In our second trip to Saguaro National Park, we headed out to the Rincon Mountains to see what the East half of the park had to offer. We stopped by the Rincon Visitor center to check in, load up on life-giving water, and maps. Hitch spied some Prickly Pear Cactus Candy and so we nibbled on the tasty jelly treat while walking the small interpretive trail around the building. Having never eaten a prickly pear cactus, I couldn’t say if that’s what the candy tastes like – to me it was like a very sweet flavored jelly candy with a light sugar coating.
After looking at the map, we decided to take the Cactus Forest Loop Drive. It’s an 8-mile drive on a paved road with pullouts, viewpoints and parking near several trailheads. Average speed on this road is about 15 miles per hour, due to the occasional foot and bicycle traffic. There are even signs that read “Share the Road!” with symbols of cyclists, hikers, cars and turtles. Yes, that’s right tortoises need to cross the road too.
For the first leg of the trip, we headed north along the one-way road toward Santa Catalina Mountains. At first glance, we noticed a distinct difference from Saguaro National Park East, this half of the park was much greener and in full bloom. There were bright yellow swaths of brittlebush punctuated with the talk stalks and bright red flowers of the Ocotillo and then with sprinklings of purple Santa Catalina prairie clover and Fairy Duster. According to the ranger, late March and April is the start of the wildflower season for Saguaro National Park, provided that there were enough rains in the previous two seasons.
Though there are several stops along the drive, most noteworthy are Cactus Forest North Trailhead, Rincon Mountains Overlook, Loma Verde Trail Head and Javelina Rocks. Unfortunately, Mica View Turnoff was closed for road construction.
Just past the Mica View Turnoff, the road turns east towards the Rincon Mountains. At the Cactus Forest North Trailhead, we parked the car and took a short 3-mile hike toward the Lime Kilns. According to the park material, a lime kiln is used to produce quicklime through the calcination of limestone (calcium carbonate). The kiln produces heat at around 1000°C in order to create the quicklime, which was used to make plaster and mortar for building construction. We didn’t reach the kilns as hoped because we ran out of water pretty quickly and had to turn back. By now I should be learning that however much water I think we need, I should double it because the air just seems to suck moisture at frightening speeds out in the Arizona desert. Regardless of our water shortage, the walk was rewarding. We saw plenty of colorful wildflowers, majestic saguaro, and alienesque cholla. We also found a mysteriously large hole dug by some animal and theorized that it was either a tortoise or badger den. Insects were also out in full force here and we saw several kinds of butterflies and bees. I think my favorite is the Carpenter Bee, which is bread large in the Sonoran Desert, and has a length of almost 2 inches and weighs over one gram.
Loma Verda Trailhead is another stop that I would have loved to explore but lacked the time to do so. Here a hiker can access the winding crisscrossing trails of the Cactus Forest. According to many local hikers, its one of the best well-marked trails in the park and is perfect for out of town hikers. Instead of stopping here we moved on to a short stop at Rincon Overlook, where we were rewarded with a pretty awesome view of the Rincon Mountain herself and the surrounding cacti forest.
At Javelina Rocks, we jumped out of the truck and started exploring. The rocks are fun to climb and superbly photogenic. It would have been fun to romp around, but the trails are thick with prickly pear cactus, and this is where I got stuck with one. The spines don’t really hurt, but they kind of tickle when you move about with them stuck in your skin. The younger prickly pear shoots tend to have a hair trigger and their spines easily stick in. Honestly, it was a nice place to sit on a rock and pull out spines from my leg. I’m just very glad I keep a leatherman with tweezers and pliers handy.
For our final stop, we had lunch at Javelina Picnic area. As desert scenery goes, it was lush with green, vibrant flowers, and busy birds. Overall, an ideal desert alfresco dining experience.
I was told by a park ranger that the best time to visit is just an hour or two before sunset when most of the mammals come out to feed. During the summer, a herd of Javelinas will seek shelter in the cooling shades of the Rincon Visitor Center. If I had an extra day or two, I would plan a visit at dusk and plan a proper exploration of this marvelous park.