I join tourists and Saguaro National Park rangers one late afternoon for an easy sunset hike in the Tucson Mountain District part of the Park.
Prickly pear cacti compose the foreground; the moon is
in the sky above purple woman's head.
The volunteer ranger gives me a refresher course on many cacti and trees during the first hour or so of the hike along the bajada. The bajada is a gradual slope created over time by water depositing rock and sand on the sides of mountains. People in other places call these alluvial fans. But here, it’s a bajada.
your branches and trunk can photosynthesize?
off easily. It is hard to detach from hands, shoes, and other apparel.
Some of the tourists have been here before, and enjoy displaying their knowledge, “This is a good example of cactus boot.” A cactus boot is a place where the saguaro woodpecker carves out its house in cactus. To self-medicate, the saguaro oozes a special sap around the hole to create a “boot,” protection against the elements, and against all the other birds and insects that come dwell in the boot after the woodpecker departs.
Owl in a sagauro boot (photo from Symphonies of the Desert website).
no amount of sap could repair the damage.
We leave the bajada and start climbing switchbacks. Our volunteer ranger, and former geology professor, excitedly tells us about the differences between granite and lava. It all looks pretty much the same to me, different shades of gray and brown. My eyes glaze over. Then he mentions that the green moss we see on the side of these rocks was brown just one month ago. We’ve had quite a bit of rain lately, and the spindly ocotillos sprout bright green leaves, and this moss has been resurrected. In fact, when this moss is brown, you can splash some water on it and it turns green instantly. Thus the name: Resurrection Moss.
At a switchback overlook, he points out Twin Peaks off in the distance. But there is only one peak, the other peak was mined for limestone, thanks to the Portland Cement Company. When they started on the other peak, the company discovered that it was a harder type of rock that broke their drills. Serves them right. A fault line ran between the peaks, so the composition was completely different. The rock of the second peak was lava. Oh, we’re back to lava again. We continue hiking up the switchbacks.
We reach our sunset view destination and settle down for a blaze of orange, pink, and purple, with just the right amount of wispy clouds. We snack, we drink, and chat a bit.
We start to head down, and it seems like it’s getting really dark, really quickly. I have my headlamp at the ready, but no one else seems to need illumination. We walk down the switchbacks, but it doesn’t get that much darker. Surprisingly, twilight changes not to black, but to a bright moonlight. The moon rises high enough to cast shadows of us on the side of the trail. No one turns on a flashlight.
The moon gets brighter and brighter, and my mood is better and better. I hear coyotes, I see Orion in the sky and beautiful saguaros in the moonlight. I’ve ambled a little over three miles with no other goal except to watch the sun set. I feel at home and happy.
Saguaro National Park East (Rincon Mountain District) and West (Tucson Mountain District) host evening hikes through March; for information, visit Guided Programs.