– Tucson, Arizona to Carlsbad, New Mexico –

So that ‘g’ in Saguaro? You pronounce it ‘wah.’ Check it out if you don’t believe me. I only bring it up because it’s a silly pet peeve of mine, and of course because we visited Saguaro National Park today. I suppose I’m getting slightly ahead of myself, so I’ll start with our early morning, first.

Mark and I got up at 6am to go run. In the summer, we frequently get up at 5am, because it’s no problem. In winter, you really have to check the sunrise time. Sure, it’s light just after 5 in summer, but it turns out that if sunrise is at 7:30 in the winter in Arizona (which does not observe Daylight Saving Time, as you might recall), it isn’t even false dawn at 6am. Oops. It was totally dark. We were unprepared, and we hadn’t chosen a lighted trail to run on.

To pass a few minutes, we bought and drank a big bottle of water from a nearby gas station, waiting for the faintest hint of light. We probably should’ve slept until 6:30. Alas, had we only known. At any rate, we made it out on the trail not too long after the light started to peek through, and we had a good run. If you’re ever in Tucson, the Rillito River Park Trail is a nice place to go for a run. It suffers from the usual desert issue of lack of shade, so go early or late. But not too early, it would seem. It is really well paved and had restrooms ( and parking) all along, if you happen to need them. I don’t know what time the restrooms opened, because we never checked, but they were there.

Saguaro National Park

When we got back from our run, we had our hotel breakfast once again. Those are so convenient. I think all of the hotels that have had breakfast had waffles, and I don’t think any of us have eaten a single waffle. Mark usually wants at least one per trip, so I’m a little surprised. There’s always tomorrow. Mark, Mom, and I are all starting to feel the onset of Dad’s cold, so it’s been a rougher day than the last few. We made it, but not without a struggle at the end. We’ll talk about that a little later.

Today, our first stop was literally right outside Tucson in Saguaro National Park, as I mentioned before. This particular park has two sides that don’t connect. Mark and I have visited this park before, but just like this time, we’ve only been to Rincon Mountain District, or Saguaro Park East. The other side isn’t so convenient to Tucson. We will have to visit the other side some other time.

Saguaro Cactus

The major attraction on the east side of the park is actually only 8.3 miles long. It’s a one way loop through the park, where you pass thousands of saguaro cacti, as well as several other varieties (for a total of 25!), two picnic areas, and several hiking trails. Today, the park seemed particularly popular with bicyclists. The last time we visited, it was very hot, and we didn’t see anyone outside of their cars for very long. Today, we were pretty early, so it was mostly quiet, but by the time we were leaving, the bicyclists were arriving in full force. This place must be gorgeous in the spring, when the desert is in bloom. Can you imagine all of the flowers (like this stock photo)?

Some of my personal favorite cacti are the teddy bear cholla, which we saw on the way out of Joshua Tree as well. They are pretty cute, hence the name. Despite the friendly-sounding name, they are pretty vicious, like most cacti. Lower, smaller branches of the plant frequently fall off to create new teddy bear cholla nearby. Mark found out the hard way that the little guys mean business. He bumped his feet into a couple of the free-floating cholla balls, which stuck to his sneakers. They were pretty hard to get off of his shoes. Not all cholla have spines, but these had delightful little hook-pointed barbs. He had two or three left in his shoes that he just couldn’t get out.

Teddy Bear Cholla

Saguaro East is pretty easy to see, since it’s only 8.3 miles. Granted, it’s at 15 miles per hour, but that’s still only a little more than half an hour, if you don’t stop. We spent a bit longer than that, but we were taking our time. If you’re ever in the area, give it a shot. Saguaro are really neat. I suppose I haven’t really talked too much about those, and since they are the focus of the park, I feel like we can take a minute to discuss them.

