Archive | November 2010

Not a Snorin’ Desert After All

Arizona and the Sonoran Desert

Eastern California


Joshua Tree, CA – Tucson, AZ

Mile 5949 – 6493

October 15 – October 17, 2010

Immediately upon leaving Joshua Tree National Park, the desert around me took on a starker appearance.  I saw almost none of the “megaflora” characteristic of the Mojave Desert in the park – no Joshua Trees, no mesquite, none of the larger cacti.  In fact, the desert that had seemed so full of life in the park now looked like the vast wasteland I had always imagined it to be.  For the most part, this continued to be the case as I headed straight east into Arizona, soon crossing back into the Sonoran Desert.

A wink at desolation

The towns I passed through on my way, few and far between, looked equally bleak.  I think that it was the lack of water, combined with generally mild temperatures, that made the buildings and their landscaping somehow less “civilized”-looking than what I am used to.  There was, of course, dust everywhere, buildings didn’t need to have the sturdy roofs and walls that northern snow and cold require, and there wasn’t the water to spare for elaborate gardens, let alone lawns (though some homes, apparently to show off their good wells, had palm trees planted in the yard).  That said, there isn’t much of an economy in the area, aside from ranching and whatever is needed to serve the immediate needs of those ranchers, fifty miles or more from the nearest town of 1,000.  I’m not sure what keeps people out there – though, to be honest, I’m still not completely sure why people tried to settle there in the first place, unless it was the strangely beautiful, otherworldly appearance of the desert.

Saguaro National Park's star attraction

The charismatic cactus of the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro, which can grow up to 50 feet tall.  Sometimes called the giant saguaro, they are the largest cactus species in the United States.  Like the Joshua Trees, large populations of saguaros look like forests, with the other cacti, shrubs, and even small trees serving as the “underbrush.”  I, however, saw only a few saguaros scattered here and there along the hundreds of miles I traveled through eastern California and western Arizona.  This was particularly true in central Arizona, south and west of Phoenix, where ranching and (what passed for) cropland were clearly widespread.  Just outside of Tucson, though, lies Saguaro National Park, set aside to preserve some of the great “saguaro forests” and the rest of the ecological community of the Sonoran Desert.

Western AZ

Why are these giants of the desert – the saguaro and the Joshua tree – nearly invisible outside of the preserves named for them?  I’m not completely sure, but it seems pretty clear that humans are responsible, at some level.   The saguaros in Saguaro N.P. are actually at the edge of their range – in a terrain too steep and cold to support agriculture as reliably as the flats (and in Arizona, that’s really saying something).  Joshua Tree N.P. is in one little corner of the Mojave Desert, yet even in the adjacent town named for that giant agave, there were few Joshua trees around.   Both plants, but especially the saguaro, have had human uses for as long as people have inhabited the desert.  The Tohono O’odham, and the ancient Hohokam before them, ate and preserved the juicy fruits and used the woody stems for building.  It seems likely that early Europeans in the area would have done the same, as a substitute for non-existent trees.  In addition, grazing animals compact the soil and trample young seedlings.

Saguaro "savannah" in Saguaro National Park

While some use of these plants is part of the balance of life and death in the desert, they are a very delicate species and cannot withstand the heavier impacts resulting from white settlement.  According to the national park brochure, a saguaro may grow only ¼ inch tall in its first year, reaching a foot after 15 years, and up to seven feet in 50 years.  It does not begin to flower and produce fruit until around 30 years old.   When one of these cacti it cut down, then, it may take well over a hundred years to replace it, and damaging the surrounding soil and vegetation ecology, or

Prickly pear cactus in Saguaro NP

removing all of the remaining fruits and seeds, will clearly have a devastating effect on the population.

Saguaros and teddy bear cholla cover the hills in Saguaro NP

Enough depressing talk, though – there are places where the desert ecology is well-preserved and maintained, and they are awesome.  I didn’t have enough time to really explore Saguaro National Park, nor did I get to the Sonoran Desert Museum in its west unit, which I have heard from several sources is wonderful.  I did get to drive the loop road in the east unit, though, and get out for a couple short walks.  It would be great to get back and see more sometime – two thirds of the park is designated wilderness, and in the Rincon Mountains on

Saguaro, prickly pear, and barrel cacti share space with creosote bush, palo verde, and others

the eastern side, one can hike up to scrub oak and even Ponderosa pine forests.  Tucson itself, which lies between the two parks, is a beautiful desert city, with towering cacti in front yards and mountains surrounding the town.  My own (great-) aunt’s garden, in the foothills north of downtown, was as beautiful as the National Parks, if slightly less wild.


