We just got back from our winter trip. During the trip we basically drove from one side of Texas to the other [it takes like two days just to drive out of Texas in any direction!], to Tucson, Arizona, where we spent two days and explored Saguaro National Park, all the way through Arizona to Utah, where we attempted to visit all the Utah National Parks, only to spend another two days driving back into Texas [the most inconvenient state ever for road trips] and back home.
Now, when I initially planned this trip, which was over a year ago because Utah National Parks are super popular, even during winter, I wasn’t expecting a government shutdown, at all. In fact, just a few weeks before the trip, Justin and I had talked about changing around the original route, which went through Arizona, to another route that went back to Carlsbad Caverns since we had missed that during Thanksgiving break, and Justin really wanted to get his cave exploration on, but then the shutdown occurred, and Carlsbad was totally out since you go down into a cavern, and for safety purposes, you need staff to take you into the aforementioned cavern, which I get, but with the shutdown we wound up going back to Arizona.
The thing is… when you make hotel [or in our case, bed and breakfast] reservations over a year ago, you can’t just cancel your plans like that without some sort of financial penalty, and you just would’ve wound up losing the money you originally invested in lodging anyways because the cancellations would’ve been very short notice… so government shutdown or bust, we were going to Utah regardless.
We left the first Saturday of break, and we were pretty exhausted. We had just gone to Trans-Siberian Orchestra the night before, and hadn’t gotten home til around midnight, and with our first stop being Fort Stockton, which is a good 8-9 hours away, we had to wake up, and leave pretty early in the morning since light is a valuable resource when driving long distances on road trips… and no amount of coffee was enough to wake me up that morning. But we finally left our house around 9 am or so, and headed towards Fort Stockton.
The drive there wasn’t very interesting except for the various billboards warning against drunk driving that we saw as we headed towards our first destination.
That one was right outside San Antonio hence the sign for the Alamo.
Our hotel that night was a basic holiday inn express. Justin and I tend to stay mostly in basic hotels like Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, & Best Westerns, mostly because they have a free continental breakfast, and even though that breakfast usually consists of frozen eggs, frozen bagels, and things like that, it’s still one less meal that we have to provide ourselves with either by paying or cooking.
The next morning we left Texas via El Paso, which was actually a pretty interesting looking city, it was the first time I had ever seen El Paso.
[the last exit in Texas]
We came into New Mexico, and then from New Mexico, we entered Arizona.
Arizona also had some amazing words of wisdom for all travelers regarding the upcoming holidays:
We wound up at a Best Western in Tucson, Arizona because again… free breakfast, and the first morning in Arizona, we headed to our first National Park destination of the trip:
We drove to the Visitor Center and were immediately greeted with these lovely signs:
That being said, the government shutdown didn’t interfere with our time at Saguaro that much. The visitor center was closed, so we were unable to get our passports stamped [we both left our passports at home, which we realized driving past the Bucc-ees near Katy, and were tempted to turn around, but we didn’t, instead we just bought new ones at Zion…] but since we didn’t have our passports, at the time, in the long run that wasn’t a big deal. We couldn’t get the cancellation stickers either, but you can order them on the internet, so we’ll probably just do that and pencil in the dates we were there. The bathrooms at the visitor center were locked, but most of the big stops on the scenic route offered pit toilets, which granted are pretty disgusting, but a toilet is a toilet, and most of them didn’t have any toilet paper, but we keep toilet paper in our car for such situations, so it wasn’t a big deal. Those were the only issues we ran into at Saguaro.
Saguaro is one of the newer national parks, it officially became a national park in 1994 [compare that to Yellowstone, which became a national park in 1872!] via congress. It was originally a national monument as declared by President Hoover in 1933, and then in 1961 JFK added the Tuscon Mountain District to the monument, which had only consisted of the Rincon Mountains prior to 1961, and then congress decided what the hell and combined the Tucson mountains with the Rincon mountains and that’s when it became Saguaro National Park in the early 90s.
Saguaro is actually two national parks, there’s Saguaro West and Saguaro East, we went to Saguaro East. The two sections of the park are basically divided by the city of Tucson, which sits in the middle of Saguaro East and Saguaro West. The park preserves the landscape of the Sonoran Desert and protects the gigantic Saguaro Cactus. This isn’t really a park you can camp in. There are mostly hiking trails, a scenic road, bicycling and horseback riding [and we did see a horse when we were there]. The park is in the desert, and it can get hot! It was probably in the 70s, when we were there, and it was December, and in the spring and summer months, temperatures rise to 100 degrees and over, during the day, and as the sun sets, temperatures can get really low, when we got to the park, it was probably in the 40s in the morning, but at night, when there’s no sun, temperatures can easily get below freezing. You shouldn’t fuck around in a desert climate.
Moving on, when we got there, we walked along this little paved trail by the visitor’s center. It was nature trail, that had all sorts of plants you find at the national park labeled, and it wound up at a scenic viewpoint where you could overlook the Rincon Mountains.