Saguaro is a tree-like cactus that lives for about 150-200 years, and can reach 70 feet tall. It’s more common to see giant Saguaros that are around 40 feet tall, though. The largest living saguaro is 45.3 feet tall. The largest ever recorded was 78 feet tall, but it blew over in a wind storm in the 80s. It blew over so easily because despite their great height and mass, their tap root system is only 5 or 6 inches deep, and about 3 feet wide. Large saguaros frequently weigh more than 3,000 pounds. They don’t grow their first arm until they are about 50 years old, but they may never grow an arm at all. They live exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, and have flowers and fruit during the warmer months of the year. Overall, much like Joshua Trees, they are pretty darn cool. It’s nice to see interesting cactus, since we normally only get prickly pear in our area in Texas, which is nothing but a nuisance.

Revenge of the Teddy Bear Cholla

We left Saguaro a few dollars poorer after purchasing some souvenirs, and drove on to our next stop: The Thing. I wouldn’t want to spoil what The Thing is for you, since they make such a big deal about it on the road leading up. It’s only $1 to see for yourself. Mark talked it up to my parents quite a bit on the way. I got into trouble for trying to downplay it, since he was so excited. If you do decide to visit, be aware that it is pretty silly, but it’s only a dollar, so you won’t feel cheated in the end. Or maybe you will. Who am I?

The Thing is a roadside attraction is a gas station/kitschy little gift shop. I’m honestly surprised my mother came out of it without another pair of earrings. Or maybe she did have a set. I forget. She’s gotten at least three pairs of earrings on this trip. She’s a sucker for cheap southwest jewelry. She bought some when we took our family trip to Santa Fe, too.

The Thing? What is it?

Our lunch was at a Taco Bell in Demming, which I bet you can already guess was nothing special. The nice thing about Taco Bell is that while it isn’t great food, they are more than willing to take things out of it for you, so it can be pretty easy to order something that doesn’t have meat. At least with Mexican fast food, there’s still beans and cheese and such left behind. With burgers and the like, all you get is some lettuce and a bun if you order without meat.

It was a mostly uneventful afternoon. Ripley got bored with us long before we got to our hotel. I don’t know if you can tell from the photo below, but she was really missing her regular seat belt location. She is much more comfortable sitting on the passenger side of the car, like so. She tucks her little face behind the seat belt and lets it hold her up. You can actually see our green pillow that I put under her sling just for her, but apparently pillows can’t beat wedging your face behind a tight cable.

Ripley is so tired of us

It was close to closing time when we made it to our final stop of the day in White Sands National Monument, just outside the White Sands Missile Range, which at 3,200 square miles, is the largest military installation in the United States. White Sands itself is just a huge field of sand dunes made of gypsum, which gives the sand it’s nearly white coloration. Gypsum sand is not common, since it is water-soluble.  You wouldn’t see a beach with only gypsum sand, for instance. When it rains in the park, the sand cements together until it is completely dry once again. It also doesn’t covert the sun’s energy into heat the way regular beach sand does, so it doesn’t get hot, even in the summer. Apparently, the park can be closed when the missile range is holding testing. Sounds a little scary, right?

It was nearly dusk when we visited, and the park entrance closes at 5. The whole road through the monument is 16 miles round trip, though we didn’t go all the way around. The The first five miles back are paved, and the last three are hard-packed sand. To get back out, you just have to turn around and do it all over again. We only made it 4 miles in, where we walked out on a boardwalk to look at the dunes. Ripley was allowed, and she was thrilled with the walk. Pets are allowed everywhere but the buildings in this park.

White Sand National Monument

From White Sands, we drove on to Carlsbad through some terribly mountainous roads that made all of the sick people in the vehicle miserable. Our ears were clogged from our cold, and they wouldn’t pop. The pressure was practically unbearable, and there was ice and snow on some areas of the road. We weren’t happy campers, especially since we were in the middle of nowhere through all of the regular dinner hours. We ended up getting McDonald’s breakfast for dinner pretty late in the day at the absolute slowest fast-food place I’ve ever been to. It was awful. Dad had to get his money back on some of his stuff, it was taking so long, and then they gave him incorrect change and he had to try again. Infuriating.

Tomorrow is our last day, and with our colds, it probably won’t be a pleasant one. Besides, we’ve seen everything between here and there many times before. We’re getting an early start, so we make it home at a reasonable hour. I’ve heard it’s really cold at home. I know it’s only supposed to be 12ºF here tonight. That doesn’t sound like much fun at all.

– Trip Total : 3,302 miles

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