Joshua Tree National Park

October 15, 2010

Joshua Tree National Park

Cottonwood Springs Road to Twenty-nine Palms, CA

I arrived at Joshua Tree National Park late at night, turning in off the deserted (no pun intended) highway unto a narrow, but paved, road.  The turn was poorly-lit and barely signed, and I wondered for a moment if I was in the right place.  I-10 carries all of the freight and high-speed traffic through the desert Southwest, but not a lot of pleasure-seekers.  The main entrance to the park is in the north, near Twenty-nine Palms, and this southern access via Cottonwood Springs Road does not see much traffic, certainly not at 11 pm in the off season!

The campground was similarly quiet, and it gave me the opportunity to enjoy the desert stars.  I had an excellent view of the night sky, clear nearly down to the horizon – and I had some trouble finding the Big Dipper.  It was almost completely below the hills, and Polaris hovered not far above them.  The last time I’d had such a wide-open and unclouded view of the heavens had been in North Dakota – and it should be no surprise that a thousand miles or so farther south, so close to Mexico, the North Star would have “sunk” significantly lower.  I wasn’t sure yet how I felt about that situation, though.  When I had arrived in Alaska ten years ago and saw Ursa Major high in the sky all night long, with Polaris almost at the apex of the firmament, it had been exhilarating.  From my northerner’s perspective, it’s a little disconcerting to see them disappear below trees or fog.

The view from my tent…

In the morning, though, all my uncertainties about the place disappeared.  The desert was awesome!  The little noises I had heard in the night turned out not to be rodents or insects, but lizards of various kinds scurrying about in the agaves and cacti.  The bugs that had pestered me upon my arrival, flying into my tent and my face without warning, dissipated in the heat of the day.  My first little hike in the morning was around Cottonwood Springs itself, an area of greater moisture where a few trees could thrive – early miners and ranchers had planted palms, and I toured the desert, the palm grove, and some old surface mine remnants.

After that, I began my drive northward on the park road.  The southern portion of Joshua Tree N. P. is in the Colorado Desert, a sub-region of the Sonoran desert.  With the exception of that one oasis of palms and cottonwoods, it is hotter and drier than the northern portion of the park.  Early on this mid-October day, I didn’t

Ocotillo (left) and Yucca (right) against the desert sky

particularly notice a climatic difference, but the vegetation was markedly distinct.  Very little grew there, and I was soon able to identify most of the low-growing cacti and shrubs that I saw: teddy-bear and jumping cholla, yucca, ocotillo, creosote bush, mesquite, and saltbush were regularly spaced

Teddy Bear Cholla looks soft and cuddly, but it’s spines are VERY sharp and difficult to remove!

throughout the gravelly sand.

Mesquite seeds germinating in the desert sand

The southern portion of the park is ringed with mountains and eventually, if you follow the park road north, you will go slightly uphill and through a pass onto a higher plateau.  It is not a huge change in elevation, but apparently it is enough, when combined with other climatic factors, to put you in the Mojave Desert, which supports a little bit more life than the Colorado.  Along the mountain trails, there is juniper and pinyon (and ostensibly scrub oak, though not on the trail I hiked).  Of course, as soon as I got up into that northern plateau, I could see the Joshua Trees everywhere, too.  They are not really trees, but just a very large species of agave that grows like a tree – each “branch” is the plant’s reaction to damage at that location.

An enormous Joshua Tree near the roadside

Desert shrubs and flowers amid the Joshua Trees

On the trail to Ryan Mountain

View from Ryan Mountain to the north and east

Me on Ryan Mountain

The Joshua Trees were certainly impressive!  While I found them lovely, I could see why early European settlers to the area referred to them as Devil Trees before the Mormons applied the current name, recalling the upstretched arms of a praying Joshua.  The very fact that they look like misshapen trees is, in a way, misleading – not only do they not provide the same products that real trees do, but they don’t even have the same “meaning” to travelers.  Usually, trees are a good indication that water is nearby, but, while the Joshua Trees require slightly more moisture than the Sonoran yucca, that water is not easily found or utilized by humans.  Furthermore, trees have long been regarded as evidence of “civilization” by Europeans, especially in their conquest of the American West.  By that standard, this plain looks civilized, especially from a distance.  It is not.  There are many references in the park to gold miners and even ranchers and homesteaders who lived in the park in the 1800s.  I’m not sure I could have made it through the eighteen mild hours that I spent in that desert without the tap at the campground yielding water to my plastic bottle…


Dear Readers: This is one of the most often-viewed posts on this site, and readers seem to often get to it based on internet search results.  So I’m curious:  Did you find what you were looking for here?  What information would be more helpful?  What was the most useful or entertaining?  Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


Hey folks,

Some people have been wondering where I am – if I’ve perhaps been stalled somewhere in west Texas for the last few weeks!  Nope – I’m almost home.  Once I get there, I promise to fill you in (either electronically or in person) on all the cool stuff I’ve seen in the south.  “Cool” being mostly figurative, though it’s getting below freezing at night in northern Arkansas, too…

Talk to you soon,


P.S.  Check out this YouTube video on the Buffalo River trail construction project that I had a brief chance to be a part of!