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Saguaro National Park
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III 

We have all seen western movies featuring cowboys, Indians, the cavalry, miners, gunfighters and false-fronted stores and houses. These movie and television episodes are depicted as taking place in many parts of the west and, to most people, all of the west looks the same. However, if even one saguaro cactus can be seen, no matter where the location is supposed to be, you know that the filming took place in southern Arizona because that is the only place in the United States that the saguaros grow.

The saguaro cactus is the largest cactus in the United States and grows only in the Sonoran Desert, which embraces southern Arizona, a bit of southwestern New Mexico and most of northwest Old Mexico. The saguaro starts life as a tiny black seed about the size of a pinhead. 

An adult saguaro will produce tens of thousands of these seeds each year, but only a few seeds will ever grow to be adult cacti as birds eat most of them. Seeds that fall on compacted soil usually don't make it either. Seeds that fall beneath the branches of creosote bushes, palo verde or mesquite trees have the best chance of survival. These "nurse" trees provide shade, softer ground and some protection from animals that might eat or trample the young saguaros. 

Saguaros are long-lived and grow slowly. After sprouting, the seedling may grow just " in its first year. It takes about fifteen years to attain a height of one foot and it will take thirty years before it begins to produce a crown of the beautiful white flowers with yellow centers that develop into large red fruit pods. At fifty years of age, the saguaro will be about seven feet tall and when it reaches 75 years of age, it will be about 25' tall and start to produce the buds that will grow into the "arms" or branches. Full-grown saguaros may reach a height of fifty feet, weigh about eight tons and live to be 150 to 200 years old. It's a puzzle to me how the saguaros are able to keep all of that weight and height upright because the base is always tapered to about 2/3 the size of the main trunk. The base always looks like it had been chewed upon or burned.

Saguaros have a root system that spreads out radially as far as the cactus is tall. The plant is supported by a circle of interior wooden rods that, on a big saguaro, are about one inch square. On every saguaro that I have counted, and I've counted dozens, there have been just sixteen rods, yet I was told that the number varies between sixteen to twenty-four rods. The saguaro has no leaves, producing chlorophyll from its needles and its green, waxy skin. During a hard summer rainstorm, a single adult saguaro may capture up to 200 gallons of water, which it stores internally as a thick gel and will last the plant for a year.

The saguaro was so important to the Tohono O'Odham Indians, who lived in the area, that their new year started when the fruit ripened. Using long poles, made from cactus ribs, they knocked the fruit to the ground and then used it as food and made it into jams, jellies and wine.

This is probably more information than you ever wanted to know about saguaros, yet I know that, when you see them, you will be as fascinated by them as I am; they are the dominant feature of the countryside.

Saguaro National Park was established in 1933 to provide protection to its namesake cacti. There are two sections to the park that, together, encompass 91,327 acres. The two sections are about thirty miles apart, with the city of Tucson, AZ, in between. My wife and I were there in March 2003 and the daytime temperatures got up into the pleasant 70 to 80F range. If you plan to visit this park, go between the months of October and the end of April. From May through September, the temperatures daily soar to over 100 F. At all times of the year, when in the desert, it is advisable to drink a lot of liquid to prevent dehydration from not only the sun, but also from the wind. I am seldom afield without wearing a broad-brimmed hat. For those of you who don't like cowboy style hats, sunglasses and a good sunscreen are a must. Be aware that skin cancer is on the rise all over because of the thinning of the earth's ozone layer.

A further word of caution. I'm quoting the exact words from the park's brochure. "To avoid encountering poisonous rattlesnakes, scorpions or Gila monsters, carry a flashlight at night and avoid putting your hands and feet under rocks or in other hidden places."

Over the years I have worked in the desert in many different areas and I always employ extreme caution about where I step. For years I wore Gokey snake-proof boots, which gave great protection but were extremely hot to wear. Occasionally, I used different brands of snake gaiters, but they were always uncomfortable because of their stiffness. Just before this trip, I bought my wife and myself each a set of the new "turtleskin" snake-proof gaiters. They are as lightweight and as flexible as denim jeans. They must be worn with a pair of leather hiking boots, which is what I live in anyway. Did my "turtleskins" save me from being bitten by a rattlesnake? No.

Did I even see a rattlesnake in the park? No, but I know they are there and it's not the rattlesnake you see that bites you, it's the one you don't see that bites you.

