The iconic saguaro were hard to miss.
#5 Arizona: Central & South, The Sonoran Desert (March/April 2012)

It never seems like you should know when you've crossed a state line in the US except for the "Welcome" and "Come Again" signs but there are often visible and immediate shifts on the other side of the line. Within minutes of crossing the border into Arizona from California on Interstate 10 the saguaro cacti appeared in numbers. These tall, iconic cacti have very particular needs, such as being intolerant of more than 24 hours of freezing temperatures, but it seemed odd that their habitat boundary would match the political divide.

The next morning it was hard to resist saying "Only in (conservative) Arizona" when an RV park groundskeeper zipped over in her electric golf cart to ask if I was all right. It was nice of her to be concerned, but really.... I was stretched out on my exercise mat, Bill was standing on his mat stretching his foot while looking at and calmly talking to me. It was hard not to form a stereotype that such simple exercise was unfamiliar in these parts. The day before in a California campground the same scene had prompted a teasing comment of "What time do classes begin?" But things are different in Arizona and its not just the saguaro. (Of course, when we got closer to much more urban Phoenix the same morning routine didn't trigger any concern.)

Once we traveled a little farther east in Arizona, we were startled by the sheer increase in biomass in its Sonoran Desert compared with the Mojave and Colorado Deserts of California. We were still looking at distinctly desert species like cacti, mesquite, creosote bush, and palo verde but it was much, much denser in Arizona than the deserts we'd been in in California. It wasn't hard to believe one park's claim that "the Sonoran Desert is one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America" and we'd soon be on a first-name basis with some of it.

Ocotillo bloom.
McDowell State Park
Learning the Minutiae About the BIomass

Our first big hiking venue in Arizona this year was at McDowell State Park, northeast of Phoenix. It turned out to be a delightful destination. There were pleasant hiking trails out our door as well as worthy drive-to hikes not far from our campground. One day we rendezvoused in the city with our friend Iva who treated us to a delicious lunch at Dr. Andrew Weil's "True Food Kitchen" and then an afternoon at the lovely Desert Botanical Garden. We'd gotten a slow start in learning the names of desert plants and animals and the visit to the Botanical Garden catapulted our knowledge base of both flora and fauna. The garden specimens were labeled and Iva knew many of the local birds. After our visit to the Garden and our stay in McDowell, we felt like we'd earned a "Junior Naturalist" badge. Here is some of what we saw and learned.

I finally got a convincing answer to my lingering Spring of 2011 question: "If a rattlesnake is just hanging out, will it be coiled or stretched out?" I wanted to know what pattern to be scanning the trails for as we walked. Ranger Amy at McDowell Regional Park had a satisfying answer that resolved the discrepancies I'd heard: It will be stretched out if it is warming itself in the sun and be coiled if it is comfortably resting or waiting for prey." And indeed an older mountain biker in our group said he'd recently encountered a Diamond Back rattlesnake stretched out on one of the Park's trails. Ranger Amy countered with the fact that a number of mountain bikers reported inadvertently running across lounging Diamond Backs but that only one had been bitten. It of course gave us the creeps to think about running over a venomous snake on a bike.

Our own experience confirmed that snakes were out early this spring because we'd encountered 2 on the trails--happily none were rattlers. A 4' long, skinny dude slithered across the trail in front of me after Bill had passed by. Unfortunately my memory of it didn't fit the description of the common snakes in the area. Then the next day I spotted a thicker specimen sunning on the trail that Ranger Amy later identified as a Western Patch Nose, a non-venomous local.
Against the odds, I nabbed a photo of a Western Patch Nose.
Ranger Amy also weighed-in on the value of carrying a walking stick to 'redirect' a snake or to test for snakes under a potential sitting rock. "Leave the stick at home" was her advice. She only uses a stick when capturing a snake and placing it in a bucket for 'relocation' purposes--like off her friend's patio. In her mind, gesturing with a stick will only make the snake mad. If the stick is presented to the snake on a trail, it's likely to trigger a strike response. If there is a snake under the rock where you want to sit, best to sit and let the resting snake lie. Poking at it in an attempt to clear the area is asking for trouble as far as she was concerned.

Our prize bug sighting was a cluster of Blister Beetles which Bill was able to identify from his online search--we were accumulating a pile of field guides but didn't have one on bugs. They lent themselves to a little word game that helped us remember the key elements: '"Blister Beetles eat Brittle Bush and the larva of solitary bees." We didn't verify their ability to blister.

