Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Joshua Tree -- Two Deserts, One Park

We spent three days in Joshua Tree National Park last weekend, not far over the Colorado River into California.  It's a huge park, a million acres, big enough to house two distinct deserts.  Entering the park from the south, it was 27 miles to our campsite in the White Tank campground.  During the drive we climbed 800 feet, from an elevation of 3,000 to one of 3,800.  We also left behind some of the most familiar plants of our Sonoran desert -- the palo verde trees and the ocotillo.

We slept in the transition zone between the Sonoran and Mojave deserts.  A five minute walk to the northwest put us firmly in the Mojave, amidst the Joshua trees.  A stroll to the south, beyond the enormous boulders ringing our campsite, provided a vista over the wide valley of the northern reach of the Sonoran desert.  It was like hangin' ten in a different desert every time you turned around.

The icon of the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro.

The icon of the Mojave is the Joshua tree, a fascinating plant to be sure.  I was as much taken by the sheer numbers, the forest of them, as by the plant itself.  But for me the iconic part of the park was the massive outcroppings of boulders, stunning in their size, changing constantly in the light.

By night, and they were long and magical winter nights, we slept outside under the stars, marking the progression of time by the changing positions of the constellations overhead. Time awake was spent counting shooting stars and listening to coyotes call across the distances or the hoot of a lone great horned owl.

By day we hiked.  Forty-nine Palms Oasis was our most adventurous hike, three miles round trip up and over a rocky ridge and down into a deep canyon where a steady water supply creates an oasis that is the antithesis of the surrounding landscape, and a magnet for water seeking wildlife.  Views from the trail were spectacular, the rock pile mountains dotted with red barrel cactus.  Rounding the ridge line before descending into the canyon the upper section of the oasis was visible over a smaller ridgeline, the dark green of the palm fronds like a shadow at the base of a mountain.

Arriving at the oasis was as much an auditory adventure as a visual one -- Gambels Quail clucked unseen in the grasses and the thatch on the California fan palms rattled with the constant motion from its sheltering occupants who were calling to each other, perhaps warning others of the two-footed interlopers.  Cottonwoods and tangles of mesquites shared the space, their snarls of desert mistletoe guarded by phainopepla protecting the ripe red berries whose one note calls reminded me of a child learning to whistle.  Areas of standing water were crowded with grass and willows and reeds.  We heard tumbles of rocks on the hillside above the oasis, behind the palms, but never saw the big horned sheep that were the likely culprits.

The next day we made several shorter hikes in some of the more visited spots in the park.  We took the gently rolling trail to the aptly named Skull Rock, educated along the way by the many interpretive signs.

Barker Dam was next and despite their seriously deficient rainfall last year, getting less than half of their normal four inches, there was still a bit of water at the base of the dam, built 60 years ago during the short lived effort at cattle ranching in the area.

We headed over to Hidden Valley, one of the rock climbing hot spots, but before hiking we had lunch in a picnic area nestled next to some of the park's iconic boulders where we were entertained by some park residents, clearly habituated to visitors, and this Western Scrub Jay was quite interested in the proceedings.  Walking Hidden Valley after lunch we couldn't decided which was more amazing -- the landscape or the people climbing up it.

One of my favorite walks was at sunset down the wash south of our campsite.  After a day of walking around families with over-excited children, the wash provided the quiet solitude we prefer.  The low sun lit up the boulders and cast long shadows across the wash.  There were no interpretive signs, but we learned more about that part of the transitional desert on that walk than on any other.  Some "knowing" requires no words.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

That Hiking Time of the Year

Tucson and the surrounding Sonoran Desert is reliably a hiker's paradise from November through March.  The sun softens a bit, even becoming a welcome friend at times.  The temperatures are near perfect most days, usually in the 60's or 70's.  The air is clear, wonderful for a little cleansing of the lungs on the ascents.

We struck out for our first real hike of 2010 to Pima Canyon, an opening on the south side of the Catalina Mountains below Pusch Ridge.  The trailhead has a good sized paved parking lot; a lot which is almost always full until early afternoon.  We lucked out with some early hikers' departure and snagged a spot.

