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The King of Cactus – Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Cactus experts tell us there are between 1,500 and 2,000 different species of cactus but in Arizona there’s just one king of cactus: the saguaro. The bloom of this tree-like cactus is the Arizona state  flower. Saguaros are only found in the Sonoran Desert and Arizona is lousy with the things.  At this point, it should surprise no one that a whole national park was created to protect this prickly prize. Saguaro National Park was founded on October 14, 1994 and it celebrates its 19th anniversary this year.

Entrance Saguaro National Park, Arizona

We love the graphic cactus on this sign at an entrance to Saguaro National park in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park is divided into the two districts, both easily reached from Tuscon. As you can imagine, it’s dry and hot in this desert landscape so try to visit early or late in the day so you can enjoy some of the short trails within the park without getting scorched.

Cactus close up - Saguaro National Park

A cactus closeup in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park.

The Saguaro is the quintessential cactus. If someone told you to sit down and draw a cactus, this is what you’d draw. They’re also a classic symbol of the Wild West right up there with tumbleweeds, ten gallon hats and hitching posts.

Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Despite its prickly spines, saguaros make nice homes for critters including the Gila woodpecker, as the holes in this one attest.

Every species of cactus is built like a sponge but the saguaro is particularly thirsty. It can hold up to 200 gallons (757 liters) of water for up to a year. The saguaro can shrink or swell by up to 25 percent depending on how saturated it is.

Giant Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Eric dwarfed by a saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park in Arizona. They can grow to up to 40 feet (12 meters) tall and can weigh more than a ton.

In the United States, Saguaros are only found in the wild in Arizona and, rarely, in southeast California. Saguaros have also become a popular landscaping plant but many of the saguaros you see in front yards were illegally harvested.

Saguaro Cactus Forest - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaros as far as the eye can see in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. In the US, this cactus is only found in the wild in Arizona and a few parts of southeastern California.

Saguaros can grow to up to 60 feet (18 meters) tall, however, they may take their sweet time getting there. In dry conditions it can take years for a saguaro to grow just a few inches. In wet years a saguaro may shoot up five feet (1.5 meters).

Cactus - Saguaro National Park

Not every cactus in the park is a saguaro. Here’s a rebel.

Fully grown and fully saturated, saguaros can weigh up to a ton making them the largest cactus in the United States. Saguaros typically live between 100 and 200 years though experts admit some giants may be even older than that.

Golden Eagle landing on a Saguaro Cactus

We have no idea how birds like this Harris hawk can land on something as thorny as a saguaro but they do it all the time.

The “arms” branching out of a central trunk, which we associate with saguaros, don’t develop until the cactus is many decades old. Some saguaros eventually sprout more than 50 arms. A saguaro without any arms is called a spear.

Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaros in the afternoon sun in Saguaro National Park in Arizona. The saguaros pictured above without any arms are called spears.

Cactus jungle - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

It’s a cactus jungle in Saguaro National Park.

Cactus Arizona desert

You’ll be in a forest of saguaros in Saguaro National Park but don’t forget to look for other species, like this one, too.

Cactus Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A cactus cluster in Saguaro National Park in Arizona.

Bonus: the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Two miles (3 km) from the Saguaro National Park visitor center you’ll find the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and we highly recommend it. Yes, there’s no shortage of cactus in the park but this living museum presents a huge variety of species and lots of cactus-loving critters in a great setting. A two mile (3 km) stroll takes you through a meticulously curated zoo and botanical garden celebrating the best the Sonoran Desert has to offer including 40,000 types of cactus and other desert plants, many of them rare or endangered, and desert animals ranging from cougars to butterflies.

Cactus flowering - Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A flowering cactus at the excellent Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Saguaro National Park.

Flowering Cactus - Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A flowering cactus at the excellent Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Saguaro National Park.

One last prickly issue

You will notice that we have worked really hard to avoid using the plural of cactus in this post. That’s because we couldn’t decide which one to use. According to that know-it-all Merriam-Webster, cacti, cactuses and cactus are all correct.

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Sailing Stones – The Racetrack, Death Valley National Park, California

No one knows for sure why boulders move around a gorgeously vacant area of California’s Death Valley National Park called The Racetrack, but they do. Big rocks, small rocks–they all creep around the incredibly flat expanse leaving a clearly visible trail behind to mark their mysterious path.

One theory is that the rocks sail across the land when the right amount of water slicks up the clay and the right amount of wind propels them across it, hence their nickname: sailing stones. We don’t really care what the explanation is we just wanted to see them for ourselves but that turned out to be easier said than done.

To reach The Racetrack you have to drive 27 miles down Racetrack Road, a vehicle busting dirt track. We blew out a shock absorber on our way to The Racetrack but we still fared better than the poor sod we saw on the side of Racetrack Road who had not one but two flat tires.

Worth it? You bet. And if you hurry you can check it out for free. National Park Week 2012 is in effect until April 29 with free admission to all national parks, national monuments and national historic sites.