The eye-catching Blister Beetles were oblivious to us.
Gambel's Quail was our first bird to photo and identify. Both plentiful and prone to walking instead of flying, they were easy to capture in the eye and in pixels. A California thrasher was the next one I hoped to spot in the field after our friend Iva pointed one out to us at the Botanical Garden. It's distinctive long, curved beak seemed likely to make the plain brown bird a certain find and indeed, a week later it was.

Whiptailed lizards were too fast to photo. We spotted a number of these beefy, black lizards that must be close to a foot long, nose to tail, but they always zipped by and out of sight in a flash.

We never saw a badger or any sign of one but quickly dubbed them the "bully of the desert" after reading about them. They are a good reason to keep a dog on lead in the desert because their skin is so loose and thick that any predator that clamps down on a badger will soon have it clawing them in the face--they can literally turn a 180º in their own skin. Ferocious, badgers will even fight wolves and bears if in the same region. The desert badgers are vegetarian leaning but will steal coyote pups from the den. They have a more complicated relationship with adult coyotes, which they may either eat, be eaten by, or hunt with. We joked about hiring one to guard our camper door.

The Gambel's quail were an easy bird to identify.
Javalina ("hav-a-lee'-na") or Collared Peccary
We are told that these natives to the Americas look like pigs, which have an Afro-EurAsian heritage, but aren't; are 3-4' tall but thin to dissipate the desert heat; and rely on strong body odors and traveling in packs to make-up for their poor eyesight. We neither saw one or picked-up their notorious scent but did spy hoof marks and their bedding places over and over again in McDowell Park.

"Motel 6's" for Javalina were easy to spot once you knew the signs.
The Javalina definitely preferred snoozing for the night under a Little Palo Verde tree in our branch of the Sonoran Desert. Repeatedly we saw all of the low branches knocked off one side of the distinctive green-barked tree and dispersed to make a sleeping area for a family group of half dozen or so. These omnivores with a vegetarian leaning appeared to have routinely dined on their bedding material as evidenced by all of the turned earth under the chosen trees.

Suddenly we were seeing these everywhere.
Pack Rats
After experiences in biology labs decades ago and more recently as a home owner, I have no fondness for rats but seeing the homes of their desert relatives without actually seeing the critters made them fascinating. (Weeks later I spotted the tail of one at its nest in the suburbs of Tucson). Like the Javalina "Motel-6's", pack rat homes seemed to be everywhere once pointed out to us. Their homes are distinctive for looking like nothing but a heap of bark and branches but what makes them easily spotted is the debris is in the wrong place. Instead of the tree debris being scattered under a tree, it will be mounted several feet high on top of a log or a rock. It's a subtle but distinctive clue to answering "What's wrong with this picture."

Spider Holes
Tarantulas and other desert spiders often live in dirt holes they've made or borrowed and then spin a little silk over the opening so as to feel the vibratory presence of something suitable for dinner. I'd read in our field guide about this trick and happened to notice the tell-tale silk wafting across a precise 1/2" diameter hole at the end of a hike north of Phoenix. Once we'd actually seen one for ourselves, we began noticing more and more of them. The prize finding was when Bill spotted the distinctive twig collar that Wolf spiders build like a turret around their holes. I also read that you can sometimes hear a tarantula crunching on the exoskeleton of its latest trophy but like, who wants to get their ear that close to a tarantula hole?

At least the flowers were easy to photo. With them we could take the time to select worthy specimens, align with the sun just so, and wait for a pause in the wind to still the blooms. Being both plentiful and patient, we took dozens of pictures which appear in a separate Photo Gallery.

We didn't quite make it to the top of Flatiron last year.
Lost Dutchman State Park
A Different MIx
From McDowell Regional Park northeast of Phoenix we drove south to Lost Dutchman State Park east of Phoenix for a very different set of experiences. The Lost Dutchman campground was far less tranquil than McDowell with campsites placed closer together than at McDowell and it inexplicably attracted more screaming children and barking dogs. The ranger programs featured more marshmallows and fewer technical topics and despite being the the same Sonoran Desert as McDowell, we didn't sight any of our new findings like javalina bedding sites or pack rat nests. There weren't even as many desert plants in bloom around Lost Dutchman. Unfortunately, the rangers there didn't have a compelling explanation for the difference in findings.

