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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. 

There are photos following the Saguaro National Park and Desert Museum sections below.

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.

Photos from the park.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Down the road a few miles from the campground I discovered the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Calling it a museum is a bit misleading; it is unlike any you have likely encountered. With the exception of its aquarium, all of the live animals' habitats are located throughout the 21 acres that make up the museum. There are two miles of pathways through the desert that lead you from one habitat to the other. The museum provides diorama-like habitats appropriate for its rescued animals, similar to what they would find in the wild. They also have a secluded rest home for two aging mountain lions.

The Sonoran Desert range extends southwestward to the Gulf of California. To reflect aquatic life found in the freshwater rivers and streams in the Sonoran Desert range, Warden Aquarium contains a freshwater section separate from the saltwater section containing sea life found in the gulf.

There are approximately 56,000 individual native plants and 230 native mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and birds within the grounds. The aged mountain lions have been replaced by a cub rescued in California. The javelinas are huge, and the young remind me of the baby only a mother could love. While the animals are captive, their surroundings lend to good photography, especially with a shallow depth of field.

My thanks to the staff of the museum for their assistance and especially volunteer Fred Finny for his tour of the museum and answering my many, many questions.

Photos from the museum.

You can read more about the museum on their website.