Jun 22, 23

Saguaro

On my last trip out West, I was rewarded with some fantastic sunset shots. I knew what the Arizona skies previously delivered, but those were the early Fall skies. I have been envisioning taking wonderful sunset pictures of the great saguaro Cacti and decided to start my quest for the perfect cactus shot at none other than Saguaro National Park.

 I had been planning my return to Arizona to learn about the Sonoran Desert and cacti in the wild ever since my last trip out West in 2018. Injury and Covid delayed those plans.

This past Christmas was the first time I can remember where no family obligations kept me close to home for the holidays. My mother, the family matriarch passed away last summer and so the extended family was in no mood to celebrate. My children were also both away this year, one daughter finishing up a 2-year working stay in England and the other one, an officer with the Navy somewhere in the Great Pacific Ocean.

This was a good opportunity for me to get away and explore the desert on my own, the only pressures being my start and end date and locations.

On my last trip out West, I was rewarded with some fantastic sunset shots. I knew what the Arizona skies previously delivered, but those were the early Fall skies. I have been envisioning taking wonderful sunset pictures of the great saguaro Cacti and decided to start my quest for the perfect cactus shot at none other than Saguaro National Park.

I have some landscape photography available for purchase from my last trip. You can browse The American West wall art here: American West

Doing my research, I soon found out that there were two Saguaro National Parks, one on the east side of Tucson in the Rincon Mountains and the other one on the much drier western side of the city. The Sonoran Desert is the only place where saguaros grow in the wild. The desert extends from Sonora in Mexico to the western half of southern Arizona and into southern California as well as the Baja Peninsula. Saguaros thrive at altitudes lower than 4,000 feet and need water to survive. Arizona has a winter and summer rainy season, and the Sonoran Desert is the wettest desert in the world.

Since my mobility has been hampered the last 2 years by injury (and I was still awaiting a knee replacement), my hiking plans were scrapped and were replaced with long car trips. Also, my fear of snakes (which is very real) was a big deterrent in getting out of the car to explore. This fear stems from growing up in the Middle East, where every snake was deemed poisonous.

At Saguaro National Park East, I attended a ranger talk on the saguaros. I will summarize all I have learned about these majestic plants at the end of this blog.

Most people visiting the parks do exactly what I did: they drive through, in from one side and out the other. And I soon found out that looking for the perfect cactus shot here was going to prove to be very difficult. 


There are over 2 million cacti in Saguaro National Parks, and they spread out exactly as the ranger described,approximately 40 feet apart. The cacti were everywhere and without the ability to get out and hike and maybe find a good-looking cactus with the sun shining just right, at the correct face or angle, and the shot not being overpowered by other cacti or mountain ranges was going to be near impossible here. Besides, the cloudy skies were not ideal for shooting. Such are the risks of planning a trip where you move around and try to see a lot…



The next day, I headed over to Saguaro West which is 2 million years younger than Saguaro East geologically speaking. There is a range of mountains that surrounds the west side of the city of Tucson and the area is much more arid. The other side of this range is dry desert. Once again, I encountered similar shooting conditions with too many cacti close together and mountain ranges visible from the road. I was not finding the right shooting condition for the types of pictures I had envisioned.



 

So, how hard can it be to find a good-looking cactus? As it turns out, pretty hard. Many of the saguaros are home to birds, rodents, and bats. They burrow their way in and kill sections of the plant, generally starting at the base. Carcasses of felled cacti lay all over. The cactus arms curl and grow in every direction. To find a nice looking one in the wild proved to be much harder than I thought, without the ability to hike.

If you ever go to Tucson and only have one day, I would suggest visiting the Saguaro West Park. After the drive through the park, continue down the main road for about 5 minutes and you will find the Sonoran Desert Museum, an open desert park which “fills in all the holes” of what you most likely did not see on your drives. They have wild cats roaming in fenced off areas made to look like their natural habitat. They also have a reptile house built into rock as well as a geological hall with gems and minerals. I thought this museum was excellent. I was able to rent a mobility scooter to get me all around.

 

  

The next day, I woke up early and headed southwest, close to the Mexican border. Most of the drive was on the Tohono O'odham Nation reservation, a very remote and desolate part of the state of Arizona. This day, however, was the day I struck gold with my photography.

I headed to the Organ Pipe Cactus National monument; a park situated right by the Mexico border. I almost left this section of the trip out because the main park roads suffered a lot of damage from intense rains over the summer and were still shown on the National Park website to be closed. The main road inside the park is mostly unpaved packed sand and rock. The road crosses many washes. For this trip, I rented a 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance above the ground and even managed to bottom out at one of the culverts. The skies were crystal clear all day and the weather was warm enough to allow me to take all my warm layers off.

