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Saguaro National Park - Tucson, Arizona

by Stacy Egan


Though Arizona is the known as the Grand Canyon State, the saguaro cactus is an immediately-recognizable symbol for the state of Arizona.  A silhouette shape of the saguaro is featured on the standard-issue Arizona vehicle license plate.  The saguaro cactus blossom has been designated the Arizona state flower.  Arizona is the only state in the U.S. where the saguaro cactus grows natively.  But in recent decades, Arizona has been one of the fastest-growing states in terms of human population growth.  Fortunately, many years ago in 1933 land was set aside to protect stands of saguaros in the form of Saguaro National Monument, then later in 1994 this land gained national park status.  Saguaro National Park is divided into two districts skirting the booming city of Tucson.  Saguaro National Park West is in the Tucson Mountains west of Tucson, and Saguaro National Park East is in the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson.  I am much more familiar with the west district as it is a mere 10-20 minute drive from my home.


There are several hiking trails in Saguaro National Park West, most of which eventually lead to the top of Wasson Peak, the highest peak in the Tucson Mountains at 4687 ft.  Most trails, such as the Sendero Esperanza, Hugh Norris, and King Canyon trails, begin on the west side of the Tucson Mountains.  The Sweetwater trail, at the end of Camino del Cerro road, assaults Wasson Peak from the east side.  The Sweetwater trail is a fine vantage for sunrise photography.


From a photographic standpoint, this park is rich in subjects.  Of course, one of my goals has been to photograph the iconic saguaro silhouetted against a brilliantly-colored desert sunset.  Finding a location for achieving this requires some scoping out.  I look for a place that is up high enough to provide a clear vantage of the sunset, but not up so high on a hill that sloped westward that I would be unable to get the camera low enough to create a full-body saguaro silhouette against the sky.  Finding specimen saguaros can sometimes be a challenge because this park is so lush with saguaros and other plant life, it's hard to isolate one or two.  A couple places I found include the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, and some parking pull-outs on McCain Loop road (actually in Tucson Mountain Park).  Sunset and early evening are very special times to be out there.  As I stand there waiting for the color in the sky to unfold I hear the nighttime creatures of the desert start to become active.  I listen for the sounds of hooting owls and chirping crickets, and watch the sky for flying bats.


The low angle of the sun in early morning and late afternoon brings out a warm glow to desert rock and plants.  At this time I love to photograph backlit needles of cholla and other cactus.  The rocky Tucson Mountains take on a warmer orange tone.  The sun can then shine more directly on the body of the saguaro cactus itself, bringing the ribs into better relief.  Birds are very active these times of day.  One early morning I encountered a family of Harris Hawks atop some saguaros, one apparently missing a leg.


If the winter rains are plentiful and timed right, spring can mean a profusion of wildflowers.  The first to bloom, in late February, are the bright yellow flowers of brittlebrush.  One day early March I was delighted to find a patch of Mexican poppies and other delicate wildflowers on a trail up to Wasson Peak.  In mid-March you might find the bright fuchsia blossom of a hedgehog cactus.  April is the month of blossoms for all varieties of prickly pear and cholla cactus. Then finally in early May the saguaros begin to blossom.  Joining them at this time are the palo verde trees with their abundance of small yellow flowers.


One oft-photographed site in Saguaro National Park West is the Signal Hill Petroglyphs.  A short hike from the Signal Hill picnic area takes you atop a hill where piles of rocks have been inscribed by Hohokum people 800 years ago.  Late afternoon sun provides a nice light for photographing the petroglyphs and the saguaro-dotted hillsides behind them.


Sometimes it's fun to look at a saguaro and see an almost human quality to their varied shapes.  Two saguaros close together with arms interlocked might be viewed as two lovers embracing.  On another an arm twists downwards, and in spring appears to be offering a bouquet of flowers to a passerby.  Walking up one wash in the park I happened upon a saguaro that appeared to be a man with a long nose, headpiece, and epithets on his shoulders.


My favorite time of year is summer, when the monsoon thunderstorms come.  Clouds begin to build mid-morning and by the afternoon the storms are in full swing.  Rainbows, lightning, billowing thunderclouds, wonderful sunset colors through a rain-filled sky...the desert is full of drama this time of year.  Storms are never the same, each have a character of their own.  I've yet to really tap into the photographic potential of this time of year in Saguaro National Park, but I look forward to future summer seasons of trying!


All images and text copyright Stacy Egan