Walter and Sara Let the good times roll
We left off last time in Tucson with the sun going down and plans to go to Saguaro National Park the next day.

It was cloudy and a little breezy when we got up and had rained a bit in the night but we were hoping that things would clear off as we set out to drive to the east section of Saguaro National Park. Saguaro is an interesting park in that it has two sections one on the east side of Tucson and the other on the west side. Neither section has a campground and both have short loop roads you can drive with hikes that lead off of the roads.

By the time to get to the Rincon Mountain Visitor’s Center the wind was really blowing and we were pretty sure we weren’t going to get to go on the hike that we’d planned. But we decided to do the loop road drive while we were there. There were bicyclists coming in to ride the bike trail and all I could think was, “Are they crazy or am I missing something here?”

The Cactus Forest Drive loops through a huge Saguaro cactus forest full of not only saguaros but other wonderful cactus like this purple stag horn cholla.

Purple Staghorn Cholla

As we drove along, the rain started which made taking photos kind of challenging. You can get some idea of the mix of things and the number of Saguaros from this photo.

Cactus Loop Drive Saguaro National Park

No matter the weather, the saguaros still posed nicely for the camera. This was one of the bigger ones we saw with just a ton of branches. They don’t sprout branches until they’re 75 years old so you can assume this guy is pretty darned old. They can live to be over 150 years old.

And yes, those round holes are made by birds and are used as nesting holes.

Very old Saguaro cactus at Saguaro National Park AZ

After a saguaro dies it leaves it’s woody ribs standing for years to come. The good news is that we didn’t see a lot of these along the drive.

Skeleton of dead Saguaro Cactus

Near Mica View (where the view was socked in by the clouds) I spied this HUGE Teddy Bear cholla. We’ve seen a lot of them over the years but never one this wide and tall.

Huge Teddy Bear Cholla at Saguaro National Park East

This hanging chain cholla is pretty big too.
Hanging chain cholla at Saguaro National Park

The temperature which had been in the mid 40’s when we started out, had been dropping steadily as we drove and was 38 by the time we were about half way through the drive and it began to sleet. The road climbs some and we were already at 3,000 feet so I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised but we were.

If you take this view and multiply it over and over again you’ll get a sense of how the saguaros just stretch on and on.

Cactus Loop Drive Saguaro National Park

Here’s Javelina Rock with another saguaro skeleton.

Javelina Rock with another saguaro skeleton.

We stopped at the picnic ground near Javelina Rock for lunch. Needless to say, we ate in the truck and watched the sleet slide down the windshield. Just as we finished up, it started to snow. I got out to put the cooler in the back seat and Walter caught me with the big white globs of snow all over my purple fleece jacket.

Sara Schurr Saguaro National Park Snow

It snowed all the way down into Tucson proper. We stopped for gas and you could tell snow was something that people were really not used to.

We’d hoped to get a bicycle ride in that afternoon but things were not looking good. So we drove on back to Catalina State Park and the trailer. I took this photo at the end of the road where we’d hiked the day before. The snow lasted well into the next day up in the mountains.

Snow on Catalina Mountains AZ

We surrendered to the weather and went back to the trailer for a nap. It poured off and on all afternoon and we were happy to have Rosita to shelter in.

The next morning the sun was out again. So we unfolded the bikes and took a ride around the campgrounds and out to see what the overflow campground was like. We of course had to stop and talk to some folks who were full timing it in a Casita like ours—can you imagine living full time in a 17 foot trailer? Me either. They were young and stayed in places where it was usually sunny but still...

After our showers I sat out in the sun and watched the native round-tailed ground squirrels scamper about. Cute little guys huh?

Native round-tailed ground squirrel Catalina State Park AZ

And I shot this panorama of the view from our campsite. It’s a real pretty place and I highly recommend it.

Catalina State Park Campground Panorama

Late that afternoon the mountains lit up as the sun was going down and I made one more trip out to grab a shot. It really did look like this. Pretty amazing, huh?

Sunset-lit Catalina Mountains AZ

The next morning we packed our gear up and drove to Gilbert Ray Campground in Tucson Mountain County Park right outside of the west section of Saguaro National Park.

After lunch we drove up to the Red Hills Visitor’s Center and then drove the Hohokam Road which is the loop road in the west section of the park. With sunshine it was much easier to take photos of the Saguaro Forest.

Bajada Loop Saguaro National Park

Walter insisted I take a picture of this rock since it looked like it was about to topple over. I liked the terrain in this portion of the park better than in the east section but then the weather was much better so who knows.

Balancing rock Bajada Loop Saguaro National Park

We stopped and took the hike at Signal Hill which took us through a picnic ground full of middle school kids doing activities with the rangers and then up Signal Hill. As you climb the hill you can see petroglyphs on the rock faces.

Petroglyphs Signal Hill Saguaro National Park

When you get to the top, there are more and they are really easy to see and photograph.

Petroglyphs Signal Hill Saguaro National Park

Petroglyphs Signal Hill Saguaro National Park

Petroglyphs Signal Hill Saguaro National Park

The view from Signal Hill looks west into the suburban area that abuts the park and the valley and mountains further off.

View westward from Signal Hill Saguaro National Park

Looking east all you can see is hills and saguaros.

Eastward view Signal ill Saguaro National Park

And looking north still more saguaros and ocotillos.

Northern view Signal Hill Saguaro National Park

Along the trail we found lots of evidence of a healthy forest in the form of baby and juvenal saguaros.

This little guy was just a round ball in amongst the bushes.

Baby Saguaro

His older brothers were near by.

Juvenile Saguaro  Juvenile Saguaro

The variety of different cactus and desert plants here was wonderful.

Cactus on Signal Hill Saguaro National Park

At every turn there were more wonderful collections of cactus that looked like they’d been planted by a landscape designer.

Cactus Saguaro National Park

After finishing our hike we went back to our campsite at Gilbert Ray and I decided I wanted to go looking for a good example of a bird-house-saguaro. So I set out through the open country by our trailer. Here’s the view looking east from the trailer. You certainly can guess why the county set aside this land as a park.
The saguaros aren’t as dense here but it’s still really cool.

Eastward view Gilbert Ray Campground AZ

I trooped around and finally found this guy with a number of bird-holes in him. I’ve always been amazed at how round they are!

Saguaro with bird holes Gilbert Ray Campground AZ

Here’s the view from my hike looking northeast.

Northeast view Gilbert Ray Campground AZ

And finally here is Rosita nestled in amongst the cactus.

Rosita Casita Gilbert Ray Campground AZ

We’d planned to spend another day and night at Gilbert Ray. In fact we even paid for two nights when we arrived. But looking at the map and asking Carmine the Garmin for a route, we realized it was way to far for us to drive from Tucson to Pomona CA in one day. So we decided to go see the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in the morning and then come back, have lunch and drive a couple of hundred miles to Brenda (just east of Quartzite, AZ) to make the drive on Saturday more doable.

In Part VI we'll go to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.