I have found that, in walking about in a sandy desert area, you aren't likely to see a snake. Creosote bushes, the most common desert plants, are spaced anywhere from six feet to ten feet apart, almost mathematically, depending upon the annual rainfall. In most cases, no vegetation grows in between the creosote bushes. Walk between the creosote bushes and you will have no problems. However, anyone who walks in a dry, grassy wash or among the rocks without wearing snake protection has "rocks in their head". And, if you are a wildlife photographer, that's where you will encounter most of the wildlife. Also, if you become as absorbed in trying to photograph some of that elusive wildlife as I do, that you forget, for even a moment, to watch where you step, you could step into trouble. Snake-proof gaiters are the cheapest life insurance you can buy and you can't really put a price on the peace of mind that such gaiters provide. My "turtleskin" snake-proof gaiters are the most comfortable I've ever worn. You can get your own pair of them by calling 603-878-1565 or by going on line at

Although the western section of the park has more drivable roads, I preferred the eastern section because I found more wildlife there. There are miles of hiking trails in both sections but, because of health problems, I really don't get very far off the roads anymore.

People always say that the desert teems with wildlife at night, and perhaps it does, but you aren't allowed to be in the park after sunset. You can get into the park at 7 a. m., and I'd advise you to be there at that time because the greatest wildlife activity is from just before sunrise until about 10 a. m. and again from 3 p. m. until after dark.

Just five hundred feet beyond the eastern section's visitor center we found about a dozen mule deer. Mule deer get their name from their oversized ears, but the desert subspecies, in comparison to body size, has even larger ears than does the mountain subspecies because their ears are the major means of dissipating body heat during the scorching summers. You will need to use 600mm to 800mm lenses for almost all of the desert creatures because they all seem to be more wary than the wildlife in other parks.

You will quickly notice that almost every saguaro you see is riddled with holes drilled in it by the Gila woodpecker, which is one of the most common birds we saw. No, that may not be true; we may have seen more mourning doves, but we did see dozens of Gila woodpeckers. The Gila is smaller than the golden-fronted or gilded flickers with which they might be confused. The male Gila woodpecker sports a crimson cap, the female does not. I saw the Gila's courtship displays, as well as some of the birds flying into their den holes in the saguaros with food and then flying out with fecal sacs, proving that they were feeding young.

Another advantage to wearing my "turtleskin" gaiters was the protection they gave against accidentally brushing against the sharp thorns of the cacti or the chollas. Don't even get near a cholla; their thorns stick in like porcupine quills. How the desert birds sit on all those thorns without becoming impaled is beyond my comprehension.

The cactus wrens build their nests in the cholla and fly in among the branches and never seem to get stuck. Most of the wrens were feeding young, but I don't know just what kind of insects they were feeding on or where they were getting them. I did see lots of tiny butterflies, but I never got close enough to identify them.

I saw just one pair of red-tailed hawks each time I went into the park and I honestly don't believe there were enough small diurnal rodents to support more than one pair.

I did see and photograph a few Harris antelope squirrels, but that's about all I did get. These squirrels are smaller than most chipmunks and are usually late for an appointment in the next county. At the speed they ran, and the distance they traveled, they should soon have been in the next county.

As always, if you want to photograph small birds and mammals, go to the picnic grounds. Where people eat, their kids will be feeding the wildlife, no matter that the regulations say they can't. The wildlife will also be concentrated there because picnic grounds are usually located where there is some vegetation to provide shade. The main picnic area, just south of the eastern section's visitor center, was a treasure trove for all photographers.

Southern cardinals are a more vivid crimson than are those found farther north, and several pairs were flitting around the area. White-crowned sparrows were very common and there were also some black-throated sparrows. Both canyon and green-tailed towhees were seen. Gila woodpeckers were common, as were the doves and cactus wrens. Gambel's quail could be heard calling long before they came into view. They are such attractive little game birds with their jaunty little head plumes bent forward. They, too, are perpetual motion personified.

For years I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to get photos of a male collared lizard. Well, I'm still unsuccessful, but we did get to photograph a female through the courtesy of a friend of ours who had found the little critter basking on a rock.

I have been to Saguaro National Park several times and every time I get there, it's a brand new adventure because of all the delightful new things I see and learn about.

Saguaro National Park 

For more information about Saguaro National Park check out the National Park Service Web site and the Saguaro National Park Page that has information about the park. surrounding area, and lodging.

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