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Photographing the Southwest--Tucson

Tucson is a city of a bit over half a million people lying in the Sonoran Desert 116 miles southeast of Phoenix. The Sonoran desert is a unique ecosystem and unlike most other American states. It covers 100,000 square miles of the Southwestern U.S. including parts of Arizona and California as well as adjacent parts of Mexico. It receives from 3-16 inches of rain a year and has many unique, endemic species like the Saguaro cactus, symbol of Arizona and iconic symbol in many western movies. TripAdvisor lists 250 things to do in Tucson, but we only managed to explore three. Number one on their list and ours was the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. After spending several hours there and not seeing it all, I would have to agree. It’s an outdoor museum with native plants and wildlife scattered over 98 acres. I enjoyed observing and photographing mountain lions, Mexican wolves, coyotes, porcupines and bobcats in their natural environment. I normally don’t photograph captive animals any more, but their environments made it hard to resist.

Mountain LionArizona Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson

In addition to the wildlife, I learned that there are many more types of cacti than I ever imagined. Some quite beautiful and some a little weird looking. In addition to the prickly pear cactus that most people are familiar with, there are various kinds of cholla (pronounced choya because of the Spanish LL sound). Teddy bear cholla are cute, but not very cuddly. There are also various kinds of agave, ocatilla (that LL sound again) and yucca all laid out in beautiful arrangements and settings. We were fortunate to find a camp site in nearby Gilbert Ray Campground, a Pima County Park in the mountains west of Tucson.

Nearby, we also found the west unit of Saguaro (pronounced Sawaro) National Park with the other unit in the mountains east of the city. Saguaro’s are the cacti seen in every western movie you can remember that was set in the Southwest. They are everywhere in this area and assume many different shapes. The younger ones have no arms and do not start growing any until they are at least 50-60 years old. Because there are few trees in the Sonoran desert birds perch on the cacti instead and some, like the Gila woodpecker, nest in the Saguaro. Also not far from the Gilbert Ray Campground are the Old Tucson Studios, location of many a TV western. We did not take the time to stop on this visit, but the parking lot was full every time we drove by so it seems to be a popular attraction.

Instead, we drove across town to the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains and part of the Coronado National Forest, a remarkably beautiful and popular place.

Barrel Cactus Fruit

I’ve never seen so many hikers in one place in my life. We did the hike the easy way taking the tram the 3.8 miles up and walking back down. All the while admiring the beautiful rock faces and the small water falls that accompany the road down the canyon. This is undoubtedly the easiest of the many hikes available in the recreation area let alone the Coronado National Forest. Because of our schedule, we only saw a small number of the locations on our trip list, but we vowed to come back next winter and spend much more time in this unique environment.


Desert Museum
Sabino Canyon
Saguaro National Park