The East district of Saguaro National Park has a nickname–the island in the vast desert sky–because it’s mostly high mountain country. Desert-dominated Saguaro National Park West is 30 miles away on the other side of Tucson, a city rapidly approaching 1 million metro area residents.
Both Districts have visitor centers, scenic drives, trails, and picnic areas. When I asked Ranger Jeff Wallner their main differences, he said that West came later in 1961, has a different climate, ironwood trees, and draws more visitors. Also known as palo fierro, ironwoods are only found in the Sonoran Desert and are appropriately named since they’re one of the world’s heaviest woods.
West’s Red Hills Visitor Center offers an appropriately named slide show, Voices of the Desert, and has great exhibits with a big focus on indigenous animals & plants, especially the Saguaro.
Under the best of conditions and with a sheltering host, a saguaro grows painfully slowly. At age 35 and 85% water, it might just be reaching 6 feet. But it more likely reaches that height when approaching 70. It typically grows its first arm 5 years later. Its gloriously frilly white blossoms are the Arizona State Flower.
West District’s Bajada Loop Drive, a 5-mile unpaved road OK for passenger cars, begins a mile and a half northwest of the VC and ovals scenically through the Sonoran. I highly recommend both it and hiking the under -2-mile-round-trip Valley View Overlook Trail. At its end is a mountain and valley view that’s incredibly hard to leave.
It was on Valley View that I experienced the cute but treacherous teddy bear cholla for the 1st time. Teddy’s only one of more than 600 plant species living in the Sonoran, which reportedly is the most diverse and complex of the 4 North American Deserts.
After reading a description of teddy’s tendencies, I admit to feeling a bit uneasy on Valley View. Later I read some Saguaro Sentinel advice and understood my wariness. If you encounter a mountain lion and it attacks, SS says,”try to remain standing and face the animal” because it’ll go for your head or neck. Killer bees are throughout the Park so “stay alert for sounds of bee activity.” If attacked, “run away as fast as you can.” As if I needed to be told that! But this next advice made me laugh out loud, “If you are bitten by a snake, remain calm.” Yeah, right.
I’m glad I read these after my visit to East & West. Even with the prospect of these admittedly unlikely encounters, they’re both 5 Compass experiences.