While many of us in Southern Nevada want to travel this time of year, many of the go-to places are too cold or covered too deeply with snow. But you won’t have that problem if you head down into the Sonoran Desert and Tucson, Arizona. Almost as far south as you can go in Arizona, winter weather is luxuriously pleasant.
Two highlights are Saguaro National Park and the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Just as the sprawling Joshua tree is a signature plant in our Mojave Desert, the towering saguaro cactus (carnegiea gigantean) is the signature plant of the Sonoran Desert. In fact, when many people from foreign nations dream of visiting the American West depicted in American films and cartoons, they envision the iconic saguaro. That’s to be expected, for saguaros are the largest cactus in the United States, with mature plants reaching 40 feet or more. Look at some of the smaller ones, perhaps 2 feet, and ponder that they might be 30 years old. The first arms on a saguaro might not appear until the plant is 50 to 100 years old!
The best place to see saguaros, agreeably growing in high numbers, is Saguaro National Park. There are more than 1.5 million there. This park is split into two districts; the Tucson Mountain District lies west of Tucson and the Rincon District to the east. Both are worth seeing. I prefer the Rincon District and its trails, but it takes about 20 minutes longer to drive to it from the interstate.
There are 165 miles of trails in the two districts, from easy strolls to multiday adventures in which you can immerse yourself in the Sonoran Desert environment. You are welcome to walk into either district of the park 24 hours a day, but vehicles are allowed in the Tucson Mountain District only from sunrise to sunset, and in the Rincon Mountain District only from 7 a.m. to sunset. Visit nps.gov/sagu or call 520-733-5153 for more information.
If you are very fortunate while in the Sonoran Desert, you could see a cristate, or crested, saguaro cactus. Experts don’t agree on what causes this very rare form. Is this fan-shaped saguaro a genetic mutation, or the result of freezing or perhaps a lightning strike? If you see one, consider yourself very lucky, for only 25 have been found among more than 1 million in the park.
The next logical place to visit is the 98-acre Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It lies about 14 miles west of the city, yet only 2 miles from Saguaro National Park West Visitors Center. This is primarily an outdoor museum, where 85 percent of the exhibits lie along walking trails. Two miles of paths, both gravel and paved, pass by more than 55,000 plants of 1,200 native species. The trails will take you to native habitats such as the mountain woodland area and the desert grasslands.
You also can consider this place a zoo, for it is home to more than 200 native bats, other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and birds. These include a mountain lion, a black bear, Mexican gray wolves and Merriam turkeys. Be sure to keep an eye out for the javelina (collared peccary) on the half-mile Desert Loop Trail. I have found them hanging out on the west side of the loop, under and near the bridge.
One of my favorite exhibits was the hummingbird aviary. There are many species of the bird and some landed on my head, probably because I was wearing a red cap that must have looked, to a hummingbird, like a big, nectar-filled flower. The museum is open daily year-round, with seasonal hours of 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. through February. Visit desertmuseum.org or call 520-883-2702. Plan to allow at least two or three hours for a visit here, and a little more if you wear a red hat.
From Las Vegas, take U.S. Highway 93 south about 96 miles to Kingman, Arizona. Merge onto Interstate 40 East/U.S. 93 South and drive about 22 miles. Merge onto U.S. 93 toward Phoenix. Drive about 105 miles and take the exit for U.S. 60 East. Drive 38 miles and merge onto Arizona 101 South/Loop 101 South/Agua Fria Freeway South. Travel about 9 miles, then merge onto I-10 East. Drive about 124 miles to Tucson.