Lost Dutchman did however have a trophy hike that McDowell lacked, which is a 2,700-3,000' elevation gain event to about 5,000' and a grand 360º panorama. We'd done most of the hike up to Flatiron last spring when traveling in our rented RV and were pleased to make it to the top this year. Being impressed at how stiff and exhausted we were after the 5 hour, 6.7 mile hike to Flatiron, we decided we should do it again. After resting for 2 days, we headed to Flatiron and then a nearby, higher point our last full day at Lost Dutchman.

The 2 hikes were barely acceptable stresses on my left knee that had been irritated for 6 weeks but the timing seemed right: it actually felt better after recovering from the first scramble up to Flatiron. About half of the hike requires using one or both hands to climb through the rocks, so it was a good all-round strength and flexibility event for our legs instead of just a pounding on them. The combination of challenges seemed to be what my knee/leg needed at that point in its healing process.

No better test than an all day, side-by-side comparison.
I was carefully monitoring my left leg and knee for the entirety of both Flatiron hikes as well as studying the sensations in my feet while I field-tested a new toe pocket shoe made by Fila. Apparently they came out in 2010 but I'd missed their debut and first spotted them on the feet of a kid in Joshua Tree National Park. My initial attempt at buying them on the way to McDowell failed, but I scored a pair on the way to Lost Dutchman State Park. It was ambitious to wear a new shoe on such a challenging hike but I had my trusty Vibram 5 Fingers in my pack, just in case. At less than half the price of the Vibram's, the Fila's performed equally well. Impressed with their performance, I did the second hike up Flatiron wearing one of each. My review of the Fila shoe has been added to our "Forefooting" file under Fitness Focus if you'd like to know more.

Way Too Much Excitement
We'd both found the exhausting hikes to Flatiron above the Lost Dutchman State Park campground stimulating enough in their own right and I had had the additional distractions of monitoring my leg and my shoes, but there was more in store for us. About an half hour before we arrived at the campground at the end of our all day hike Bill had a too-close-encounter with one of the most poisonous snakes in the US, a Mojave Green rattlesnake. Their venom is 10 times more toxic than other rattlesnakes and their paralyzing neurotoxin requires treatment with a specific anti-venom to prevent suffocating to death. It was a close call.

Bill happened to be leading the last leg of our second descent and as he approached a several foot high boulder on his right he simultaneously made visual contact with the beady eyed green snake on the edge of the narrow trail and heard its hiss and rattle. He jolted back towards me some distance behind at a loss for words. I put his alarmed body language and mutterings together with a vague recall of the hiss and rattle and knew what was happening.

The Mojave Green rattlesnake threatened to strike Bill.
We were in the classic bind that prompts the local good ol' boys to tote a gun when in the desert: this very dangerous snake was blocking our return to the campground for the night. The surrounding scrub was thick enough that there was no ready alternate path around his well-defended territory and besides, who wants to go bushwhacking when you've just spotted a poisonous snake? And it had only been 3 days since a local Phoenix man on this same trail had told his tale of encountering a snake in a similar situation last fall in the McDowell Mountains a little north of where we all had been. Bill assumed from the details of his story that that man's snake was also a Mojave Green. After a brief stand-off, the man turned around and went home, deciding to postpone his hiking until the snakes hibernated for the winter. Unlike him, retreating for the season wasn't an option for us.

After cautiously snapping a few photos, we decided to step out of the snake's line of sight but stand where we could monitor it if it crossed our trail. I set the timer on my watch and we agreed not to peek for 5 minutes, hoping that would be enough private time for it to feel sufficiently safe to go hunt for dinner.

At 3 minutes, the Mojave Green blinked first and poked his head and flicking tongue out beyond the rock and on to the trail. After a brief pause, he slowly slithered across our narrow trail and under a bush on the other side, fully displaying its intimidatingly thick, short body. We edged a little closer, wanting to know if it was going to be lurking under the nearby boulder, entering a burrow, or heading out so we could plan our exit.

Our snake-charming worked--the very toxic rattler moved along--a bit.
Hikers behind us arrived and demonstrated Ranger Amy's prediction of what happens when you poke a stick at a snake: they poke back. We were of course horrified that these 2 gray-haired men were riling up the snake we'd invested time in calming down. The snake had taken a new defensive position farther off the trail in front of a boulder and was again rattling its tail and hissing. After a couple of minutes, we finally decided that the snake was sufficiently occupied by these fools that we could make our escape. As we passed by I said "Let us know if he moves" which provoked the juvenile response of "He's coming to get you." It wasn't hard to determine that it was only an unwelcome prank from the men we had politely warned.

