Saguaro Cactus Loop

Today we threw our bikes in the car and headed east of town to Saguaro National Park East, where there’s a paved loop road popular with bicyclists.

I’m still working out the parameters of my fancy pedal-assist folding e-bike. Like, it will make it to campus and back twice with a little bit left from a full charge, so we wanted a bike ride under about twelve miles, but I don’t know yet how much up and down hills affects the battery life, since my ride to school is a smidge uphill in the morning and a smidge downhill in the afternoon but basically mostly flat. But we also wanted somewhere scenic, suitable to our day off.

First stop, I wandered through the little garden path by the Visitor Center to learn a little more about the local flora.

After a rather precipitous early downhill, a lot of the ride was fairly level with long vistas across the valley towards the mountains in the distance.

After the monster monsoon we got this season, there were also plenty of flowers offering variety amidst the greens and browns of the desert.

Saguaro National Park was formed to preserve the country’s largest saguaro cactus forest. It’s still weird for me to think of cacti or ocotillo as constituting a forest, but apparently when the park was founded, the saguaro were thick as thieves across the valley. Unfortunately, they’re understandably quite water sensitive, and a drought that began shortly after the founding of the park decimated the population of saguaro. There are still some pretty monster old men out there at a distance from the road, though!

You have to keep in mind, when observing saguaro, that they may grow straight up for nearly a century before the first arm appears, somewhere around the middle of the average saguaro lifespan. Not unlike how the Arabs call olive trees their children, because they may take more than a decade to produce fruit but will feed a family for centuries, the Tohono O’odham people of the northern Sonoran Desert consider saguaro to be respected once-human ancestors and members of the tribe. When the cacti produce fruit in early summer, the tribe is allowed into this and other parks to knock down and collect the fruit, though tourists are forbidden from doing so.

It can take a seedling saguaro a decade to grow its first few inches, so part of the die-off of cacti in the early part of the park’s history came when free-range cattle trampled the wee cacti. It was only after a ban on grazing in the park that saguaro began to come back in real numbers. Because they are so vulnerable for so long, saguaro are often found within a small protected diameter at the foot of a so-called “nurse tree,” a mesquite, palo verde or ironwood that protects them from the elements … and hooves!

Eventually, the saguaro’s deep taproot and broad network of shallow rain-catching roots will steal enough water from the nurse tree that it dies away, but you still see saguaro growing through the branches of some older trees.

On the far side of the Saguaro Loop, there is a large, long uphill that made me very glad to have the pedal-assist, and allowed some nice views down into the washes that run between the feet of the hills.

In the home stretch of the loop, I was struck by just how much variety there is in this desert. The monsoon covered everything with a blanket of tall grass, now yellowing in the sun, but rising above the dun straw grasses were saguaro, of course, and mesquite and palo verde trees, creosote bushes and silvery leaves of sage, slender tall stalks of ocotillo, broad paddles of pincushion and prickly pear cacti, the fat stems of several kinds of cholla cacti, barrel cactus with its crowns of yellow fruit, and other flowers and plants I couldn’t identify.

It was a landscape alive with a variety of life, and a lovely ride on a beautiful day.

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