The trail crosses private property for the first half mile or so, and causes you to wonder how Pima County Parks & Rec accomplished that.  Above you are a few mulit-million dollar estates snugged up against the base of the Catalinas, the high end of the exclusive foothills so to speak.  Their infinity pools' overflows and engineered waterfalls provide an unexpected sound track to this portion of the hike.  Soon you leave the burbs behind, rounding the mouth of the canyon and heading what would be upstream if there were water from a natural source to take over the audio portion of the trek.  Instead you hear birdsong -- the squeaky toy impersonation of the Gila woodpeckers, swooping across the broad expanse of the canyon, or the grinding old-car-that-won't-quite-start call of the cactus wren.  You also hear the chatter of hikers and cries of their excited kids from time to time as this is a heavily traveled, step-aside trail.  We spent a lot of time moving off the trail for others, or trying to hustle when they'd move aside for us.

It's a bouldery sort of place, on the trail too.  We were shooting for the dam, an apparently elusive feature in the canyon, but whose broad horizontal slabs of rock invited picnicking and a natural turn-around about three miles from the trail head.  According to hiking guides, the trail would make a 850 foot ascent by the time we reached this spot, not bad considering it took three miles to do that.  You only really noticed much of an uphill when you hit the frequent jumbo steps the boulders in the trail required.

Up the canyon, in the bottom where we saw the occasional water standing in a tenaja (a rock basin) or small pool (likely from a seep), there were mesquite bosques and looming cottonwood trees.  Saguaro stood sentinel on the canyon walls and care was required along the trail, often edged with prickly pear and cholla cactus.

We never saw the dam, which is apparently not much to see as far as dams go, and blew by the rock slabs.  It's that kind of canyon.  Despite feeling a bit whipped, you want to see what's around the next corner.  We stopped in the shade of some boulders and shrubs, had a snack, and headed back down.  On the way we registered those rock slabs, complete with the requisite picnickers.

The thing with an out and back hike is that when you turn around, you have a completely different view.  Framed by the sides of the canyon west Tucson lay at our feet, the Santa Ritas to the south and our own Tucson Mountains -- we live in the "other" foothills -- to the west.

It was a great first hike of the year.  Now that the sun is up, our only question is, where today?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Post-holiday Post


There is much to celebrate during the holiday season in the desert.

The temperatures recede, the A/C gets turned off and stays off, and outdoor activities are not governed by avoidance of the heat and sun. Desert sounds of bird calls, coyote serenades, and the breeze whistling through the palo verdes drift in through open windows, day and night. The occasional, too occasional, blessings of winter rains carry the mysterious smell of creosote. While many desert plants shift into idle for a brief rest, chuparosas come into crazy bloom, nourishing our year-round hummingbirds and the mustard headed hyper-active verdin. Javelina come down from the hills and deer visit our yard.  The desert becomes hospitable.

Thanksgiving can be the traditional feast of an herb baked bird with the usual sides, or the turkey can be glazed with chili and served with corn pudding, roasted squash laced with cipotle, and calabacitas, with a pumpkin flan for dessert. Regardless of the menu, it is a convivial holiday that focuses on feasting, family, and friends, and gratitude for life's blessings, especially the fact that perfect temperatures make for excellent hikes that mediate the the effects of indulgent eating.

Christmas is a wonderful blend of American traditions and the prevalent Hispanic cultural influence here in Tucson. No where is more brightly decorated that the barrios, tamales become one of the main food groups, and subtlety goes out the window. Our tree is the top twelve feet of an agave flower stalk, wrapped with colored lights and hung with ornaments collected over decades, a collection we still add to  yearly. Tohono Chul, a wonderful botanic garden in the Catalina foothills, holds Holiday Nights in the park where thousands of white fairy lights illuminate the sprawling mesquites and the paths are lined with luminarias guiding you to music venues and art exhibits. This is the second year I've purchased an artist made and donated ornament, part of a fundraiser for the park. It's a tradition I hope to continue.

