A Desert Full of Surprises
I initially went to Tucson to photograph the stately Saguaro cactus. The greater concentration of cacti is in the desert west of Tucson. About ten miles out of the city, I crested a ridge that serves to separate the metro area from the desert. The initial view is truly breathtaking and dangerous. From the top of the ridge I could see about 30 miles into the desert where one would become immediately surrounded by the tall Saguaros. While I wanted to take in all the scenery from the crest of the hill, I really had to concentrate on negotiating a very winding, mile-long, narrow road that descended to the desert floor.
About five miles farther I arrived at what I think is the only campground in the region for tents and RVs that offers a desert camping experience with minimal human influences. The Gilber-Ray Campground is surrounded by desert with 15 species of cacti and many other survivalist plants. My picture window (the motorhome windshield) looked into the desert and mountain ridges in the distance. Not a sign of mankind. Mourning doves seem more plentiful than any other bird. Unfortunately, I only saw one coyote in the week I was there.
Saguaro National Park
About four miles farther down the road is the Saguaro National Park portion of the desert. At the headquarters, the park staff provides a very informative video introduction to the history of the region, with an unusual and impactful conclusion. The naturalists offer guided tours into the surrounding desert. Our guide, Bob, has extensive knowledge of the Saguaro and other cacti, local birds, tarantulas, and numerous other flora with interesting facts about each.
During the 90-minute walking tour across the road from the headquarters, I got a real sense of what it takes for plants and animals to survive, coexist and thrive in a very harsh environment. As you might expect, the Saguaro cacti play a significant role the lifecycle of many birds and mammals. The Gila woodpeckers make their nests in the Saguaros, which are often the round holes seen in the cacti. They abandon the nest at the end of the season, and their nest becomes a new home for a variety of birds.
Just a couple facts about these giants: They live to be 150-175 years old, possibly 200 years, during which time they may or may not sprout arms. No one seems to know why some do and some don't. If they do, the buds begin to appear when a cactus is 50 to 70 years old. The Saguaro may reach 50 feet and weigh in at 6 tons! You can find photos here.
My thanks to Bob Perrill for his very informative introduction to the Sonoran desert.
Slideshow of photos from Saguaro National Park