Sunday, January 9, 2011

Saguaro National Park

After leaving Biosphere 2 we headed across Tuscon to Saguaro National Park. I had lots of questions about the Giant Saguaro and figured the National Park was a good place to start.

The Giant Saguaro were almost brought to extinction by cattle ranching and invasive plant species. In fact the park is split into two parts because they feared preserving just one forest wouldn't be enough. They are much more pervasive now, thanks to protective state laws, but the state still requires each Giant Saguaro sold to be registered with the state.

From the moment you enter the park you are treated to sweeping vistas of Saguaro forest. When we visited in early January it was cold and getting dark so we did not venture down any of paths into the forest. We did stop into the visitors center where a Ranger handed us a book with all the facts about the Giant Saguaro that we could browse at our leisure. The movie focuses more on the native cultures that arose around the Saguaro forest, so if you want to learn about these giants ask the ranger for the Saguaro Binder.

In the wild the Giant Saguaro don't grow their first arm until they are between 80-100 years old, but after that can grow a new arm every few years. The bands in their trunks are evidence of frosts - which are the Giant Saguaro's greatest enemy. These cactus live to be about 200 years old, and then begin to decay leaving only their rigid interior structure behind. The visitors center has some wonderful examples of decaying cactus.

Each side of the park has a scenic driving tour you can take. We had just enough daylight to take the scenic drive on the west side of the park. The ranger told us it was passable to all vehicles, and the dirt road proved passable but very bumpy , so take it slow. We stopped a few times to venture out into the forest on short (.5 mile) walks to see other types of cactus and some petroglyphs.

With the sun setting, we headed back across town for 6pm Mass at Saint Francis de Sales and then back into downtown for dinner with a friend at El Charro Cafe in downtown. Turns out El Charro is the nation's oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family. Gourmet magazine named it one of the 21 legendary American restaurants you must visit. We found the food and service to be excellent. It was the perfect end to our busy Arizona day.

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