I practicaly sprinted across the flat desert landscape in Saguaro National Park. I was driven by the strength from the large saguaro cactuses. The looming Rincon Mountains appeared to be an obstacle I would not need to tackle. And for that, due to a lingering head cold, I was thankful. But after all my years of hiking, I should have learned by now that looks can be deceiving.
I caught my first glimpse of the cactus outside of Phoenix. But the forests in the two sections of the national park were far more inspiring. I stopped briefly in the western portion of the park to hike a nature trail. It was late in the day and I did not have much time to spend exploring the area. That is what the next day would be for; instead of taking a longer hike, I enjoyed the scenic drive through the mountains.
The gravel road lead up and between the Tucson Mountains. Never before had I imagined a forest of cactuses. The large beings – for that is what they reminded me of, living people – towered over me, sometimes reached three times my height. They were the quiet, beautiful guardians of the desert.
I began the next day in the eastern Rincon Mountain District. After spending the night thumbing through guidebooks and pouring over maps, I had narrowed my hiking options down to a couple prefrerred trails. And after a brief stop in the visitor center, it was decided. Before heading out on the trail, though, I opted for the scenic drive through the eastern park.
It was a paved one-way path which completed a short circle in the hills on the edge of the mountains. The Cactus Forest Loop Drive presented many photographic opportunities, but I opted to keep my camera tucked away. I wanted to simply enjoy the views.
Toward the end of the loope I pulled off to stretch my legs for a mile on the Freeman Homestead Trail. The Freeman family, back during the homesteading days, settled the harsh land. Why anyone would do so, thinking they could make enough improvements to lay claim to the land, is beyond me. It is beautiful, yes, but difficult in ways I don’t think can be fully appreciated today. But for a few hours, I learned to better appreciate difficulty by hiking the Douglas Spring Trail to the Bridal Wreath Falls.
I continued on the trail, happy to be on flat land. Just as I assumed that is how the trail would remain, it began to climb steeply into the mountains. I huffed and puffed, struggling with my cold and severely out of hiking shape. I had not been on a trail in months and was in no fit shape to be on this difficult one – 5.2 miles roundtrip with over a one thousand foot elevation gain.
It was winter, but the sun was bright and the day warm. I felt comfortable, hot even, in a t-shirt and shorts. How people deal with the heat, particularly in the summer months, will always remain an Arizonan mystery to me. Air conditioning, even in the winter months, would be a necessity for me and something I would look forward to on my return hike if I lived in the area.
The saguaro, with its arms stretched out reaching for the sky, pushed me forward. When I had to stop to rest, tired from the sun and the elevation, I gained my strength from their presence and will to survive. It is not easy at all to live in the desert, but somehow through fortune and mystery they have lived and grown into a forest, albeit thin and spread out and not like a forest filled with pines and junipers would be back in Colorado.
As I climbed into the higher elevations the saguaro gave way to more familiar trees. I read even that in the 67,000 acre section of the park there are bears. I did not understand how they could survive in the intense heat, but as I climbed into the cooler reaches of the mountains I knew that it would be just as comfortable there for them as many places back home. This reasoning really opened my eyes to the natural variety Saguaro National Park has to offer.
I reached the trickle that constitutes the Bridal Wreath Falls in the winter none too soon. I was tired, sweaty, and ready for a long break. Had it not come sooner, I likely would have turned around as had two fit college kids did a mile before I reached the end.
Sitting in the shade of the rocks with the cool water spilling down into a small pond, I enjoyed a light snack. It was late in the day and I had missed lunch, opting instead to take the scenic drive and start my hike late in the morning. I did not mind, though, since I had brought plenty with me to eat so I could take my time and enjoy my day in Saguaro National Park.
I did as I had planned, admiring and hiking amongst the guardians of legend from the Old West. It was the perfect way for me to spend my one day in Tucson. And in the end, while I have been bombarded with questions asking if I saw this or did that, I smile contendently. I did none of those things. Instead I connected with nature and its people, the saguaro cactuses, on a hike in the park.