Wildflower Wanderings and Prickly Peregrinations

The best places in the desert to see cacti and desert wildflowers:

As deserts go, Arizona's Sonoran Desert (and yes, there is supposed to be an "n" at the end of Sonoran), is one of the greenest on earth. That doesn't mean, however, that this desert doesn't have its fair share of cacti. If, as you plan your Arizona vacation, you've been conjuring up images of lonesome cowboys riding past giant, multi-armed cactuses (don't worry, "cactuses" and cacti" are both correct), you've likely been envisioning the Sonoran Desert's saguaro cactus, which is the largest cactus in North America and grows nowhere else on earth.

Saguaros (pronounced suh-whah-roes) can live for up to 200 years and mature saguaro can be 50 feet tall, sport as many as 40 arms, and weigh as much as seven tons when full of water. With roots that stretch out for up to 50 feet around, saguaros are very efficient at absorbing water and can survive for two years on the water from one good rainstorm. The best place to see these giants of the desert is in Saguaro National Park just outside Tucson, and it is the park's west unit that has the densest stands of cactus. In places the saguaros grow in such abundance that the desert resembles some strange science fiction forest. 

A visit to the west unit of the park also puts you close to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is more of a zoo and botanical garden than it is a museum. This is one of the most fascinating attractions in the entire state and should not be missed by anyone interested in learning about the flora and fauna of this desert region.

Although cacti are the quintessential symbol of the desert, no desert is complete without its oases. On the northeast edge of Tucson, you'll find a prime example of a desert oasis. Sabino Canyon, which lies at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains, hides within its rocky reaches a year-round stream that is a magnet for desert wildlife, including numerous bird species. The canyon is also a popular place for Tucsonans to cool off on hot summer days. A tram operates within Sabino Canyon Park, and the park's trails and paved road are very popular with hikers and joggers.

Roughly 150 miles west of Tucson lies Organ Pipe National Monument, a preserve for large stands of organ pipe cactus. These cacti are close relatives of saguaros, but, instead of having a single trunk, organ pipe cacti have many trunks that vaguely resemble, you guessed it, the pipes of an organ. These cacti are more sensitive to frost than saguaros, and consequently reach the northernmost limit of their range here along the Mexican border.

Despite their ominous appearances, cacti are flowering plants, and in springtime the prickly plants color the desert with their waxy blooms. While the saguaros wear crowns of white blossoms, other cactus species bloom in much brighter shades that are calculated to attract pollinators such as birds, bats, and insects.

Cacti are not the only plants to paint the desert with color in the springtime. Depending on the rainfall, many other wildflowers blossom throughout the region. One of the finest wildflower viewing areas is Picacho Peak State Park, which is located just off I-10 between Tucson and Casa Grande. Throughout the desert, keep an eye out for ocotillo plants, which look like dead sticks for much of the year but which in spring are tipped with orange blossoms. Also common are the yellow daisy-like flowers of the brittlebush plant.

Continuing north to Phoenix, you'll find the state's best one-stop introduction to desert plants. The Desert Botanical Garden has plantings of desert plants from around the world, with an emphasis on the plants of the Southwest. 


At the Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum, located less than 80 miles east of Phoenix near the town of Superior, you'll find another superb display of desert plants from around the world. Set in a narrow canyon, the arboretum benefits greatly from its dramatic setting. Keep an eye out for the bizarre boojum trees, which are native to Baja California.

As attractive and educational as the region's botanical gardens are, sometimes only the real thing will do. When it's time to get out and explore the Sonoran Desert on your own, there are several good alternatives right in Phoenix. Hikers in good shape flock to two Phoenix mountains in particular. Camelback Mountain and Squaw Peak both have steep trails to their summits and these trails are very popular with the Phoenix physically fit crowd. However, don't let the speed walkers, joggers, and fitness fanatics prevent you from climbing these peaks at a pace that allows you to actually enjoy the desert surroundings. For smaller crowds, try the trails in the huge South Mountain Park on the south side of Phoenix.

Oh, yes, and as for those parched prospectors sucking on barrel cactuses, I'm sad to say it just ain't so. Though there are plenty of barrel cacti in the Sonoran Desert (they're the ones with red or yellow fishhook-shaped spines), the moisture in their spongy interiors is far too bitter to be drinkable.

The Route:
Spend 1 or 2 nights in Tucson. To reach Saguaro National Park's West Unit and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, take Speedway Boulevard west from downtown Tucson. To reach Sabino Canyon, take Grant Road to Tanque Verde Road to Sabino Canyon Road. To reach Organ Pipe National Monument from Tucson, drive Hwy. 86 west from Tucson for 120 miles to the community of Why and then drive south on Hwy. 85 (spend the night in Ajo). The next day, drive north to Phoenix via Hwy. 85 to I-10 east (spend 1 or 2 nights). To reach the Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum, drive east from Phoenix on Hwy. 60 almost to the town of Superior.