In February, we moved more quickly across the southern U.S. than we like in order to see Death Valley before it became hot. We just had one full day in Tucson, but we enjoyed what we saw. But what we saw was not what I expected.
I thought of it as a place for retirees to visit in the winter and imagined a smaller more mountainous place. I think I had it confused with Sedona.
In reality, it is a huge relatively flat area in the Sonoran Desert about 2600 feet above sea level surrounded by five small mountain ranges. Many smaller towns have been absorbed into the large Tucson metropolitan area. The University of Arizona, the Army and the Air Force are major employers, and there is also some industry, a far cry from my imagined retiree community.
Having limited time, we visited Saguaro National Park. Later in our trip we often saw the saguaro (pronounced sah wah roe) cactus, but we appreciated what we were seeing more after learning about them in the park. For those with the time and energy, there also are many interesting hiking trails.
There are actually two areas in the park, the Rincon Mountain District in the east which was established first as a National Monument and the West District which was added when the cacti in the Rincon District were declining. Rincon’s have since improved. We visited the West District taking the scenic Gates Pass Road south from I-10 to get there.
The cactus, which can grow to fifty feet tall, starts out under another plant, a “nursery plant,” which protects it from drying out and from predators. It can take anywhere from 35 to 65 years for the plant just to get to six foot tall. By then, the nursery plant has died.
The cactus tissue is 85% water, and its needles provide shade as well as a defense. A large saguaro can weigh eight tons.
Seeing so many large plants with their arms reaching to the sky (or in a few cases towards the ground), we were most interested to learn that they don’t develop arms until late in life. Depending on the region and the rainfall, most don’t have arms until they are between 55 and 85 years old.
Leaving the park, we took a long drive to the north side of the city to drive a bit of the Sky Island Scenic Byway towards Mt. Lemmon.
Mt. Lemmon, 9159 feet high, has a ski resort in the winter and is a place to escape the heat in the summer. We were meeting friends for an early dinner and did not have time to reach the top, but the views along the portion we did drive were spectacular.
Death Valley was our initial destination this trip. As always, destination driving doesn’t cut it. One only sees the surface passing by — next time, we’ll take more time — or so I say every time.
Click on photos to enlarge.
P.S. We paid $113.9/gal. for gas in Tucson, the lowest price in a 9-week trip.