Bill had decided with his initial sighting of the snake that it was a Mojave Green whereas I was content to leave it at calling it a rattlesnake based on the highly visible lifted rattle and the undisputed sound. All I needed to know was that beyond a doubt that we were dealing with a dangerous situation and needed to plan accordingly. While we had waited, we discussed whether it had a diamond pattern on its back and compared our impressions of identifying features.

There was no arguing with Bill's instant determination of encountering a Mojave Green after looking at our photos on the computer when safely back in our camper and comparing them with online resources. The identification was made more straightforward by us being in the elevation range in which they are actually green; we learned that at lower elevations the Mojave Greens are often brown.

Bill's close-call with the Mojave Green punctuated my assessment from earlier in the day when seeing hikers listening to tunes on the trail: Why in the world would you have music blasting in your ears in rattlesnake country when the shared knowledge was that the snakes were out of hibernation for the season? And after fully debriefing the close encounter, all we were left with was the hopeless wish that seeing one rattlesnake would confer some sort of immunity against ever encountering another one.

Talking with the park rangers the next morning about our Mojave Green sighting was both disturbing and reassuring. There we learned that we were the first to report seeing a Mojave Green in the park, which meant our odds of encountering another on future visits to Flatiron would be low. Being the first, they of course were absolutely certain that we were wrong--until Bill whipped out the camera with our indisputable photo. One ranger turned kind of pale while looking at our pictures. We later imagined he was wondering what he was going to do with that group of 40 Boy Scouts or Easter egg hunters due in the park now that he knew there was such a dangerous snake in the area.

The conventional wisdom is that one must get a description of the snake that bites you to ensure that you get the proper treatment but this experience with the Mojave underscored that being believed is the next obstacle. Of course, once paralysis started setting in, the hospital staff would be convinced it was a Mojave Green even if it was known not to be in the area. So, our lesson learned is to make it a priority to get a photo of the snake if we are bitten, which seems like a tall order. But the slow process of informing ourselves so we could be safe in poisonous snake territory that began a year ago was already paying off and we'd now try to learn more about the odds and risks of getting a snapshot of a snake that has just bitten and if a 911 call would generate a helicopter lift to an ER or if we had to be prepared to hike out and drive ourselves. (Read more about our strategy for staying safe on the trails in the "Details" file entitled "Snakes.")

Ah, a campground framed by real mountains.
If we had earned a Junior Naturalist badge for our studies of desert flora and fauna at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, we felt like we'd earned a special "Survivors" badge for our close-call with a dangerous snake poised to strike while at Lost Dutchman State Park.

Catalina State Park
Campground Talk
Catalina State Park, south of Phoenix but north of Tucson on Hwy 77, was next on our itinerary. With the temperatures working their way up to 90º in Tucson, it seemed a little silly to be heading south. But at 2700', the campground was a mostly pleasant place to be and it had a stunning view of the Santa Catalina Mountains. I thought about asking if they had Mojave Greens there when we arrived but of course we had just learned for ourselves that being told "No" isn't always definitive.

It was at Catalina that we learned why we were having such a fine time with this run of Arizona campgrounds: we were the beneficiaries of the 7 month-old online booking system. Our campground neighbor who lives nearby explained that in the past the ritual was to be in queue with your rig at the campground gate at 7 am on Friday morning for a weekend spot. Only about the first dozen in line would get one of the 120 sites, with the others having to try again the next day. But lucky us: a fellow camper at Lost Dutchman recommended Catalina to Bill as a good launching point for hiking about 3 days earlier so Bill booked us a spot for Easter weekend. And indeed, by the time we arrived on a mid-Friday afternoon, it was full. I dread the sometimes fierce competition for camping spots and this process had been so civilized this winter in Arizona--hats-off to the Arizona state government for getting it right.

The round tailed ground squirrels provided our campground entertainment.
Curiously, we gradually learned that a significant number of rigs in the Catalina campground were area residents, some living as little as a mile away. It was treated like an extension of their backyard but still qualified as a get-away. All the effort of getting a rig ready and cleaning it up afterwards would make me want to have a bigger change in scenery but it clearly was meeting the needs of a lot of local people.

