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?
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.)
Saguaro (sah-WAH-roh) National Park has a simple raison de etre. It was basically founded to protect one species – the Saguaro, the largest cactus in America. These giants have long symbolized the American West, but in fact they are limited in geography to the Sonoran desert, and then to a relatively narrow band of Southern Arizona climate that suits a saguaro’s protracted adolescence. How did this one plant growing in a limited part of Arizona come to be so symbolic of the American West that it merits its own National Park? I think to see them up close is to better understand how they have become such an icon.
They are huge – some grow to be 50ft tall, and at 6 tons have trunks you can barely wrap your arms around. In the sparse desert landscape, this Big Friendly Giant dominates, and with a life span of 100-150 (some say 200) years, they are definitely the elder statemen of the desert. But there are many trees in the West that are taller, wider, flower more profusely, no? Redwoods are magnificent, but still don’t hold the same place in American iconography. Continue reading “Saguaro: On the Giant Human Cacti of the West”