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The Living Desert

The best way to appreciate the Sonoran Desert might be to put your feet on the ground.

Tucson's Scenic Surroundings 

by Emily Gindlesparger

There is something magical about the mountains surrounding Tucson. It's not so obvious by looking at the big picture. The view from an airplane window, for example, shows swaths of brown scrub surrounded by a ring of dark green mountain ranges: the Santa Catalina to the north, the Santa Rita in the south, the Rincon in the east, and the Tucson in the west.

But step out in this wilderness on foot, and the brown scrub comes into focus: the accordion folds of cacti swell with water and compress in the sun. Delicate bright wildflowers hide under prickly pear paddles. The sweet herbal smell of creosote floats on a breeze. And thius is just the beginning: There is more biological diversity in the Sonoran Desert than in any other desert ecosystem in the world.


 

There is something completely magical about the mountains surrounding Tucson.

That diversity comes from what biologists call our “Sky Islands.” Separated by wide swaths of desert, these mountain ecosystems have isolated biomes, created by the unique mix of plants and animals that hop from one island to another. The Santa Catalinas host species from the Canadian Rockies, such as black bear and alpine fir. But just two hours south, the Santa Ritas are surrounded by the golden waves of Chihuahuan grassland. This range contains subtropical species from the Sierra Madre Occidental, including dozens of hummingbirds and the rare sighting of the northern jaguar.

It all depends on water, and Tucson may be the only city where residents run outside in monsoon thunderstorms to revel in the rain. The most coveted hikes of this region have water features at their heart, like the polished granite grotto of Romero Pools or the surging waterfalls at Seven Falls and the Douglas Spring Trail. 

Desert Hiking

Surrounding all of this is a sea of granite and volcanic rock. Towering orange cliffs lord over Sabino Canyon; a fractured gray monolith shelters Sycamore Reservoir, and the jagged pinnacle of Finger Rock can be seen from the city. Any hike in the Sky Islands is a tour through geologic history.

Hikers take special considerations out here. Chief among them is bringing plenty of water on the trail: at least a gallon per person per day. Almost all trails in the Wild West are rocky; hiking boots or rugged footwear are recommended to protect your feet.

Wide hats and sunglasses are necessary for the all-day sun, and long lightweight layers can keep the rays off your skin and help you feel a little cooler in summer. Weather can roll in quickly and dramatically in the mountains, particularly during summer monsoons; an extra layer or waterproof jacket can give you security in a downpour. 

And local hikers bring a comb or tweezers to pick out cactus needles, which are especially handy when hiking with a dog. (Pups are welcome on some trails, like Marshall Gulch, but prohibited in Saguaro National Park and the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, which covers much of the Santa Catalinas. Check land management guidelines before venturing out with a dog.)

With the Sonoran Desert, Chihuahuan grassland, oak and juniper woodland, and subalpine forest all within reach, it’s no wonder that hundreds of miles of trail weave through the mountains around Tucson. A dozen different worlds are waiting to be explored. 

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