• Michael O'Keeffe

Hiking in the Desert Wonderlands of Saguaro + Chiricahua, Arizona

Back in January shortly before things got crazy, Chyna and I were able to take a trip down to sunny Tucson, Arizona for a couple days of hiking and camping. We flew out of gloomy Seattle landing a few hours later greeted by the bright warm Arizona sun. We quickly picked up the rental car, grabbed In-n-Out, and made the short drive over to Saguaro National Park's western district (the park is divided into two districts, both east and west of Tucson). Within an hour of landing we had boots on the trail.


Our first objective was catching sunset on the Hugh Norris Trail. Unfortunately, with only a few hours of daylight left we couldn't hike the entire length of the trail. Instead, we decided to hike a short section to the first pass about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. It was a good decision as the view was incredible! The expansive views were greeted with ridgelines peppered with large pink granite boulders strewn among gigantic old growth Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). This was my first time in the Sonoran Desert and I was impressed by how rich in life this desert is. It was like a fairytale desert wonderland! The rich floral characteristic of the Sonoran is likely attributed to the increased rainfall the area sees from frequent monsoon driven summer thunderstorms. I hope to write a more detailed post on this phenomenon in the future. If things couldn't get any prettier the sunset decided to go all out. High clouds moved in during sunset and made for some amazing colors. Check out the photos below to see for yourself!

Saguaro cactus bask in the sun.
Golden light in Saguaro.
Can you spot Chyna?
Hiking through a "Saguaro forest" at sunset.
Sonoran Desert flora at sunset.
High clouds rolled in to make for a colorful sunset.
These giant boulders were fun to scramble around on.
Chyna enjoying the sunset.
We had this entire spot to ourselves on a Saturday in a national park on a sunny day only 30 minutes from Tucson.
Pretending we were in Lord of the Rings here.
The colors just kept getting better.
Nice pastel colors looking north along the Hugh Norris Trail.
All time sunset!
I love the desert.
One last look before heading back to the car.


After our amazing hike in Saguaro, the following day had us heading east into the Chihuahuan Desert to hike and camp in the remote Chiricahua Mountains. The Chiricahuas are famous for having deep canyons filled with bizarre rock pillars known as hoodoos. Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah if you are familiar is famous for their sandstone hoodoos, but the hoodoos of Chiricahua are unique because they are made of rhyolite. Rhyolite is a dark igneous (volcanic) rock type which is rather unusual for hoodoo formations which tends to occur in softer rock types. This dimension just adds to the otherworldly dimension of this stunning area.

Before we left Tucson however we stopped for breakfast at the hip little Five Points Market and Restaurant. I mention this because the food was awesome, fresh ingredients, big portions, it was great! I had a blueberry pancake the size of a car tire lol. If you're in Tucson you should definitely make a stop here. Anyway, after breakfast we headed east on I-10 towards the Chiricahua Mountains. The mountains are a little ways off of the highway, but overall the drive is pretty straightforward. Our hike for the day was on the Echo Canyon Trail in Chiricahua National Monument. A pretty easy 5 mile roundtrip hike that can be extended into various loop hikes if one so desires. The monument is operated by the National Park Service and is well maintained.

The trail itself samples the best the Chiricahua Mountains have to offer! Quiet pine forests, expansive views, towering hoodoos, and a good dose of solitude. We took our time on the trail exploring all the nooks and crannies as we watched the sun set and then made our way to our campsite at the Bonita Canyon Campground near the park entrance.

Admiring a precarious hoodoo.
In a precarious slot like grotto.
The rhyolite hoodoos of the Chiricahua Mountains.
Hoodoos sit amongst the pines.
Chyna passing through a short slot along the Echo Canyon Trail.
An Apache pine next to a hoodoo.
Down amongst the hoodoos.
An expansive view looking across the entire canyon.
A colorful sunset to finish the hike.
The last light of the day over Chiricahua.
Exploring the oak-pine forest near our campsite in Bonita Canyon.
The desert grasslands at the edge of the mountains were full of agave blooms.
These agave blooms were gigantic. An awesome sight!


Our final hike of the trip brought us back to Tucson, where we ate at Five Point Market again (guys it's so good) before heading to the trailhead up Catalina State Park. Today's hike would be on the Romero Canyon Trail which interestingly begins in Catalina State Park, but quickly crosses into national forest land in that of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Romero Canyon cuts through part of the Santa Catalina Mountains which rise dramatically above Tucson's skyline. This range is quite striking with sparkling granite cut into deep canyons filled with a wide array of Sonoran Desert flora and fauna. When hiking here it feels as though every rock and every plant has been strategically placed to look perfect. It's amazing that there is a slice of pristine wilderness found so close to a big city (seriously it takes maybe 20 minutes to get here from downtown Tucson). I'll let the photos do the talking on this one though.

Looking across the Sonoran to the mighty granite peaks of the Santa Catalinas.
Prickly pear cactus at the head of Romero Canyon.
Nice views of the Santa Catalinas from the trail.
Yucca sits among pink granite boulders.
Rugged granite peaks.
Chyna hiking past yucca blooms along the trail.
The trail was bursting with life. I couldn't get over how beautiful it was!
Desert dreamland.
It doesn't get much better than this!
Chyna enjoys the sunset among the ocotillo.
Heading back to the car at last light.

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© 2021 by Michael J. O'Keeffe

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