Race Track Road - Death Valley National Park

The reach The Racetrack (aka Racetrack Playa) and its amazing moving rocks you have to drive 27 miles down Racetrack Road past the Ubehebe Crater and over enough bumps to bust a shocks absorber (we did).

 Teakettle Junction on Racetrack Road - Death Valley National Park

Teakettle Junction on Racetrack Road is marked by one of the more free-form national park signs you’ll ever see.

Panorama of Racetrack Playa - Death Valley National Park

Panorama of The Racetrack, a dry lake bed in Death Valley National Park, where scientists are at a loss to explain how or why rocks appear to move around by themselves.

Racetrack Playa from the Grandstand

The Racetrack from atop a rock formation called the “Grandstand” in California’s Death Valley National Park.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around a dry lake bed called The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around a dry lake bed called The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving trails behind them.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stone - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving weird, smooth trails behind them.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

More of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack  in Death Valley National Park in California.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

A group of so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving trails behind them which sometimes create intricate designs in the dry lake bed.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

A group of so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving trails behind them creating intricate designs in the dry lake bed.

Ubehebe Crater - Death Valley National Park

Your journey to The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park begins here at Ubehebe Crater.

 

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Extremely Beautiful – Death Valley National Park, California

To say that California’s Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes is to enter yourself in the Understatement of the Century contest.

Death Valley National Park is the hottest park in the nation. On July 10, 1913 a temperature of 134 °F (56.7 °C) was measured at Furnace Creek Inn, the highest temperature ever recorded in North America. Daily summer temperatures of 120 °F (49 °C) or greater are common. On the other hand, the mercury can dip well below freezing at night in the winter.

Death Valley National Park is also the driest park in the US. In some years the bottom of the valley, at Badwater Basin, is teased with 1.5 inches (38 mm) of rain. Some years it registers no rain at all. Badwater Basin, at 282 feet (-86 meters) below sea level, is also the second lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and the lowest point in North America. Nearby Telescope Peak, by contrast, is the highest point in the park at 11,049 feet (3,368 meters) above sea level.

There’s even an area where the rocks move on their own.

Death Valley National Park is also the largest National Park in the lower 48 states. Part of the Mojave and Colorado deserts UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, the sprawling park is sandwiched between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Nevada border and contains valleys, canyons, sand dunes, salt flats, playas (dry lakes) and mountains.

In our continuing celebration of National Park Week 2012 (April 21-29), when admission to every National Park, National Monument and National Historic Site in the country is free, we present the extremely beautiful Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley National Park sign

Entering Death Valley National Park in California.

Death Valley panorama from Dantes View

This sunrise panorama of Death Valley National Park was taken from Dantes View. The Badlands Basin salt flats, the lowest point in North America, is seen 5,757 feet (1,755 meters) below. Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park at 11,049 feet (3,368 m), lies directly across the valley.

Death Valley 200 feet below sea level sign

Much of the valley bottom in Death Valley National Park lies below sea level.

Road to Badwater Basin Death Valley National Park

The road snakes its way to Badwater Basin salt flats, seen in the distance, which is the lowest point in North America.

Lowest point, Badwater Basin Death Valley

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park is 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America.

Badwater Basin salt flats, Death Valley National Park

The surreal landscape of Badwater Basin salt flats in Death Valley National Park in California.

Badwater Basin Death Valley National Park

Karen at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in North America. The point we’ve highlighted on the rock wall is 282 feet up and marks sea level. The spot doesn’t look that high up in this photo, but that’s because the top of the mountain directly above it is 7,857 feet high, or 8,139 feet (2,481 meters) above sea level. Land of extremes, indeed.

Badwater Basin Death Valley 282 feet below sea level

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park in California.

View from Zabriskie Point Death Valley National Park

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park in California.

Formations in 20 Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley

Formations in the fabulously-named 20 Mule Team Canyon in California’s Death Valley National Park.

Titus Canyon Road Death Valley

Titus Canyon Road is a one-way 4×4 road that drops more than 5,000 feet from outside the park near the art-filled ghost town of Rhyolite into Death Valley through this slot canyon. We got a flat tire at the beginning of this road.

Borax was mined in Death Valley in the 19th century at the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek. It was very difficult to get the valuable commodity out to market so Frank M. “Borax” Smith created a 20 Mule Team to transport the product. This is what remains of his wagons.

Death Valley Ranch or Scotty's Castle Death Valley

Death Valley Ranch, aka Scotty’s Castle, was once a private home. Now it’s an unexpected sign of human habitation in this harsh environment. 

Mosaic Canyon slot canyon

Karen hiking through Mosaic Canyon slot canyon in Death Valley National Park.

Road through Death Valley

A ribbon of road through Death Valley National Park in California.

Death Valley road

Paved, but still gorgeously desolate in Death Valley National Park.

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