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Story by Karoline Cullen, Photography by Cullen Photos
For Travel Writers' Tales

"Do you have a comb?" Patrick asks as he shows me the cactus cluster stabbing his finger. "It's the best way to pull the spines out. Better yet, don't get too close to a jumping cholla!"

I take that under advisement as Patrick, Sandy and I head along a dusty trail in the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona. This is one of the most diverse environments on the planet, filled with prickly plants totally adapted to surviving on little water in harsh heat. Savoring this desert's diversity is best done with a walk amongst the soaring saguaros. In Tucson, our boots-on list includes a walk in a botanical garden, a desert museum and a national park, and a canyon hike.

Cacti range in size from ground level bunches of hedgehogs to mid-size fat barrel cacti and fuzzy cholla that look like teddy bears to thin, branching ocotillos and towering saguaros. Each has their own characteristic spine -- a thick, curved fish hook or a cluster of spiky ones. All deserve a wide berth although the spines do not stop birds from perching on top or nesting inside. A ten year old saguaro is about an inch tall and it takes almost eighty years until it sprouts an arm. They can live up to 250 years. Inside, there are accordion like folds which allow the cactus to swell as it stores water and a full grown saguaro can weigh up to two tons.

A saunter along the paths in the Tucson Botanical garden introduces us to many of these desert denizens. Dating to the 1920s, the gardens originally surrounded the home of Bernice and Rutger Porter. While formal gardens are educational, a wild landscape filled with saguaros awaits us just outside of town.

A loud buzz by my ear makes me jump but by the time I turn my head to see the source, it is already zooming away. Like little jet fighters, tiny birds zip between branches, hover at flowers, and flit from sight in an instant. A few sit on improbably small, wispy nests. We are in the hummingbird aviary, a favourite at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Set in a saguaro studded plain, it is an open air zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden all rolled into one. After the aviary, we see lounging bobcats in the cat canyon and pacing mountain lions in the desert grassland area. The prairie dogs are comical, popping in and out of their burrows at unpredictable moments. A docent introduces us to a desert tarantula and I am somewhat relieved when she explains that this one is too nervous for us to hold.

On the opposite end of the size scale from tiny hummingbirds are the raptors in the free flight display. A barn owl glares balefully at the crowd as it swoops languidly above our heads. The speed of a peregrine falcon's flight elicits ooohs and ahhhs. Harris's hawks hunt in packs, like wolves, and their coordinated dives are aerial acrobatics at its best.

Not far from the Desert Museum is the western half of Saguaro National Park. One of my favorite walks is to the top of Signal Hill. Winding through saguaros and past boulders that surely shelter rattle snakes, we crest the hill. The petroglyphs decorating the rocks are a reminder from the past. These were created by the hunter/gatherer Hohokam people, perhaps a thousand years ago. In the golden light of sunset, saguaros stretch as far as we can see.

When the parking attendant says "You can stay if you can find an open space," we have our first inkling of the popularity of Tucson's favorite hiking destination. Sabino Canyon is just fifteen minutes from downtown so its prime trails are readily accessible. We ride the tram to the end of the canyon, enjoying the driver's commentary as we weave past cottonwood trees and cross Sabino Creek on stone bridges. At the road's end, we spot our route snaking high along the canyon wall.

The rocky switchbacks to the Phone Line trail head are a bit of a workout. From one lofty viewpoint, the hikers on the valley floor look like miniatures. Towards the mouth of the canyon, we gaze past saguaros hugging the steep rocks to the city and the purple smudge of mountains in the distance. A few hours later, we descend to the visitor centre, luckily without any more cactus spines attached.

Just remember, when you put your boots on in Tucson, don't forget your comb.


Travel Writers' Tales is an independent newspaper syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers.


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PHOTOS by Cullen Photos

1 Cactus spines on Patrick's finger - K. Cullen photo
2 On a desert trail - K. Cullen photo
3 Author by a teddy bear cholla cactus - G. Cullen photo
4 A Harris's hawk on a saguaro - K. Cullen photo
5 Petroglyphs at Signal Hill - K. Cullen photo
6 A lofty lookout in Sabino Canyon - K. Cullen photo

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit


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