Monday, January 30, 2012

Up to Wasson Peak

At just under 4700', Wasson Peak is the highest point in the Tucson Mountains, the lowest of the mountain ranges that surround the city of Tucson.  With its open desert habitat, it makes the perfect winter hike, and so, on a perfect winter day, my friend Marilyn and I set out on the loop trail that would take us to the peak and back in just over 8 miles  .Here is a link to the map The trailhead is at 2907', giving us an elevation gain of 1775'.

Although the air was chilly when I left home, by the time we reached the trailhead and got ready to go, we were already shedding layers.  We started out on the Gould Mine Trail which wound upwards and around the old mine until it intersected the Sendero-Esperanza Trail.

Carole on the Trail

It was at this early point that I discovered to my great dismay that my camera batteries were nearly depleted, and guess where my backups were?  Right.  Back home in the charger.  No worries, said Marilyn, I have extras.  My relief last only briefly until it became clear that the extra batteries were so weak that they would only last for about 10 shots.  Between my camera, Marilyn's camera and her GPS, we had a real battery drain going.

Gould Mine tailings.  This was most likely a copper mine.
The leafed-out ocotillos and the saguaro spines were luminous in the early morning sun, and occasional wildflower blooms brought us some color touches.

As we gained some elevation, the views of the valley to the west opened up.  The trail is in Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountain District, and this photo is looking past the barely-visible Visitor Center to Avra Valley where the recharge ponds of Tucson Water can be seen.  The explosive population growth in the Tucson basin has necessitated taking water from the Colorado River to supplement our depleting aquifer.  Ironically, in the same valley are miles and miles of water-thirsty cotton fields.

Here and there were Mexican gold poppies and the daisy-like flower of bahia.  How odd to see ferns growing right at the base of an ocotillo on a southwest-facing slope.

The dense spines of the teddy bear cholla glowed in the sun's early light, looking so deceptively soft and cuddly.  The hiker is well-advised to steer clear as just barely brushing the cactus will result in one of the joints being attached painfully to the hiker.  With it's barbed spines firmly implanted in the clothes or skin, removing the cactus piece is tricky business.  The cholla is just practicing its successful strategy for dispersal and reproduction as the disjointed piece will take root and grow wherever it lands.

It was in this area that Marilyn commented on how happy she was that we hadn't seen any invasive grasses. Not 30 seconds later I looked to my left and there was a patch of the evil buffelgrass!  I didn't take its picture as it is not worthy of being here among the beautiful native plants.  Marilyn noted its location on her GPS so that it can be removed at a later date.  Below you can see the route we have traveled.

Native fairy duster blooms began appearing, and the flowers are favorites of hummingbirds.  Sure enough, we saw our first hummer before long.  A Costa's I decided.  Mexican gold poppies were becoming more abundant, and we also spotted the tiny purple flowers of filaree and trailing four o'clocks.  The views, mostly to the south and west at this point, were sweeping and spectacular.  We could see all the way to Mexico.

  We soon intersected the Hugh Norris Trail where the sign told us we were 2.2 miles from Wasson Peak, all uphill, of course.  I said, it's kind of like my hike out of the Grand Canyon.  The closer you get, the farther away it seems.  The trail brought us around to the north side of the mountain where we were interested to find changing vegetation as well as completely different rocks and soil.  The rocks took on a soft, rounded, weathered look and the sandy soil of the decomposed granite made the trail easier walking.

Here we began seeing sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), also known as desert spoonand yuccas, as well as many javelina tracks, crisscrossing the trail.  Javelinas are in the peccary family and, despite their appearance, are not related to pigs.  Peccaries are a new world species as opposed to pigs which came from the old world.

Sotol or Desert Spoon
A little side trail led to a viewpoint that Marilyn likened to a garden, so beautiful and lush was it.  And one of those big boulders was formed into a perfect chair with a little side table.  What a place to take in the views!

Bright green lichen decorated the north facing rocks.  Earlier in the day we had been so excited to see our first butterfly - a lovely little white and orange Sara orangetip - but as the day went on, they seemed to be everywhere and we wondered what their foodplant was.

In the sunshine, a tiny lizard scampered away at our approach, and then we spotted our first mammal - a Harris' antelope ground squirrel sitting atop his empire.  He waited there patiently until just the moment I zoomed in on him.  As a result, this is the best I could do.

All that zooming was the last straw for the dying camera batteries and from here on I relied on Marilyn to document our travels.  She, too, was trying to be conservative with the camera so that we were sure to have photos atop Wasson Peak.

