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For many, the mention of the American West prompts a mental image of the stately, tree-sized saguaro, which means “giant cactus” in Spanish. There is a mind-boggling array of these giants in Saguaro National Park, located in southern Arizona near Tucson. Saguaro National Park is actually two parks for the price of one. The Tucson Mountain District (West) and the Rincon Mountain District (East) are separated by about 30 miles. Each has its own visitor center and gift shop (I know this because I have a thriving collection of national park coffee mugs.).
If time doesn’t allow excursions to both sides of the park, don’t worry–both sides are spectacular. While the western section has a denser cactus population and is known for memorable sunsets, the eastern section is significantly larger, with more miles of hiking trails. It is noted for its older, larger saguaros. On both sides of the park, visitors can experience dramatic views of mountains and saguaros from their vehicles, on bicycles, or on foot.
Although a few strays can be found elsewhere, saguaros grow almost exclusively in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico, but they grow there abundantly. It is a surprisingly slow-growing species: the saguaro’s iconic arms don’t usually appear until a cactus is about 75 years old. Given ideal conditions, a saguaro might live 150-200 years and can grow to a height of over 40 feet. (Think three- or four-story building.) Many saguaros have holes where woodpeckers have hollowed out nesting spaces; when they abandon their homesteads, other birds (including owls) become tenants. In the spring, the saguaro blossoms sensationally, and its flower, which is white with a yellow center, is the state flower of Arizona. In the summer, saguaros produce red fruit that is a source of food for insects, birds, bats, reptiles, and small mammals. Saguaro fruit was also a traditional food for Native Americans, who harvested it with poles made from the spines of dead saguaros.
I-40 bisects Petrified Forest National Park a little more than 100 miles east of Flagstaff in northern Arizona, and the NPS’s website suggests stopping at the park to take a break from traveling; however, to do justice to the many wonders found within Petrified Forest, visitors could easily spend a full day. Much of the park can be seen from vehicles, although there are short walks to viewing areas and a few hikes of one mile or less that offer closer observation.
The visitor center and gift shop are located north of I-40, while most of the attractions are on the south side. As visitors travel southward, they are treated to many interesting spectacles. Being a writer, I was captivated by the sound of Newspaper Rock, which turned out to be a boulder covered with ancient petroglyphs. (Because of the danger of defacement, the rock isn’t accessible by foot, so bring binoculars or use the built-in binos available at the overlook to get an up-close look at the prehistoric artwork.) At other stops along the way, visitors can see the ruins of ancient pueblos, including one made of petrified wood. The Petrified Forest is located within Arizona’s famed Painted Desert, and parts of the park have otherworldly views of mountains striped with gray, lavender, blue, and maroon.
Much of the petrified wood in the park is located toward the southern end, and its sheer abundance is only equaled by the dazzling array of colors, including green, gold, and rust (and even Aggie maroon and Longhorn orange). Some of the pieces have embedded crystals. At one stop, a short walk takes visitors to a 110-foot, naturally-formed bridge made of a petrified tree. (The NPS added supports in the early 1900s to keep it intact for visitors.) At one of the southernmost points of the park, a one-third mile loop takes visitors through a forest of giant petrified logs in splendid color.
It is illegal to remove artifacts from national parks, but never fear–petrified wood souvenirs are available in the park’s gift shop, and there are nearby stores that sell chunks of petrified wood, as well as art, jewelry, and even furniture made from petrified wood.
In the mid-1800s, the area now known as the Grand Canyon was a blank void on maps of America and was often called the “Great Unknown.” It was known, however, that the Colorado River ran through the area, and in 1857, Army First Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives embarked on a reconnaissance mission—the first since Spanish explorers abandoned the area in 1540. Ives began his journey on a steamboat; when it crashed, he continued in a skiff and then on foot. He admired the breathtaking vastness of the canyon, calling it “astounding” and “profound.”
Ives could not, however, properly envision the future of the Grand Canyon. He wrote: “The region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”
In nearly-comical contrast to Ives’s prediction, the canyon has been visited by countless Americans, as well as people from across the globe. In 2019 alone, about six million people visited the Grand Canyon, making it the second-most visited of the nation’s 63 national parks.
Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 1904 square miles—more than the state of Rhode Island—and 277 miles of the Colorado River. On average, it is one mile from the rim of the canyon to the river below, and the average distance from rim to rim is 10 miles. Its vast beauty, which showcases the phenomenal power of nature, is awe-inspiring. Many people hike along the rim; others brave seemingly-endless switchbacks to hike into the canyon itself, and some intrepid souls obtain permits and hike from “rim to rim.” Most people, however, utilize the efficient shuttle bus system that links scenic overlooks and points of interest along the canyon rim.
The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular and incredible national parks, but it is also the deadliest. When I visited the Grand Canyon in 2019, I was dismayed when I saw people posing for daring photographs—including leaps and handstands on precipitous ledges—with little regard for safety. Several people die each year from falling into the canyon, especially while taking photographs. Please stay away from unprotected ledges and resist the temptation to take risky selfies. As the saying goes, “Safety is no accident.”
Those who plan to visit several NPS sites might want to consider an America the Beautiful pass. For $80 ($20 for people age 62 and up), pass holders gain admittance to national parks and other NPS sites for one year. Lifetime passes are also available. One pass admits all the people in a vehicle to parks that charge by the vehicle, and admits four adults to parks that charge per person. Since Veterans Day 2020, admission to national parks is free for active-duty military, veterans, and Gold Star Families. For more information, visit www.nps.gov.