In this area, saguaros were spaced much farther apart and the land for the most part was low rolling hills. I also got to experience and photograph the Jumping Cholla Cacti as well as the Organ Pipe Cacti.  It was on this 4-hour back country driving trail that I found my first good-looking stand-alone cactus to photograph from the road.








This area is so remote and so close to the border, the rangers cautioned us to watch for smugglers and illegal immigrants trying to escape into the U.S. Part of the unpaved road parallels the “Trump” fence. When I finally reached the fence, I could see it stretched as far as the eye could see, straight as an arrow, right up the mountain side beyond. All politics aside, this visit allowed me to understand how devastating the fence is to the ecology of the Sonoran Desert: it prevents natural wildlife migration.

Towards the end of the trail, I witnessed the rounding up of illegal immigrants

who made it over the nearby border crossing undetected only to be rounded up here inside the park. Buses were rushed in to carry them back over the border. There were many families with children of all ages in one of the most inhospitable areas on earth. 

On my drive into the park, I noticed some potential cacti in areas I could reach right off the road. I drove a small way off road and planted myself in front of a cactus which would provide a good silhouette in the rapidly fading sun.

I have been waiting for this opportunity to be in the right place at the right time to shoot. I took out my tripod, set it up with the sun setting behind the cactus and took several shots, bracketing along the way as I did not want the sun or the sky to be washed out. In true Arizona form, the clear skies with magnificent sunset colors did not disappoint. I finally got my shot. The image seen here is available in 4 different colourways.

I do want to mention that the winter sky here is very different to that seen in the summer. At sunset, the colors seemed like they were very “squished” together by a deep blue sky above. This has to do with the angle of the sun in relation to Earth and the angles of refraction.

This area is VERY remote. Aside from a gas station, there are no modern conveniences and no lodging. There are several very nice camping sites close to the entrance inside the park with concrete pads and shade above. I would return and be equipped to stay on a future trip.

Although it was a long 3-hour drive in the very dark desert to get to my next destination of Phoenix, I left the desert overjoyed that I finally got my shot. It will make a wonderful piece of wall art.

You can view and order my saguaro photography art here: Botanical

Or, if you’d like to explore all photography art from this trip, check out this page: American West

Saguaro Cacti Facts:

  • The saguaros, while depicted as very prominent symbols in Texas, do not grow in Texas because it is too dry and too flat.
  • They flower in April and show off yellow and white blooms, then the red prickly pear fruit appears. The fruit has seeds and the seeds are spread via pollinators (birds, bats and rodents)
  • 70 percent of the saguaro is Water (hydrogel). The saguaro needs water to survive.
  • They grow to be no more than 200 years in age.
  • The tallest saguaro in the parks is 78 feet high and the most arms recorded on a saguaro is 53.
  • Saguaros are protected by law. They cannot be killed or destroyed and there are severe consequences to breaking this law. The carcasses of felled can not be removed from the desert without a land owner’s permission.
  • There are over 2 million saguaros growing in the Saguaro National Parks.
  • A saguaro is typically protected by “nurse” plants such as the Palo Verde which grow near the base.
  • The spikes on the cacti provide protection from larger animals but smaller inhabitants do call saguaros home (owls, bats, woodpeckers, chipmunks). Spikes do not regrow once destroyed.
  • Saguaros die from inadequate rain and extended freezing temperatures. They do well in hot and humid environments and grow below 4,000 feet in altitude.
  • A saguaro has 2 root systems, one very shallow root system 6” below surface which is how the saguaro absorbs moisture. It extends out about the same distance as its height. The other root system extends straight down, and the length of the root system is approximately 1/3 the saguaro’s height. This is the anchoring mechanism.
  • Saguaros have a ribbed skeleton structure which is strong and flexible. When dry, the ribs are as hard as wood. These skeletons are used in cabinetry making.
  • Saguaros have properties very similar to trees. They are genderless and are considered both male and female.
  •  The native O'odham people who inhabit these parts have a wise saying, “Saguaro is a human being, put on Earth. Respect it. It looks like people in the desert. Call it our brother.”

    “Also, the cactus fruit brings sweetness into our lives, brings happiness and nourishes ourselves in both the physical and spiritual sense.”

    “The desert is you and you are the desert, ask how you want to be treated - respect it and treat with love.”


View more blogs