Catalina and the other Arizona state campgrounds all had electricity and water at many of the camp sites, but no sewer connection. Having plenty of water at the kitchen tap but having to store all of our waste water was like being told that the drinks are on the house but you can't pee until after you leave. The public showers and learning to wash dishes with a trickle of water instead of a stream allowed us to enjoy 5 nights without reloading Fox onto the truck to empty the gray and black water at the dump station near the campground exit.

The size of the flora matched the size of the mountains.
On The Trails
There could be no doubt, snake season was upon us after we encountered a Mojave Green east of Phoenix. We traveled south to Tucson and didn't see any snakes ourselves but the "snake talk" was up considerably: an area resident commented that her husband had encountered a Mojave Green about the same time we saw ours, a local girl was currently in the hospital after being bitten by a rattler, a 7th grader had been bitten while walking her dog the night before I talked with her friend at the campground showers, and at the grocery store I overhead one clerk say to the other "Have you found any more snakes in your yard?" We were anxious to head out of the area where the snake count might be lower but then another big storm approached. The temperatures that had been in the mid-90º's at Catalina were dropping 20º, snow was in the forecast for the Grand Canyon where Bill had hoped to go, and thunderstorms were threatening in other nearby areas. We decided to take our chances with the snakes and ride out the storm where we were.

We had a terrible case of the jitters when on the trails in the Santa Catalina Mountains, even abandoning a route in which the trail was too obscured by tall grasses for us to confirm we weren't stepping on or near a snake. But despite our edginess, we continued with our hiking noting when the terrain changes favored Diamondbacks or Mojave Greens. Fortunately our startle response was only exercised on darting lizards and exposed roots masquerading as trail-crossing serpents.

We thoroughly enjoyed the biodiversity that was more evident in the Santa Catalina's than was evident at our other Sonoran Desert venues. Plants were piled on to of each other and intertwined, cacti were blooming, and the round-tailed ground squirrels and birds kept us entertained in the campground. Desert cardinals and vermillion flycatchers were new additions to our very short list of identified birds.

We moved along swiftly on the rocky trails, even in the heat.
Mountain Goats" Award
If we were to be issued a merit badge for our time in the Santa Catalina's, it wouldn't be for our flora/fauna studies but for our performance on the trails. After a month of mainly working out as a one-legged swimmer in the pool and another month as a cautious walker and hiker, I was especially soothed when 2 different hiking groups in one day were dazzled by our uphill prowess.

We're still quite a bit slower on the descents, but our years of cyclotouring still hold us in good stead on the steep climbs on foot to the point of drawing comments. One man a bit our junior from Colorado said "We are so impressed!" when they caught up with us while we paused for a photo. We'd passed them when they stopped to drink and didn't think anything of it, but apparently they did. It was about 30 minutes into the hike, which is when we really hit our stride on a steep ascent, which of course is when others start to fade.

Later on the same hike a 4-some of local men who regularly hike in the Santa Catalina's were also stunned as we did the "grinder". They were early into their descent when we were just short of our turn-around on a 10 mile hike of about 2500' elevation gain. The chattier of the group said that when they encounter people on the trail at that point that they always look totally exhausted and were gasping for air. He noted that I looked like I was dressed for church and as fresh as if I'd just answered the front door. After a long talk with them, they invited us to join them on their upcoming 8000' gain hike to the top of Mt Lemon in a few days that would begin at 4:30am. Yikes! Heading out before sunrise was hardly our style but it was kind of them to offer. A look at my incomplete notes suggested that our biggest elevation gain hike ever was about 5,000' and that there was more than the 4:30 am departure time that would be a strain for us.

Our central and southern Arizona campground and hiking venues had nicely met our needs for being outdoors, getting vigorous exercise, and delving into new details but the sizzling temperatures in the forecast reinforced it was time for these snowbirds to head north. We'd intentionally decided not to have air conditioning in our camper and the daytime temperatures were at times exceeding our personal 'comfort index.' But the lack of air conditioning was serving our purpose: there was no benefit in being able to linger where it was too hot to exercise.

The winds were down enough for us to unfurl our awning in the heat for the first time.
Route planning is always a challenge and Bill was having a hard time reconciling his desire to go to the Grand Canyon with their lousy weather. And then there were the lack of campgrounds in great expanses of the desert occupied by the Native American lands. "What to do, what to do?" was the hard question to answer even though there were many choices. Finally he settled upon going to Sedona for a few days of hiking but then he discovered that the only nearby RV park was booked for the foreseeable future. It became a "press on regardless" situation and he decided to get as close to Sedona as possible and then craft a plan because it was time to move on.