The plants and landscape were actually very similar to Big Bend National Park, which is also part desert. I recognized a lot of the other cacti that we saw such as the prickly pear and barrel cacti.
After we explored the nature path, we stated on the scenic drive. Saguaro East’s scenic drive is called The Cactus Forest Loop Drive, and it’s about 8 miles long with a good number of trailheads, scenic vistas, and pull outs to explore. A lot of bikers also like to bike the road, so SHARE THE ROAD, we saw a lot of bikers when we were there.
Of course the main theme of the Cactus Forest Loop Drive is the cacti and desert plants:
Saguaro Cacti are really well known. If you’ve seen any western film [which I really haven’t unless you count the third Back to the Future film, and I’m sure there were Saguaros in that], you probably recognize them. They have a relatively long lifespan, and their lifespan exceeds 150 years, which means they exist far longer than an average human being does. They grow their first side arm from around 75-100 years of age, and the arms are developed to increase the plant’s reproductive capacity because more arms lead to more flowers and fruit, which leads to more seeds spreading. Saguaro blossoms are also the state wildflower of Arizona. And a Saguaro without arms is called a spear. Saguaros grow to be over 40 feet tall and a full-grown saguaro weighs between 3200 and 4800 lbs.
Lots of birds including woodpeckers live inside of holes in the Saguaro, so all the holes you see in my pictures are actually bird nests. The woodpeckers create new nest holes every season and don’t reuse their old holes, so other birds make nests in the holes that the woodpeckers leave behind.
Harming a Saguaro in any manner, is illegal by state law in Arizona. It is considered a class four felony with a maximum sentence of 3 years and 9 months if you harm a Saguaro.
We drove to Mica View, which is one of the bigger picnic areas within the park. There were some pit toilets there [a toilet is a toilet during a government shutdown] and a really easy paved road that led through a grove of Saguaro Cacti, which were perfect to selfie by:
And the paved trail led to a grove of different hiking trails that basically all looped together.
We hiked from the Broadway trail and back to Mica View.
The hike was a very easy hike. There was barely any elevation gain, and you got to pass a lot of Saguaro cacti. If was on this trail, where we saw a horseback rider. Even though it was an easy trail, we hiked maybe 2.5 miles, and it was mostly flat, it’s still the desert. The desert gets hot, especially when the sun is out, so make sure you have a lot of water. I personally love my camelbak [or any other version of a camelbak, they all do the same thing] because it’s like a tiny backpack with water, but it also has extra pockets for camera batteries, and snack, but doesn’t weigh nearly as much as a regular backpack. Mine holds about 100 oz of water. But it was a nice and easy hike and we got to see all sorts of weirdly shaped Saguaro Cacti as you can see from the pictures.
After our hike, we finished the scenic road, there was an overlook, and we also passed Javelina Rock, though we didn’t see any javelina sunning themselves.
We finished out afternoon at Saguaro by hiking the Freeman Homestead Trail.
The Freeman Homestead trail is about one mile long. There’s an elevation gain of 108 feet, which isn’t too bad [that doesn’t mean I didn’t whine about it, but really it wasn’t bad in comparison to some other trails we’ve hiked or hiked on this trip]. The trail is really great for families with little kids. There are all sorts of informative plaques that give information about the things on the trail and had some great activities for little children or big children like Justin and me.
The trail takes you the remains of an old home that used to be owned by a man named Stafford Freeman and his family. It was an adobe home with an ocotillo fence. The home isn’t around anymore, but you can see the home’s foundation if you look really closely. Justin enjoyed finding the different corners of the foundation.
The trail then passed through a wash and loops back the the start of the trailhead. There are lots of cacti and things to see along the trail, and the wash feels interesting under your feet, it sort of felt spongy to me.
We finished our hiking around 2 or 3. If you decide to hike in Saguaro National Park, regardless of the time of year, I advise you to start early because the sun gets really hot throughout the day, and it’s more pleasant to hike in a desert earlier as opposed to later.
We left the park, and got some lunch at Eeegees at Brian’s recommendation [Brian used to go to college in Tucson], where we got ices and sandwiches. The tuna sandwich I got was okay? I think subway does a much better job when it comes to how they make their tuna fish. But the icee was pretty good. I got a pina colada flavored one that had pieces of coconut in it, and it was the most frozen things I ever had. It literally stayed frozen almost overnight without me refrigerating it or anything, this granted, made it a challenge to drink it, but the sips I did get were really good.
We spent the night marathoning holiday baking shows on the food network, and then went to bed early knowing we had to drive into Utah the next day.
Overall, I really liked Saguaro National Park, and the government shutdown didn’t really affect my experience here. I’ll admit that compared to other national parks, Saguaro isn’t the most interesting since it’s basically just cacti, and no variation of anything else, but it’s totally worth a visit. The saguaro are impressive, and they were all so unique. The hiking was pretty easy too [though there are some harder trails, such as ones that go up Rincon Mountain], which is always nice, since it’s not really a visit to a national park, in my opinion, if you don’t really do much there.
Utah, on the other hand, was a completely different ballpark.