We stopped at Payson overnight after leaving Winslow. Then we took Highway 87 heading south in Arizona. It was a scenic drive along Tonto National Forest with lush drought tolerant trees, such as junipers and pines. There were several lakes tucked away in the mountains. As we got close to Fort McDowell, we entered into a different world! Giant cacti stood by the road, in the fields, and on the mountains. Most of these giant cacti had arms up, and they looked like an army of green soldiers cheering for us. These giant cacti are saguaros. Their appearance told us that we entered Sonoran Desert. Sonoran Desert is the most bio-diverse desert in the worlds. Saguaros only live in Sonoran Desert, and it is the symbol of American Southwest. “We are walking into a movie!” Stephen uttered his excitement.
We got off Highway 87 and took Bush Highway towards Apache Junction. When we checked in at the ticket booth at Usery Mountain Regional Park, the park ranger told us we were early. It was about 11:30 a.m. on my iPhone (Stephen’s wrist watch showed 12:30 p.m., and we had no idea that we were in Mountain Time Zone). The park ranger checked us in after confirming the site was open. We then drove into this sprawling campground. Several campsites at the beginning of the campground had on-site shelters for RVs with roofs and screens to reduce desert heat. It was in the lower 80s with beautiful blue sky and a sea of white clouds. We settled down on a campsite that was close to bathrooms and showers.
I walked on the sandy Desert Hawk Trail towards Nature Center. Saguaros stood high like monuments. Most saguaros had arms reaching up, yet some had no arms. Looking up from the base of a saguaro, it looked like a huge hand reaching up to the sky. Saguaros store water in the accordion-like folds. They have shallow roots that as wide as their heights. Saguaros flower from April through June. And Saguaro blossom is the state flower of Arizona. They live up to 200 years. Chubby Barrel cacti squatted here and there. Chollas shined with their numerous white spikes. Prickly pears grew in clumps. Green Foothill Palo Verdes, the state tree of Arizona, looked exuberant with distinctive green barks. Foothill Palo Verdes can photosynthesis with their green barks. Creosotes have an open and airy shape with tender branches. There were also a few ironwoods. It hadn’t been rain for over 75 days, so most desert hollies looked wilt. Small lizards darted across the trail. I heard the sound of Gambel’s quails and pigeons but had no sight of them. When I got closer to the bird feeders at the back of the Nature Center, all the birds just suddenly took off. A couple of big desert hollies near the little manmade fountain were blooming with beautiful yellow flowers.
The layer of tuff on Pass Mountain glowed with a distinctive light orange color in the setting sun. The peaks of the nearby Superstition Mountains also glowed with pink colors. A sea of spectacular colored clouds was painted in the western sky. Silhouettes of happy saguaros added a desert note to the sunset scenery. Edges of clouds closer to the horizon were gilded with the brightest golden color. Colors of the clouds changed from gold and yellow to pink as the sun went down further. At last, the sea of clouds was set on fire by the last sunrays of the day. Giant saguaros waved to the sun and thanked for a brilliant sunset. When night took over, the howl of coyotes and the barks of dogs broke the silence. After a while, they became quiet, only left crickets to sing the lullaby.
Early in the morning the next day, we rode bikes to the trailhead staging area and started to ride our bikes on Blevins trail. But we soon gave up on that plan because the sandy trail was too soft for our bikes. So we returned to Vista trail. It was a short trail up a small granite hill. Those brown granite rocks looked similar to those of Alabama Hills. There were quartz shining in the rocks. Decomposed gravels from those rocks filled the trail. The reward of Vista trail was a panoramic view of the park on top of the hill. The desert landscape was different from those of Death Valley and Mojave Desert. Saguaros punctuated the scenery. It also appeared greener with drought tolerant trees and bushes. A giant round boulder was laden with neon green and brown lichens. A beautiful rock by the trail caught my eye. It was a light blue green rock with big shining ruby particles. Down the hill, an interpretive sign taught me the geology of Pass Mountain. Volcanic calderas in Superstition Mountains blew up ash and lava 25 million years ago. Lava and ash welded together and formed the light colored layer of tuff across the top of Pass Mountain. The tuff on Pass Mountain also contains lots of quartz that glow in sunset.
The bike ride back to the campsite was mostly uphill and it was harder. We went back to watch the birds at Nature Center. Gila woodpeckers and colorful parakeets were having dinner on the feeders, Gamble’s quails and pigeons were picking up fallen seeds from the ground, some unknown birds also join the crowds. A tiny humming bird with purple patches on its neck perched on a branch of a tree right by the deck. It might be a black-chinned hummingbird. It stayed there for a long time and minding its own business. How lovely!