Saguaro National Park: the last stand of the Wild West Cactus

Anyone who has grown up with some exposure to western movies (and who hasn’t?) would remember the inevitable scene where the macho hero rides away into the gloriously technicolor desert sunset. In a large number of those sunsets, you would possibly have seen the unmistakable silhouette of a Suguaro cactus, standing tall and proud. This was going to be my first encounter with this mythical cactus, so with a lot of expectation I drove from Phoenix to Tucson on a bright and beautiful February morning.

The drive was boring, to say the least. (Note to myself: while driving in desert, avoid freeways). It is featureless, unexciting landscape. The only excitement on the way was provided by the aggressive driving of the eighteen-wheelers, who seemed intent on ruling all lanes of the freeway. I had to remind myself many times over: this is Arizona, the last bastion of the Wild West.

We reached Saguaro National Park (west) by noon. As national parks go, Saguaro is less than impressive. It’s smaller, and the landscape is not what I will call awe inspiring. But it was an interesting place nevertheless. It was nice and cool on this February afternoon, but awfully bright under a cloudless sky. We decided to drive the length and breadth of the park first, before embarking on any hiking. We took the dirt road (Bajada loop drive) that runs through the park. That really got us close to the Saguaros that grow in abundance near the center of the park.

Kinney Road through the park, with red hills in the distance

Kinney road through the park, with red hills in the distance

A dirt road through the park

A dirt road (Bajada Loop drive) through the park

We took our time to inspect some Saguaros here. Got to learn some interesting facts too.

  • Saguaro is pronounced Sah-wah-row
  • Saguaros typically live some 150-200 years.
  • They typically start their early growth in the shade of Mesquite trees, so as to be able to withstand the heat.
  • Saguaros are some 85% water.
  • A fully grown Saguaro can be as heavy as 8 tonnes.
  • Some birds make their home in the Saguaro.
  • Most Saguaro arms grow upwards, except when there is a lot of frost or snow. In cold conditions, the arms may move downwards; but when the weather gets warmer, they move upwards again. In extreme cases, you can get an ‘inverted’ Saguaro.
  • Saguaros can grow upto 50 feet tall.
  • In its lifetime, a Saguaro can produce upwards of 40 million seeds. Perhaps only one of these seeds, at best, will result in a full-grown cactus
R by an 'inverted' Saguaro

R by an 'inverted' Saguaro

Close up of a Saguaro

Close-up of a Saguaro

Somewhere in our travels through the backroads of Saguaro National Park, we came across the canonical Western movie scene; the lone Saguaro holding tall against the bright sun! Reminded me of the movie ‘High Noon’.

High noon!

High noon!

While we were driving on the Golden Gate Road (another dirt road through the park) we came across a picnic area that had a nice little shed built on top a small mound. It looked inviting. We decided to spend some time there. Turned out that it provided us with the right backdrop for our ‘Wild West Cowboy’ shots, with the mandatory silhouette et al. : )

Fake cowboy #1

Fake cowboy #1

Fake cowboy #2

Fake cowboy #2

R and I spent a considerable amount of time there, just playing cowboy, looking at the birds that came visiting, listening to their chirps, or just enjoying the cool desert air and the scenery. A memorable hour well spent.

Finally, we decided to drive to the ‘Signal Hill’, where, a small hike later, we were looking at ancient petroglyphs carved on the broken rocks strewn all around. Being on top of the hill you get to have a wide-angle view of the park, slowly fading away into the distant mountains.

Petroglyphs on top of Signal Hill

Petroglyphs on top of Signal Hill

A panoramic view of the desert

A panoramic view of the desert

We took a long drive through the park, and went into the Tucson Mountain County park, and came across the ‘Old Tucson Studios’, which played a role (sic!) in some great western movies of yore. It was kind of late in the day, and we wanted to see the sunset, so we gave the studios a pass.

When we got back to the visitor center, it was closing for the day. Nearly all the visitors (mostly elderly people, for some reason) left at the same time. We decided to take the Cactus Garden trail, and wait for the sunset. Glad we did. It was a splendid sunset, with red and orange and yellow spilled all over the sky.

A Cholla sunset

A Cholla sunset

The sun sets over the desert

The sun sets over the desert

The desert never fails to amaze me. I feel a certain closeness to the desert, to its rawness, its harshness, its gentleness, but most of all to its beauty. I wondered whether in my next birth I would like to be a Saguaro, standing tall, looking after the land, and be witness to the beauty that every sunrise and every sunset brings to this splendid Earth of ours.

So I gave vent to my feelings, and hugged a Saguaro.

My brother in next birth.

Have you hugged a Saguaro today?

Have you hugged a Saguaro today?



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Life is how you see it. A long time ago, when I used to look at life through my eyes wide open, I saw it all at the same time. The order, and the clutter. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Something changed over the last few years as I have started looking through the constraining frame of a camera viewfinder. The world is suddenly a different place. I am beginning to see things I didn’t know existed. I am able to find beauty in strange things.

There so much to see in this world.

Lets look at it together.



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