Having explored most of what northern Arizona and southern Utah has to offer, we recently had four days off and weren’t sure how best to use them. We were torn between Joshua Tree and the Saguaro National Park. Our friends in Moab said they’d never forget the first time they saw the Saguaro cactus and the thought of a cactus 40-60 foot tall was unbelievable to us, so we headed to Tucson. There wasn’t really any free camping on BLM nearby (aside from one with a warning of drug traffic) so we splurged and set up camp at the Cataline State Park. I say splurge because this meant we had bathrooms and showers and electricity! We boondock a lot, which usually means no one showers for days at a time. You’re all going “Ewww! Too much information!” But hey, we like to keep it real here. A state park not only meant showers, but with electricity, we could charge devices and run our AC any time we wanted. It was a real treat for my Mother’s Day weekend. The Saguaro National Park is split into two different districts, separated by the city of Tucson. The first day we decided to hit up the West Saguaro NP which was suppose to have a more dense population of Saguaros. We did a short hike, a mile long, but the gnats drove the kids crazy. Between the heat, the gnats, and Micah and River both get “attacked” by a Prickly Pear cactus, we decided to stick to driving the scenic loop. The kids did the Junior Ranger program and learned a TON of stuff about cacti and the wildlife in the desert. They were even teaching us stuff as we hiked. I’d comment on a funny looking cactus and Jake would pipe up, “Oh, that’s called a Teddy Bear Cholla.” What? Kids absorb information faster than I can consume coffee. They are incredible. After they got their badges and participated in a passionate conversation with the park ranger about cacti and caterpillars, we headed back to town. Erich and the kids treated me to a Mom’s Day meal at a super cool restaurant called the Culinary Dropout. If you are ever in Tucson, definitely check it out. We headed back to camp where we went for a sunset walk and called it a night.
The next day we visited the East side of the Saguaro NP. This park, while maybe not as saturated with Saguaros, definitely had some older growth, which meant bigger and taller cacti. Did you know a Saguaro doesn’t start to bloom until it is at least 30 years old? They don’t grow their first arm until they are 50-75 years. A mature Saguaro can absorb and hold up to 200 gallons of water after a good rain and their trunks visibly extend to hold all that water. They also have these cool wood ribs inside that remain standing after the cactus dies and rots away. So cool. We did a couple short hikes again, this time the bugs weren’t as bad, but it was even hotter than the day before. On our second hike, Jake was scrambling up a steep hillside for a picture under a cool tree when Erich spotted some owls in the tree. He excitedly told Jake to stop moving so he wouldn’t scare the owls away, but Jake missed the part about the owls and assumed the worst… rattlesnake, scorpion, coyote, bobcat?! He scurried down the hill before we could assure him it was just owls. Thankfully, the owls didn’t seem to mind the intrusion and stayed put. I got out my zoom lens and had some fun. Turns out they were Great Horned Owls, an adult and a young one. You can tell in the pictures below the one on the left is a bit fluffier. Did you know the Great Horned Owl is actually the only owl that makes the “hoo” sound? Pretty cool to see them up close. But it was hot and only getting hotter. Every time I turned around, my shade hunting kids were standing in the shadow of a cactus. We made our way through a grove of old growth saguaro and back to the truck. On our way out, we stopped at the visitor center where our kids conversed with, I don’t know how many rangers, and even got a personal storytelling time from one about the park’s famous tortoise. National Park Rangers are the best.
On our last and hottest day, we visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It’s really more of a zoo and aquarium than a museum. It is an extremely well done park staffed with extraordinarily passionate people. They were excited to talk to the kids about all the things they have seen and to teach us things like the difference between poisonous and venomous reptiles and bugs, the difference between hawks and falcons, and how docile tarantulas are. Yeah, right. I’m not buying that part. The kids got to touch some very active stingrays and see a real life Gila Monster, which, for our dragon loving River, was super exciting. It was unbearably hot but no one was ready to leave. We had already spent hours longer than we had anticipated though, and had a long road home. Did I mention it was HOT. I think I wet Cooper down using the hose on the camper twice on the way home, just to keep him cool in the back of the truck. Tucson in the summer is not for me. But like our friends said, we will never forget seeing the Saguaro cacti.
Once again, our Creator surprised us with something new, unique and unforgettable. And to think we’ve only seen a fraction of His creation. We met a lady at the grocery store who had never been to either side of the saguaro park. What?! If you live near a National Park, go! Get your kids a Junior Ranger book to fill out, explore the park, get their badges, and instill in them a desire to go see the world! He created it for us you know. 😉
Life lessons from the desert: shade is nonexistent (except in the shape of a cactus), Prickly Pear are meaner than they look, and not showering in the desert is not an option.
Amazing post Kjersti! The owls are magnificent and the Saguaro blooms are beautiful! We love Catalina State Park and hike there often. So happy Asia, Jake, River and Micah had a great time and enjoyed the visits with the rangers and volunteers. They are awesome!
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