Big Daddy Saguaro

Nothing says “desert” like the Saguaro (swor’- oh) Cactus. Although it is associated with all American deserts, it actually has a very small range. It is found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, southeastern California and western Sonora, Mexico. Even there, its range is further limited by altitude and water. The Saguaro can only survive in a very specific set of environmental conditions.

Saguaro cactus

This is one of the biggest Saguaros I’ve ever come across. We stumbled on to while hiking and geocaching in the back country of Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, AZ (near Tucson). Besides a couple dozen challenging geocaches, this mountainous 5,500 acre park has over 5,000 Saguaros but you’ll be hard pressed to find one bigger than this. It’s a good 50 feet high and is probably close to 200 years old.

Saguaros live to a ripe old age – up to 250 years. They don’t start growing arms until they are 75. Their roots are shallow – typically 4-6 inches with a 2 foot tap root – and spread out as far as the plant is tall. Saguaros store water like a camel’s hump. During the rainy season, it swells as it absorbs and stores water. A full grown Saguaro that has stored up water can weigh up to 5,000 pounds.

Early Native Americans used every part of the Saguaro. It was a source of water, which it stores internally and fruit which is said to be quite tasty. The spines were used as needles. Dead Saguaro are tough and woody. They were used for roofs, fences and furniture.

The Saguaro Cactus is not endangered but it is protected. Both Arizona and the feds have strict laws and severe penalties for unauthorized harvesting, digging or damaging these magnificent plants.

Saguaro also provide homes to a variety of birds and small mammals. We once saw a bobcat sitting on top of one watching the world go by. How he got up there is beyond me. Getting down was probably a bit dicey also. I know it would be for me and Natasha.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Tumacácori National Historic Park, Tubac, AZ

This is the chapel of the Misión San José de Tumacácori. Franciscan missionaries began construction in 1811 although no services were held here until 1822. Even though it was still a work in progress after 11 years, it was a magnificent structure. It represented the zenith of a Catholic mission community that stretched back to 1691. In that year, Father Francisco Kino arrived at a Pima Indian village on the banks of the Santa Cruz River. His ministry was to advance Spanish influence and spread Catholic teachings into New Spain, an area that encompassed the entire present-day southwestern United States on up to the San Francisco Bay. The name of the Pima village in their native language is lost to history. The Spanish phonetic version of it became Tumacácori (too-mah-ká-ko-ree).

Tumacacori Chapel

The chapel design is very interesting from a cultural standpoint. It strongly reflects a style brought to Spain by the Moors, who established an Islamic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula that lasted 700 years (roughly 750 A.D. to 1490 A.D.). The pointed window niches in the front, the distinctive arches in the bell tower and the white domed roof above the altar are right out of Islamic architecture. The faux columns on the front and cutouts in the walls for statues and icons were usd by the Romans. On the other hand, it was brightly painted and decorated both inside and out, reflecting Mexican and Native American cultures. Everything in the picture is original construction. Even some of the original paint can still be seen today.

For the first 70 years of its existence, the mission had no church. All services were conducted among the people, often by visiting priests. Father Kino ministered to his flock until his death in 1711. The first real church was built in 1757. The outline of its foundation is nearby. Tumacácori carried on through good times and bad until 1848, when it was abandoned for good – a casualty of the Mexican War and Apache raids. The magnificent chapel, which had been under constant construction since 1811, was never finished. In 1853, the entire area became part of the United States after the Gadsen Purchase transferred most of New Spain to American hands. In 1908, President Teddy Roosevelt established the thoroughly dilapidated mission as a National Monument and began preservation efforts. It became a National Historic Park in 1990, incorporating all the missions and presdios in the I-19 corridor.

Inside the chapel

The main sanctuary inside the chapel. The layers of white limestone, mud and adobe brick used in the construction are clearly visible. You can also see some of the original paint on the far back wall of the altar. There were no pews. People stood or knelt for the service, which was in Latin and sung by the priest and choir like Gregorian chants. Most of what’s in here is original construction, although the roof was rebuilt by the Park Service. Their charter is to preserve the ruins, not restore them.

On a fairly regular basis, we stumble into things and places that we’ve never heard of and come away saying “wow!” This is one of those places. We came here on a Saturday road trip looking for a geocache and ended up spending half the afternoon. The Tumacácori National Historic Park is located just off I-19 about 20 miles north of Nogales, AZ. You can also visit the nearby Tubac Presidio State Historical Park or do some hiking on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. We’ll be doing both and will let you know what we find.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Balanced Rock Geocache – Big Bend NP

Another adventure in Big Bend. In the northwest quadrant of the park, not far from the Panther Junction Visitor Center, lie the Grapevine Hills. Here you will see rock formations unlike any others in the park. This is igneous rock formed by cooling lava. The word igneous comes from the Latin word for fire – ignis. When solid material cools it shrinks, tearing itself apart. The result is a valley full of huge boulders that have been exposed to erosion and weathering for millions of years. Now it is a barren landscape with fantastic rock formations that look almost impossible to create.

The Grapevine Trail

This is the view looking back down the Grapevine Hills Trail from Balanced Rock.

The most famous of these is “Balanced Rock”. Located in a saddle about a mile and a half from the trailhead, it is exactly what it says – a huge boulder precariously perched between two others. In addition to a hike through the valley, some basic bouldering is required at the end. This area got its name from grapevines that used to grow here on the valley floor. The entire Big Bend area was once much more livable than it is now, with good grass, clean water, trees and crops. Overgrazing by sheep and cattle killed the grasslands and all the trees were cut down for firewood and construction. I guess they call that progress.

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock and Ground Zero for the cache. Now all we have to do is get a picture with one of us in the window.

This is a back country desert hike, not recommended in the summer. Take water, sun screen and a hat. We hiked out in the early morning and, once again, had the place to ourselves. In the picture, Natasha is getting us credit for the virtual cache located here.

Balanced Rock Geocache

Natasha at Ground Zero getting us credit for the cache.

Photography is a challenge at Big Bend. It’s all bright light and dark shadows. I’m not much with filters and all that but I’m pretty good with Picasa and Photoshop. Both came in handy on this trip.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha