Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park

Experience Saguaro National Park

April 5, 2010, 6:30 am

Iconic 50-feet-tall cacti dot the landscape of Saguaro National Park (pronounced Sa-Wah-ro). The varied landscape is threatened by a tenacious, fire-resistant grass from Ethiopia.

Scientists say the world's most diverse desert ecosystem may be at risk. Now is the time to savour – and even help protect – the unparalleled views at Saguaro National Park

Stretching toward a subdued autumn sun, an army of saguaro cacti wave at me with their massive prickly arms. Their eerily human-shaped shadows blot patches of the rocky trail as hues of orange, crimson, purple and blue paint a psychedelic sunset across the western half of Saguaro National Park, the most diverse desert ecosystem in the world.

It's an ecosystem at risk: Ecologists fear an invasive, fire-resistant Ethiopian grass introduced to the area in the 1930s as cattle fodder could transform the desert into a barren grassland.

Now, though, the landscape is astonishingly green. Where I naively imagined swaths of Saharan-like sand dunes, tufts of palo verde trees share the parched soil with mesquite trees, the ubiquitous prickly pear cacti (whose fruits make a mean margarita), and short, fuzzy-looking teddy-bear cholla and jumping cholla cacti.

“You don't want to hug one of those,” jokes Lynne Rigoletti, an encyclopedic docent at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, an outdoor zoo and botanical garden. “Their spines will stick to your skin even if you barely brush past them. And they're barbed, so they're extremely hard to remove.”

I trek through the Desert Museum in search of hummingbirds, reptilian Gila monsters, pumas, roadrunners and any of the other 300 animal species surviving in this almost alien landscape.

More than 1,200 different kinds of plants sprout on the hillside, each with exotic monikers that make me want to name them out loud, slowly, like an angry rattlesnake. Su-ccu-lentssssssss, I say to myself, admiring an aloe vera plant.

It’s a veritable cornucopia that quickly has me regretting my short stay. There are more than 264 kilometres of trails winding through Saguaro National Park’s eastern and western halves, crossing various ecosystems ranging from desert scrubland to grasslands to pine and oak woodland forests. “The scenery is quite different from anywhere else in the U.S.,” says former Tucson local Jim Roth, who has dedicated a whole website to the park and its trails (www.saguaronationalpark.com). “And there are these very rugged mountains that make it a really spectacular place.”

He should know. At 46 years old, he has already hiked 28 of the country’s 58 National Parks. For hardy hikers who want a challenge, Roth recommends the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail in Saguaro Park East, which reaches heights of 8,000 feet and connects to various backcountry campgrounds. “It’s basically climbing up a ridge and the views are just spectacular,” he says, suggesting a three-hour hike to the 4,000-metre level for a day trip. “You can see three mountain ranges: the Tucson Mountains to the west, Mount Lemmon to the north and the Santa Ritas, which are way down south.”

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