The best part of Christmas this year was a visit from my daughter and her husband. We'd seen them twice during the year in their Bay area home, but it was lovely to share the week bracketing Christmas with them in ours. I'd just celebrated the anniversary of my propitious arrival in Tucson eight years ago when my daughter arrived days before Christmas, just like 2001. Their visit was filled with hikes and excursions and good time spent together.

My daughter's one "must do" request was to head south to Tumacacori National Historic Park on Christmas Eve to see the 2000 plus luminarias lighting the old mission. This is a trek we make the evening of December 24th more often than not; it is quite centering in the chaos of Christmas. Visitors' voices hush at the spectacle of soft light on the old walls, allowing the wandering carolers to be heard in the candlelit mission and on surrounding pathways. The mission is located on the sweeping floor of the  Santa Cruz River valley, the Santa Rita mountains curbing the view to the east and were this night silhouetted by a near full moon not yet risen. Visitors gather in the mesquite bosque under trees laden with white lights for homemade cookies and hot chocolate before returning to their own versions of the holiday.

Christmas stockings and a pannetone bread pudding made by my daughter occupied us for a good long while Christmas morning, but the day was too gorgeous to stay inside. A hike was in order and we headed over Gates Pass to Saguaro National Park's King Canyon. This is a familiar hiking spot for us -- in fact we've led hikes up it in our capacity as volunteer rangers for the park -- but it never fails to reveal something new. Cactus, including towering saguaros, cling to the fractured rock walls of the canyon, and each turn up the twisting arroyo provides a new view. There are a few places that require a bit of clambering, but it's an easy challenge and you are well rewarded by petroglyphs over a thousand years old at the upper reaches. We continued on to an old CCC built picnic area with a million dollar view for a brief rest, and then proceeded around to the old Gould Mine, one of the many copper mine shafts (covered) that dot the Tucson Mountains. It was an easy walk along a soft shoulder with a beautiful view of south to Baboquivari and Kitt Peak on our way to the parking lot.

We split up one day, the guys heading to guy things (Titan Missile Museum, the Asarco Copper Mine tour, and Avatar in 3-D) while my daughter and I took a self-guided walking tour of Tucson. We revisited some old favorite places, like Elysian Grove in Barrio Viejo, then a B&B where we stayed on our first visit to Tucson in May of 2001.

The tour included Armory Park and passed the Temple of Music and Art where my daughter became engaged at midnight on New Years Eve in 2003 in the midst of a contra dance celebration. We followed the tour's aqua line through downtown, enjoying the history of some of the buildings and appreciating a few old signs. We wandered the renovated train station, still a functioning Amtrak stop, but also home to trendy restaurants and eateries with great seating indoors or out. We had lunch across the street at The Cup Cafe in the historic Hotel Congress, another tradition of ours. We tried to visit Picante, a favorite shop that specializes in Mexican and other mostly South American imports, but alas, they were shut (we did catch them open a couple of days later). It was a terrific mother-daughter day with lots of old favorites and a few new experiences.

We mostly ate at home -- my daughter and I share an interest in cooking and are good in the kitchen together -- but we had a memorable lunch at Taqueria Pico de Gallo in South Tucson. Their namesake specialty is a large cup of fresh fruit spears -- watermelon, mango, pineapple, coconut, and more -- drizzled with lime juice and sprinkled with salt and chili powder. It sounds odd but is amazingly delicious. Everything they make there is good, but if you go make sure to order at least one taco and choose the soft corn tortillas instead of the flour ones. They are the best I've ever eaten; plump, hand-formed, and fresh off the griddle. This is a Tucson must-do if you like Mexican food, and at the easy end of the cost spectrum with ordering and picking up at the counter and meals on styrofoam plates, but the food is exceptional. If you're looking for a high-end experience, my favorite Mexican food in the world (more central Mexican than border) is Cafe Poca Cosa. If you eat nowhere else, eat there. We missed it this visit, but will catch it the next time my kids are in town.

It was a terrific Christmas, rich with experiences and full of motion, [mostly] healthy eating, and precious time together. And the desert will keep on giving us the best weather in the nation, days in the 70s with chilly nights, for months to come.