The spiky, spiky cacti that give Saguaro National Park its name are not yet endangered.
But America’s largest cactus, which thrives here in the Santa Cruz Valley around Tucson, Arizona, is threatened on many fronts: by invasive species, the state building boom, and fires. of forests caused by climate change. Thousands of saguaro (pronounced suh-WAA-row) were lost in the record-breaking 2020 fire season, which was caused by drought and fueled by invasive and highly flammable South African buffalo grass.
Still, the desert plants are hardy, and the people of Arizona are in love with the thorny cacti that produce their state flower. They volunteer en masse to harvest buxel from Saguaro National Park and other nearby sites.
Symbols of the southwest, the saguaro can reach heights of 50 feet and often grow out “arms” that appear to be outstretched in hugs. Oak, pine, mesquite, and two dozen other species of cacti also thrive alongside them in the national park in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, about 60 miles north of the Mexican border.
The park is bristling with nearly two million of its namesake cacti in a landscape of volcanic rock against the backdrop of the chocolate-colored Tucson and Rincon Mountains. The park also contains hundreds of prehistoric petroglyphs created by the indigenous peoples who inhabited the area between 550 and 1,550 years ago.
Cactus and cool views
Saguaro National Park is divided by Tucson, one of the oldest and longest occupied cities in the United States. Some of the park’s sites span more than 8,000 years of occupation. In 2100 BC. These former farmers built the first canal irrigation system in the contiguous United States. Later descendants are also called Hohokam, from huhugam, the modern word of Tohono O’odham (“people of the desert”) for “ancestors”.
About twenty miles away, the cooler Rincon Mountain District (RMD) is known for its plateau of “heavenly islands” with more ruin sites, now mostly inhabited by rarely seen coatis, black bears and cougars. Sky Islands are isolated pockets of habitat that are home to plant and animal species normally seen at higher latitudes. These mountain top environments are critical as temperatures are expected to rise. Despite urban encroachments, Saguaro remains an untouched desert of prolonged drought and wind, booming with severe thunderstorms.
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It is more comfortable to visit Saguaro from October to April, as summer temperatures in the park regularly exceed 38 ° C (100 ° F). Winter temperatures often reach 70 ° F (21 ° C) and sometimes drop slightly below freezing at night.
Hikers can explore 165 miles of trails, including the one-mile Freeman Homestead Trail through a saguaro grove and the 6.4-mile Garwood Dam and Wildhouse Tank Trail with challenging switchbacks and views of Santa Catalina Mountain . Cycling and horseback riding are also permitted on a few trails.
Backcountry camping is permitted at a few sites around the park by reservation only. The National Park Service recommends carrying enough water and beware of the weather, which can change very quickly.
Indigenous agriculture and art
During much wetter times 10,000 years ago in southern Arizona, the first people of the Sonoran Desert were hunter-gatherers. As large mammals began to decline, these hunters turned to irrigated agriculture. Fossilized corn, dated to 2100 BC. AD, was found under the TMD limit in Las Capas.
Some time before 1200 BC. The canals of Tucson Las Capas watered an orderly system of 250-square-foot fields where the ancient inhabitants harvested 100 acres of corn and amaranth and ate the rabbits they found plundering their crops. In the mountains of the park, they hunted deer and bighorn sheep. The village supported up to 150 people, but a flood in 800 BC silted up their canal system and pit houses.
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As the climate grew hotter and drier, Sonoran Desert irrigation techniques for beans, squash, cotton, and tobacco spread throughout Arizona. In AD 300 in the Tucson area, locals began painting a distinctive red on sand-colored pots. While the ancient villages of the Sonoran Desert developed from 600 to 900 AD.
Residents of the Sonoran Desert have also drawn or pecked artwork on the darker patina of rocks throughout the park. Abstract spirals, wavy lines, astrological objects, animals, humans and other indecipherable designs may have indicated limits or calendar dates related to the solstice. For the best view, head to the Signal Hill picnic area in the TMD District, where maze-shaped swirls and other patterns can be seen via a short nature trail.
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In the RMD section of the park, archaeologists excavated pit houses as well as buried human remains, pots and tools. Eventually, pit-frame houses with posts evolved into above-ground adobe structures with roofs and solid rectangular walls. These harbingers of modern Santa Fe-style homes have been grouped together in complexes surrounding public plazas.
In the early 1400s, the ancient peoples of the Sonoran Desert all but disappeared along with the ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as Anasazi) in other parks in the southwest. Whether because of disease, drought or the salinization of their crops, agricultural culture has collapsed. The pottery shards and stone tools of the people of the Sonoran Desert are still found among the park’s more than 500 archaeological sites, washed up in the rocky and volcanic earth of Saguaro, under a mesquite or alongside the art of the rock.
A version of this article originally appeared in the National geographic atlas of national parks, which takes readers on an epic journey through the extraordinary and unique features that distinguish these wilderness areas.
Hiking with us: On the way to the great outdoors? We can help. National Geographic’s illustrated trail maps highlight the best places for hiking, camping, boating, boating and wildlife viewing in North America’s scenic and rugged borders and fringes urban. Created in partnership with local land management agencies, these carefully researched maps provide unparalleled detail and useful information to guide experienced outdoor enthusiasts and casual visitors alike. Click here for a map of Saguaro National Park.