Saguaro: Everything’s coming up Tucson

I knew nothing about Saguaro National Park before arriving in Tucson. Relatively small in size, with the city splitting the East and West sides of the park, I didn’t know what to expect other than to see some enormous cacti. Who knew everything would be so utterly delightful?

East Saguaro National Park

Saguaro itself only has backcountry tent sites on the East park, so we took the Whale to the Tucson Mountain State Park campground (Gilbert Ray) near the West entrance, and feeling lucky enough after snagging the last spot I wasn’t expecting much besides a square of concrete to call home. But it was great. Not only was it cheap and 5 minutes from the Saguaro visitor center, it is tucked away up in the Tucson mountainside, with saguaro and all kinds of prickly friends scattered around nicely spaced campsites. It even had electricity! (I am learning to savor the days we are plugged in and I can turn on lights and charge computers without a care.)

Gilbert Ray campground

Then, we stumbled upon the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum almost by accident. It was on the way to Saguaro’s visitor center, and my slow biking (there were a lot of steep hills!) meant we missed a Ranger talk so we took a breather at the museum instead. Expecting it to be an hour detour, we ended up staying  the whole day and were the last ones to leave that night.

Hummingbirds also love it here and were flitting freely about the gardens

“Museum” is somewhat of a misnomer – it’s a zoo, a wildlife park, multiple  botanical gardens complete with two aviaries (one just for hummingbirds – delightful!), and geological museum.

In the hummingbird aviary

We were in heaven. Sonoran flora and fauna we had been unable to identify were now neatly labeled, I saw a teeny tiny hummingbird on her nest, there were flowers blooming radiantly in the cactus garden, a rescued black bear showing off his dancing feet, and I saw a magnificent mountain lion with enough teeth and muscles on her that I maintain my resolve to stay far, far away from mountain lions in any non-fenced setting.

Javelina, the desert “wild boar” look much cuter while asleep
Strawberry, the rescued black bear

And the list goes on.  There was a cave crawl, we tried on bat ears and vulture wings. There was a celebration of turkey vultures, where I learned their crazy cluster of measure words – a wake is a group of feeding vultures, a kettle for vultures in flight, and committee for when they roost. Geez – and I thought Chinese measure words were confusing.

On being bats and vultures…

Best of all, I finally, finally got to see a flowering agave – also called a century plant. While agave plants are a staple of our desert experience, they only bloom once in their lifetimes, thus once in about 15-20 years. Small wonder we had never seen one in bloom but that didn’t mean I wasn’t longing for sight of one. This one was magnificent – over 10ft tall, it blossomed in clusters of vibrant banana yellow flowers that was glorious to see.

Flowering agave
And a close up – seriously magnificent plants

And… Tucson kept on giving. Catalina State Park, north of East Saguaro park, was unexpectedly more beautiful and charming of a scenic drive than the national park itself. Scaling the 8000ft of elevation, we moved from Sonoran deserts to coniferous pines and at the even saw residual snow from American’s southern-most ski park.

Conifers up in the Catalina mountains

On our descent, we saw Tucson and the Saguaro Park West backlit in another glorious pink and red desert sunset, and S declared he may have to move to the Southwest after all. He was pretty won over by Arizona’s charm offensive.

S contemplating a move to the Southwest
Carne seca

Tucson itself was a great city stop – meaning I got some quality eats. The wood-fired rib eye and BBQ at Daisy Mae’s was exactly the local steakhouse fare I wanted after 4 days of ramen and trail mix in the Grand Canyon.

Stumbling upon El Guerno Canelo was our chance to try the famed Sonoran bacon-wrapped, bean-smothered hot dog topped with all the grill jalapeños you could eat.

Lunch at El Charro Cafe gave us more amazing Mexican food, like carne seca (a succulent limey dried beef floss) and I got all the tamales I wanted that day. To top it all off, the movie theaters had lazy-boy reclining chairs and $7 matinees.

Sonoran hot dog and free jalapenos at El Guerno Canelo

Have I mentioned yet what an excellent time was had here by all?  All in all, three thumbs up for Saguaro and Tucson.















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