• 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.


SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK

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

CHIRICAHUA NATIONAL MONUMENT

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.


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

PUSCH RIDGE WILDERNESS

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.


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


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