mature. Saguaros are picky about their habitat and they grow only in a particular climate and only up to 3,500 feet, as the cold and frost will kill them.
The native Tohono O’odham tribes (The Desert People) valued the cacti for their amazing natural container capacity: they can collect up to 200 gallons of rain water, which can increase their total weight up to 6 tons. Although they grow high, the roots lie under the ground only 4-6 inches deep. So one would have to wonder: how do they remain erect? The answer is in the sturdy ribs—the internal skeleton of the cacti—in addition to a system of roots that spreads outward to match the plant’s height, and an extra central anchor root digging down more than 2 feet. After the saguaro dies (150-200 years), its woody internal structure can be used to build tools, roofs, fences, and furniture.
Each spring, saguaro’s creamy-white blooms (which are rightfully Arizona’s state flower) beautify the prickly plants, while providing sweet nutrition to bats, moths, and birds. Speaking of birds, the seemingly unwelcoming branches provide housing for many-an-avian, who make holes inside the cacti (called “boots”).
In the summer, the natives harvest the cactus’ red fruit and extract its sweet and tart juice to produce wine and jam. It takes an experienced picker about 3 hours to gather and harvest 20 to 30 pounds of fruit pulp, which will only yield one gallon of syrup. But the hard work is a part of their culture, and the wine is part of their new year ceremony (which occurs in the summer).
On our way out of the park, we hiked the Javelina Rocks, a layer-cake-looking rock here named after the javelina, a pig-like mammal who takes comfort in the rocks’ shade. We didn’t see any javelinas, but did learn that cactus thorns are very fine and very stubborn in being removed…. I made the mistake of wearing my fleece jacket tied around my middle while I was walking on the narrow trail around the rocks. The jacket brushed by the non-assuming cacti, collecting some poignant desert mementos. Ouch! I kept feeling the stings for days, but couldn’t see the little pricks…. Eventually, after many layers of lint remover tape and a few washes, the painful reminders disappeared. Word to the wise!
We strolled through old downtown Tucson where we learned about historic sites and homes, and we visited the art shops.
We took a well-deserved mid-day relaxing break at Café à La C’Art, in the Monet-inspired garden. The café resides in the historic 1865 Stevens House on the grounds of the Tucson Museum of Art. In the evening, we met up with our friend Valdir once again, this time sampling tacos, beer, and margaritas at the fun and modern Street Taco and Beer, Co.
Many moons ago I worked at a jewelry retailer with on air and online distribution. One of our vendors, a sweet man named Shawn, always got excited about visiting the gem show in Tucson. So when we drove by giant signs advertising the show, we couldn’t resist stopping by. We loved the show! One could take shuttles to the different sections organized by different themes. We browsed through rows of amazing geodes and ammonite fossils, admiring Earth’s artistry. The jewelry was obviously beautiful, but I really wanted to visit the Native American art displays. I loved chatting with some of the vendors/artists and went home with a small part of their creation.
The evening was celebrated with another dinner downtown Tucson at the lovely Seis Kitchen. I admire their commitment to being green: they source locally/organic food and all their food containers and utensils are biodegradable. I absolutely loved the tacos and the atmosphere was great!