As we settled in for some lunch and a rest, we spotted tiny rock wrens.  Normally quite shy, these guys have claimed the mountaintop as their territory and have become accustomed to hikers and their lunches.  Their antics entertained us all the while, and any tiny dropped morsel was investigated by them.  360° views made us feel as though we were on top of the world. We could even pick out our houses in the city sprawl below.

Back on the trail we marveled at a very elderly couple making their way to the top.  The woman had difficulty walking, almost as though she had once suffered with polio, but there she was, out there hiking up this mountain and inspiring us 'youngsters.

As the day wore on and the sun warmed the landscape, more and more wildflowers appeared, hopefully a harbinger of a spectacular display later in the spring.  The poppies were especially abundant, but we also saw lupine, fairy duster, desert rockpea, bahia, desert zinnia, fiddleneck, rock cress, cliffrose, rattlesnake weed, desert marigold, filaree, globe mallow, trailing four o'clocks, brittlebush and cream cups.

As opposed to the nice, sandy trail on the north side, the King Canyon trail is littered with sharp rocks and loose gravel, making it necessary on our descent to watch every step.  It made us happy to see so many young saguaros and ocotillos, indicating a very healthy population.  Birds for the day included black-throated sparrows (many), rock wrens, Gambel's quail, mourning doves, Costa's hummingbird, Gila woodpeckers, black-tailed gnatcatchers, canyon towhees, white-crowned sparrows, cactus wrens, verdins, common ravens and northern mockingbirds.

When we reached the King Canyon wash, we opted to walk the remaining mile in it rather than on the trail, offering us different plants, fascinating geology, petroglyphs and easy walking.

Thanks to Marilyn for the previous three photos.  This is a good reminder to put a good set of lithium batteries in my camera case.

Winter hikes in the desert are exhilarating and we vowed to do it again before the heat sets in.

May all your trails lead to inspiring places!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

From Picture Rocks to Barrio Pictures

When traveling I try to make the most of my visits by researching and visiting as many points of interest as possible.  But, like most of us, I tend to neglect some of the interesting places closest to home, thinking there will always be time to go there.  Arriving visitors are often the impetus to so see these sites, and  such was the case this week when friends stopped to visit on their way from California to Texas.  My friend, Nancy, who is an artist with a strong interest in rock art, suggested that we go find some petroglyphs in the nearby Tucson Mountains.  She even had a book on rock art locations all over the west.  I had actually already visited one of the listed sites on my hikes, but another, closer one, sounded intriguing and I never would have known about it without Nancy and her book.  The book explained that the rock art was on the grounds of the "Picture Rocks Retreat", whose location I was pretty sure I knew.  But, I looked it up on Google Earth just to be certain.

The Redemptortist Renewal Center
The actual name of the facility turned out to be the Redemptorist Renewal Center, on, fittingly, Picture Rocks Road.  Driving just west of the city into the foothills of the Tucson Mountains, we easily found the office and asked the man at the reception desk if we could see the petroglyphs.  He gave us the easy directions and pointed out a brochure that would give us more information.

 Apparently, the Center owns a large parcel of land here in the lushly vegetated desert, where people come from all over for spiritual retreats.    A trail took us past this shrine, through the desert, to a rock maze, and then on to the far side of the rock mound where the first carvings came into view.

Petroglyphs are designs chiseled or carved into rock by ancient peoples.  These particular carvings are believed to have been made by Arizona's Hohokam Indians between about A.D. 800 and 1300.  You can see human figures as well as various animals.  The humans could be herders or hunters.  

One panel contains a large, and well-worn spiral design above a group of human figures holding hands.  Some archaeologists believe these art works were a way to commemorate the solstices and equinoxes.

The ironwood trees grew atop the rock mound, where nature's artful patterns rivaled those the humans had created.

Nancy's photographs may turn into a painting or lovely notecards, preserving and commemorating the art of ancient people.  Mine will only tell you of this beautiful spot.

As we made our way back to the car, around the north side of the hill, rocks were covered with colorful lichen and plush moss, the moss seemingly so out of place in this arid land.

Next up on our tour was a bit of more modern history - Tucson's Barrio Viejo, a colorful mix of old and new, dilapidated and gentrified, whimsical and classy, funky and posh.  In other words, a photographer's delight!

The light wasn't ideal, with the low winter sun casting long shadows, but it was a glorious day, with clear blue skies and temperatures in the low 70's, so perfect for walking and exploring this part of Tucson's past.

This mural commemorates the history of this unique neighborhood, and thankfully, there are those who are recognizing its value before it has been completely destroyed, paved over for another urban renewal project.

And another mural, not quite as polished, but perhaps more representative.

Vibrant colors and fanciful metalwork delight the eye and the camera.

