Many who have not visited Arizona think that its saguaros grow in a Sahara-like setting...but the mountainous desert around Tucson hides many lush spots, like this riparian canyon on the NE edge of the city. Late fall paints the cottonwoods along the creek below cactus-studded slopes in Sabino Canyon. Hikers hike, runners run, and deer roam...
winter storm lifting over the Santa Catalinas
Most winter visitors to Tucson come here specifically to escape the cold; sunshine and temperatures in the 60’s and 70’s lure the ‘snowbirds.’ But winter pays the occasional visit to the cactus-studded landscape. Although snow rarely falls all the way down to the desert floor, the mountains regularly turn white. On this particular January morning, I thought that the storm might clear just in time for sunrise. I ran out the door with the camera, skipping breakfast. When the clouds lifted, there was the combination of cactus, snowcapped peaks, and rainbow: perfect.
New Year's Day hike: pulvis et umbra sumus...
Sunny and 75 degrees on January 1st: a perfect day for a desert hike on Tucson’s northeast edge, up to Blackett’s Ridge. In the sky between Sabino and Bear canyons, the city feels a world away. No big cacti either; at this elevation, you’re above the saguaro-line. Words from the ancient Roman poet Horace come to mind: “pulvis et umbra sumus => we are but dust and shadow,” echoing Job who earlier said: “man fleeth as a shadow...” ...reminders to make good use of this new year.
Stopped in our tracks
When hiking or running the trails around and above Sabino Canyon, one thing that always makes me catch my breath is coming upon deer in the desert. When they’re simply grazing, I stop to admire; almost invariably, eyes will lock for a few slow seconds before the deer return to munching among the cacti...But when they suddenly leap across my path, I immediately wonder, ‘what are they running away from? A cougar?’ The Santa Catalinas are mountain lion country...that thought gets some adrenaline going...
Desert canyon oasis
Canyons in the desert southwest might not always have flowing water, but in late fall, Sabino Canyon, on the edge of Tucson, is often full of pools. Higher elevation rains and snowmelt trickle down, and city-dwellers have a riparian oasis where they can reflect in peace among the saguaro and cottonwoods.
The Canyon After Rush Hour
On Tucson’s northeastern edge, reflective pools in Sabino Canyon offer a refuge from the urban and suburban sprawl. I often come in the early morning, or after work in the cooler months. A historic road was built in the 1930s as a way to provide work and public improvements during the Great Depression; the road is now closed to traffic. This old path is an oasis for hikers, runners, and wildlife. For small kids, and those who aren’t up to hiking, there’s a park tram during limited hours. Many people are surprised by the lushness of the desert canyons in southern Arizona. Here cottonwood and sycamore trees grow alongside the saguaro cacti. For directions on how to get here vist SabinoCanyon.org.
Hiking in Arizona during the summer is a grueling, and, quite honestly, horrible ordeal when temperatures reach well over 100 degrees. But in the winter or spring, it’s ideal! Sabino Canyon is popular for a reason, with saguaros standing guard along the many trails in this park. It’s also one of the few places with water flowing which makes it all the more unique for us desert dwellers. Sabino Canyon lies in northern Tucson off Sabino Canyon Road.
Saguaros in Bloom: Early Summer in the Sonoran Desert
May and June mean increasing heat in southern Arizona, but the still-cool mornings are a great time to get out and see the saguaros in bloom. The giant cacti put on a spectacular show, and the arms offer bouquets of waxy blooms that bees, bats and doves (and photographers) love to feast on. The best places to see these around Tucson are in the Santa Catalina foothills, Sabino Canyon, Saguaro National Park, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the western edge of the city. [Both divisions of Saguaro National Park (East and West) as well as Sabino Canyon have visitors’ centers--their gift shops are a good place to stock up on edible cactus products--the prickly-pear syrup is expensive, but makes great margaritas and is superb on pancakes...]
Late summer in the desert: rains and blooms
Summer: ‘avoid the desert,’ think most... But if you’re willing to bear late summer’s heat and higher humidity (yes, even the desert can be humid at times), you’ll be treated to spectacles grand and small. Thunderstorms rolling across mountain ranges can seem like cosmic buckets pouring over the vastness...Zoom in, and wildflowers will catch your eye: morning-glory and sacred datura (a.k.a. jimson weed) thrive in riparian canyons. Avoid the heat of mid-day; mornings and evenings around Tucson you’ll be joined by hikers and joggers in the lush Sonoran desert. One of the best places to be is on the city’s NE edge, in and around Sabino Canyon.