In this country, the best place to see saguaro is in southern Arizona. Here, vast stands of the majestic saguaro stand guard over the desert.
In The Land Of The Saguaro
If you want to be surrounded by saguaro, there’s no better place than Saguaro National Park (and Tucson Mountain Park, right next door). Mid-February, we returned to Tucson after our adventures in Bisbee and Patagonia. This time, we stayed at Gilbert Ray County Park, located in Tucson Mountain Park on the west side of Tucson.
This is a great option for exploring all there is to do on the west side of Tucson without having to drive across the city. We settled in for a weeklong stay at the park, enjoying a variety of hikes, an extraordinary day at the nearby Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum (post to come), and delightful happy hours in our expansive desert garden behind our campsite.
Saguaro Legend And Beauty
The native Tohono O’odham regard the giant cacti not just as a plant, but as another form of humanity. They refer to saguaros as “O’odham,” which means “people” in their language. Wandering through the saguaro, it’s easy to imagine that you’re walking among sentient beings. Given the slightest breeze, the thousands of spines of the saguaro sing in the silence of the desert.
Despite their massive size, saguaros are extremely slow growing. In the first decade of life, they typically grow only about two inches. Between 50-75 years of age, they grow arms (if they grow them at all). At age 125, a saguaro is considered to be an adult, and may be 50 feet tall and weigh several tons.
Here, a quick tour of our hiking highlights on the west side of Tucson:
In Tucson Mountain Park
About a half-mile walk from the campground, the beautiful Brown Mountain Loop Trail offers a five-mile hike that ascends steeply up a rocky trail to the peak of Brown Mountain, with a long hike along the undulating ridge line and views of a carpet of saguaro extending to the horizon.
In Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountain District:
• Valley View Overlook: This picturesque trail of less than a mile climbs through a landscape of cacti, leading to a lovely panoramic view of the saguaro-studded terrain below.
• Signal Hill Trail: A half-mile trail leads to a boulder covered hill with scores of 800-year old petroglyphs pecked into the rock by the Hohokam people. Communication? Decoration? Ancient graffiti? No one knows for certain, but it is nonetheless an awe-inspiring sight.
• Wasson Peak:
One of the highlights of our return to Tucson was meeting up with intrepid hikers, fellow full-timers, and bloggers John and Pam (Oh! The Places They Go!).
Eric and John started off our adventure by leading us on a bushwhack through the cacti, but we pretty quickly found our way to the real trail and completed a spectacular 10-mile loop hike to the top of Wasson Peak, where we enjoyed lunch and stunning views accompanied by fun and interesting conversation.
We even found a crested saguaro on the hike—Pam collects images of the rare crested saguaro, and is always on the lookout for these unique beauties. For unknown reasons, the mature saguaro grows into an intricate, fan-like shape. It was a fabulous all-day hike, and we had a great time getting to know Pam and John while exchanging stories of the full-time traveling lifestyle.
About The Campground
Gilbert Ray County Campground has gorgeous desert scenery and dark night skies and is far from the snarl of city traffic and busyness. It offers electric hookups; great hiking within the park; and is convenient to Saguaro National Park, which has numerous hiking options.
The downsides: First come, first served (this is a popular park, and you need to arrive early to snag a spot); no water hookups (but water faucets are conveniently located in the campground); no showers; and far from the goodies of civilization (including decent grocery stores).
The Sonoran desert seems extra specially green this winter and you captured it beautifully! We too hiked Wasson Peak with John and Pam, such fun!
Lisa, I think the desert is especially lush this winter. So glad you enjoyed the photos. I remember when you did the Wasson Peak hike with Pam and John. It’s one of the best, for sure!
Glad you enjoyed the trip, Doug. :-)
I might not leave the spiral rock for hours…absolutely wonderful! Didn’t realize saquaros grew so slowly, those forests are really old!! Love the cholla fruit and the saquaro skeleton :-) Looks like you all had a great time.
Jodee, we felt the same — it’s a sacred spot on top of the hill, among the rock art and the saguaro. I like to sit and listen, imagining the ancient ones going about their daily lives more than 800 years ago.
Love the spiral and your shirt my dear….happy spring!
Diana, I can count on you to notice the artistic details. Spring blessings to you, too, my friend. Looking forward to seeing you before too much longer!
I sure am going to miss those giant saguaro as we move north today, but it is good to know they will still be standing guard when we return:) It was so nice to meet you and Eric and spend a beautiful day hiking. Wasson Peak is a great hike with rewarding views. Glad you enjoyed your time with your friends. Super group photo:)
Pam (AKA Saguaro Queen) — I know you’re going to miss the saguaro — you definitely have the eye for the rare crested variety! We had a great time with you guys and hope to meet up again before too long.
More fun in the desert! The desert is exceptionally beautiful this year with the abundance of moisture it’s received. Sounds like some great hikes that I’ll be bookmarking for next year :-)
Ingrid, I agree — the desert is more lush than usual, and the wildflowers have been stunning. (Hmmm….I guess I haven’t posted too many wildflower photos yet — they’re in the works!) You’ll love these hikes.
The spiral petroglyph is just stunning. What a gorgeous work of art. Perfect for a Spring Equinox symbol. Lucky you to have met up with the nimble hikers and lucky them to have met up with you. All that is missing is us. LOL! Gorgeous pictures as usual. Your views are outstanding. You certainly do an elegant happy hour in the desert. When is the coffee table book coming out?
Sherry, I hope you and David can figure out a way to spend more time in the Southwest. You would absolutely love all of the rock art. As you know, it’s always fun to meet up with fellow bloggers (just like when we met up with you guys in Florida). :-)
Thanks for this post! We are full timers in our third month of living in our bus. My wife put you on our follow list four months ago, and quite by serendipty we find ourselves in Gilbert Ray County Park today! You are not by some chance still here, are you?
Darn, I wish we were still in Gilbert Ray so that we could meet up! I’m way behind in my blog posting — we were in Gilbert Ray the third week in February. Enjoy your stay — it’s one of our favorite places.
We have never stayed at Gilbert Ray but should probably consider it given the number of mentions it has been given by RVers. I have bookmarked your hikes as we have pretty much hiked everything around Catalina State Park. Your images are beautiful Laurel, particularly that first photo.
LuAnn, you and Terry would love staying at Gilbert Ray. Glad you enjoyed the photos — that spiral petroglyph is my favorite, too.