A shrine and a well-manicured pocket park commemorated the death on this street of two young boys, killed by a drunk driver.  Plaques and signs told of the history of this corner and the buildings that once stood here and all along the street.

Lunch was calling, so we made our way to a lovely little restaurant in the courtyard of the Tucson Museum of Art, where we sat outside in the sunshine, sipped berry lemonade and  munched on creamy vegetable soup,a salad of tender baby greens and a delicious cheesy cracker bread.

Being a tourist in your own home town is the perfect way to spend a day with a friend!

When Pigs Fly
Try it and I'm sure you'll find something that will make you smile!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Little Desert Delights

Yuma is on the western edge of the Sonoran Desert, in the Lower Colorado River Valley subdivision, the largest, hottest and driest of the six subdivisions.  Vegetation is much sparser here than in the Arizona Upland in which Tucson is situated, and is dominated by creosote bush (Larrea tridentata).  Saguaros are rare, except for those planted in landscapes, but along the washes can be found palo verde, ironwood and mesquite trees which provide habitat for a wide variety of birdlife.  The Colorado itself as well as man-made ponds and lakes give a home to many species of waterfowl.  While visiting our wintering Yuma friends for our annual New Year's celebration,  it was fun to observe the different species of birds who also winter in the mild Yuma temperatures.  On the golf course ponds we saw a large group of hooded mergansers, led by the stunningly beautiful male.  Cinnamon teals, pied-billed grebes, American wigeons, and egrets.  In the trees were flocks of Western bluebirds, and an American kestrel called loudly from his perch on a rooftop.  I was delighted to see dozens of monarch butterflies, which appeared to be wintering in the non-native trees.

Walking along a wash, we saw verdins, Gila woodpeckers, white-crowned sparrows, Say's phoebe, mourning doves and tiny ground doves.  Large millkweed vines grow up into the ironwood trees, attracting queen butterflies, and some of the seed pods were covered with the colorful milkweed bugs.

Near the end of our walk, a bird swooped low over our heads and flew to a perch across the road.  We were both delighted to see a male kestrel, and for our further enjoyment, he flew back to a nearby flagpole, where he sat and gave us a perfect view of his colorful plumage.

We got one more flyover as he moved to a palm tree and perched patiently in the shade of the large fronds.

I hung a hummingbird feeder just outside the kitchen window of our trailer, and by the second day of our stay, a male Costas was happily feeding regularly there.  He would perch in an ocotillo only a few feet away from the feeder where he could keep a good eye on it.  I felt bad when it was time to leave and take down the feeder, so we hung one in the ocotillo, hoping he would find it.

As we arrived back in Tucson, the weather continued to be unseasonably warm.  Can't say as I mind 78 sunny degrees on a January day!  And neither did this red-tailed hawk who soared above our house, then settled for a rest on a utility pole in the wash at the bottom of our driveway.

At our request, Tucson Electric Power has added raptor protection to some of its poles, and this raptor, for one, is very thankful!

I was happy to be back at the Desert Museum on January 6th, visiting with my friends and fellow docents, sharing the desert's secrets with visitors, seeing the hummingbirds already nesting in the aviary, delighting in the new blooms, and catching up on all the activity.

Red Barberry in Bloom (Berberis haematocarpa)
Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica) - a hummingbird favorite

Ripening berries of the desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum)
The mountain lion was basking in the sun, napping on a warm rock, blending almost perfectly with the rock's tawny shade.  One visitor looked and looked where I was pointing, and simply could not see the cat!

A few butterflies are still flying at this time of year, including a lovely painted lady (Vanessa cardui) who was nectaring on the few lantana blooms that had not been hit by the freeze in December.

There's nothing like ending our day at the black-tailed prairie dog exhibit, whose occupants are endlessly entertaining.

Back in the neighborhood, phainopeplas spend the winter in our low desert, feasting on mistletoe berries, flashing their bright white wingbars in flight, and I see them daily in my back yard and on my walks around the neighborhood.

Mornings and late afternoons are the busiest times for hummingbirds at the feeders.  They come and go constantly, chasing one another, calling, perching for a minute, zipping by, then returning for another drink.

This is a female, probably Anna's, although I cannot see any red on the throat, so maybe she's a juvenile.

As the sun set on Sunday, the Catalina mountains lit up with a rosy hue, and the clouds matched them in vibrancy.

In a few moments, the night's real show began as the huge full moon edged over the Catalina's ridgetops.

Rapidly the orb rose and lit the landscape, while a few clouds began to encroach.  Such a powerful scene!

Sometimes we bemoan the lack of interesting wildlife and plant activity in January.  Oh, how I beg to differ.  Delightful little moments await around every corner.  Take a look.  You'll see.