David and I are currently staying in the town of Benson which is east of Tucson. On previous trips to this area, we explored the famous towns of Tombstone and Bisbee and the unique Kartchner Caverns. As is usually the case, there are other interesting places that we did not have time to explore.
Saguaro National Park is an iconic park in the southwestern U.S.A. In 1933, conservationists lobbied to set aside 62,000 acres as a National Monument. This monument became a National Park in 1994.
Interestingly Saguaro National Park is divided into two districts: one west of Tucson in the Tucson Mountains and one east of Tucson near the Rincon Mountains. We had visited Saguaro West before but had not been to Saguaro East.
Saguaro East is about 17 miles from the city and is the largest of the two parks. The Rincon Mountain District is more diverse because it is surrounded by high mountain peaks. The tallest is Mica Mountain at 8,664 ft. high.
Both district have an impressive array of saguaro cacti that on display everywhere. We learned some interesting facts about those giants while in the Visitor Center. Saguaros can live to be 150 years old. They do not start blooming until they are 30 years old and they do not grow arms until they are 60-65 years old. So when you look out over a forest of saguaros and see those giants with lots arms, they are quite old (maybe older than humans!).
That is unless the saguaros get very cold. In the 1930s, there many more saguaros in Saguaro East. In 1937, a record low cold front came through and many of the saguaros died. Biologists determined that, if the temperatures stay below freezing for more than 20 hours, the saguaros can die since most of the plant is water. Thankfully today you can see many young saguaros repopulating the park but it will take them many years.
The Cactus Forest Drive is a great way to get acquainted with the park. This 8-mile scenic loop drive through the saguaro forests has several turnouts where you can stop and enjoy the scenery. If you want a more immersive experience, there are a number of trails of varying lengths and difficulty that will allow you to explore this picturesque terrain. We hiked a couple of short trails and went to the trail head of a third.
The first hike was a short trail called Desert Ecology Trail. Along this wheelchair accessible, paved trail there were interpretative signs that provided information about the flora and fauna in the park. We enjoyed seeing some blooming plants such as cactus (Hedgehog Cactus, Ocotillo and Arizona Christmas Cactus), wildflowers (Globemallow, California Poppies, Desert Chicory and Lobed Fleabane), Brittlebush shrubs and Palo Verde trees as well as the ever present Saguaros.
Another trail, the Freeman Homestead Trail, led us through some beautiful Sonoran Desert scenery to an old homestead foundation. Many settlers arrived in this area in the early 1900s and set up ranches here. We saw the remains of one of the houses. There were interpretive signs along this trail as well.
At the Mica View trailhead and picnic area, we were thrilled to discover a crested saguaro. A few of these rare saguaros can be seen in the park. While there are over 50 million saguaros in the Sonoran Desert, there are only 2,200 crested saguaros in Arizona. According to the park service, there are 25 in Saguaro National Park. Biologists do not know why the saguaro form these unusual patterns. Some say that it is the result of a genetic mutation but others opine that lightning strikes or freeze damage are the cause. Each one is very unique and it is a treat to find one.
We spent a fun-filled afternoon in Saguaro East National Park. What made it even more fun was that our friends Jim and Jan accompanied us on this adventure.
Another day David and I ventured 18 miles farther east of Benson to a fascinating place, the Amerind Museum. Located in the Texas Canyon, near the town of Dragoon, AZ, this museum and research facility have been preserving ancient and contemporary Indian cultures for 85 years.
William Shirley Fulton founded this non-profit archaeological research institution in 1937. While Mr. Fulton was originally from Connecticut, he fell in love with archaeology and the southwestern Native Indian cultures. In 1930, he purchased the land in Texas Canyon where the Museum is located now. He had been told that there were ancient prehistoric agricultural villages in that area. He began excavating sites on his property, collecting artifacts, cataloging them, and preserving them. His findings were published by the Museum of the American Indian in New York. Seven years later, in 1937, Mr. Fulton created the Amerind Foundation and hired a professional archaeologist to help him preserve both the ancient cultures and the contemporary Indian cultures in the Sonoran Desert.
In 1948, Mr. Fulton hired Dr. Charles C. DiPeso who worked diligently for 30 years on dozens of sites in the Southwest and Northern Mexico. He, in conjunction with the Mexican Institute for Anthropology and History, excavated a large ancient site in northern Mexico called Paquimé. This site had some 2,000 rooms in addition to the ceremonial spaces. The city is thought to have had a population of between 2,000-5,000 people at it apogee in the 14th and 15th centuries. They also had running water. Fed by a spring, the inhabitants built rock-lined canals to bring water to the city and to their agricultural fields. They also had large cisterns to collect water.
In the Amerind Museum one of the exhibits is a life-sized replica of one of the rooms that they unearthed. You can walk in and around it and learn more about the Mogollon culture and sphere of influence. Paquimé was an important city that played a significant role in trade by linking the Southwest U.S.A. cultural groups to those in Mesoamerica. This is the largest archaeological site in the Chihuahuan Desert and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
There were many more exhibits throughout the museum that showcase the Indian cultures’ exquisite jewelry, basketry, weaving, and pottery. The museum has more than 35,000 artifacts in its collection and there are only about 1,000 on display. According to the Foundation, Mr. Fulton “created the finest private museum of ethnographic and archaeological materials in North America.”
Adjacent to the Museum is the Art Gallery. While small, it does showcase the artwork of contemporary Native Indian artists. We saw some of Priscilla Tacheney’s photography. She is a landscape and portrait photographer that captures the beauty of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Her work and that of others on display there were fascinating.
Unfortunately the Foundation does not allow visitors to take photographs inside the museum or inside the art gallery. As a result all of our photographs are of the exterior of the buildings. Guess you will just have to go see it for yourself.
For us, both Saguaro East National Park and the Amerind Museum proved to be very fun places to visit if you ever find yourself east of Tucson.