Geeks and Freaks in Saguaro National Park
Our unofficial summer hiatus is over, and we’re getting back on the blog train from our new home in Tucson. (Well, actually, I’m writing in this post while in Provo, Utah, where we’ve been all week. M’s on a business trip here, and I’m taking the opportunity to explore and write…two of my favorite activities! More about Provo later.) We’d been splitting time between Arizona and New Hampshire for more than two months by the time we finally made our move official the day after Thanksgiving. Our trusty companion, Sal, arrived via car carrier the next day, and we promptly swept him off on a series of local adventures.
First up was Saguaro National Park. (This should not surprise those of you who followed along with last year’s national park road trip. We still have 30+ to visit!) Saguaro N.P. is divided into two sections, West (Tucson Mountain District) and East (Rincon Mountain District), reflecting their position relative to downtown Tucson and each other. Since we’ll be living on the east side of town, we headed to that one first. There’s a small gift shop and several informational displays at the visitor center, beyond which is the admission booth. All users of park, even those entering on foot, must pay a nominal entrance fee. Given the number of parks we attempt to see each year, we purchase an $80 interagency annual pass that is good at all national parks, forests and federal recreation areas, including Saguaro and nearby Sabino Canyon, which we visited later the same afternoon.
Saguaro East features an 8-mile paved loop road (mostly one-way) that circles the core of the park territory. The road is narrow, hilly and intended for multiple uses, including vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians. Sharing the road on rolling terrain makes for slow going, but it’s the perfect pace for drinking in the sights and sounds of the desert landscape. Giant saguaro cacti, many more than 100 years old, dot the landscape. Several parking lots and posted signs signaled trailheads along the way, and our original plan was to pick a random spot and hike into the scrub for a while.
We started off easily on a 1/4-mile paved (accessible) nature trail loop. We quickly learned we weren’t as prepared for the desert experience as we thought we were, that I was not quite as brave as I believed myself to be. The trees rustled the wrong way, the sand shifted strangely, and the insects were alien…and enormous. I was anxious and shifty and surprised by my own response. I can hike hours into the woods of New Hampshire with full confidence and just a dash of alert of the self-preservation variety. But on a relatively safe paved path in a national park, my heart was pounding and my anxiety was through the roof. My senses were heightened and overloaded with new input. My eyes darted from side to side, scanning for any flutter of movement I needed to try to unscramble in my brain.
The most insane creature we encountered that morning appeared to be a giant beetle with long black legs and even longer bright red wings blanketing its back like a superhero cape. The thing scurried madly over the packed ground, and it moved even faster through the air, darting around and diving like a fighter pilot. Now, I’m sure it had no interest in me, but in the moment, I felt like a giant target for the giant freak beetle. (I may or may not have started running back to the car after seeing my third one of these bad boys.)
Back in the safety of the car, while our heart rates returned to normal, M set about the task of googling the freak, which we quickly determined is a variety of spider wasp called a Tarantula Hawk. I’ll leave the gory details for you to investigate on your own if you’re interested (and have a strong stomach), but I’ll just say that the thing is intense. It has the most painful sting of any insect in the United States. (Fortunately, it is also fairly docile unless provoked…see also: why I ran away from it.) I totally get that an insect that preys on tarantulas has to be pretty feisty and a bit aggressive. It just doesn’t have to be my hiking companion.
We continued the rest of the loop drive back to the entrance, choosing to save that day’s trail explorations for our next stop at Sabino Canyon, which we hoped would prove a slightly less intimidating venue for our first desert hike. And it was, except for the moment we encountered our first rattlesnake. But that’s a story for another day… -J.