The Sonoran Desert holds mesmerizing contrasts—driven by the most interesting paradox of all: The Sonoran is our hottest North American desert, while it is also our wettest. Light but consistent rains in winter and spring foster more diversity than in perhaps any other desert in the world, from cactus to cottonwoods to cougars.
This journey takes you deep into the quietest reaches of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert to walk among priestly saguaros, graceful organ cactus, and other desert-adapted plants, all with their own stories to tell. You’ll visit the magical Saguaro National Park—first national parkland set aside to protect a species of plant—and venture farther off the beaten path to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This UNESCO Biosphere reserve is the only place in the U.S. where the stately organ pipe cactus grows wild.
Pushing further into the southeast corner of Arizona, you’ll wander through a hoodoo wonderland at Chiricahua National Monument, and slip into a cool underground world of stalactites and other “speleothems” at Kartchner Caverns. Every day of this sojourn is filled with ecological surprises and cultural resonance lent by the area’s Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and homesteaders histories.
2018 Trip Dates
- Departure 1: Apr 8 –14
- Departure 2: Apr 15 – 21
- Departure 3: Sep 30 – Oct 6
- Departure 4: Oct 7 – 13
DAY 1 / TUCSON, ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NATIONAL MONUMENT You’re in Sonoran Desert as soon as you leave the Tucson cityscape. The drive to the remote Organ Pipes Cactus National Monument takes about two and a half hours—time to get to know your traveling companions and chat with your guide about desert ecology and the upcoming trip. Part of the drive takes you through the Tohono O’odham (“Desert People”) Nation. Tonight’s lodgings are about 15 minutes from the park so we have all day to hike and explore this extraordinary landscape, a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The park is covered by a variety of cactus species, including the saguaro and the much rarer organ pipe cactus. This is the only place in the U.S. where the organ pipe grows wild. The cactus grows in clumps of unbranched columns reaching toward the sky. Sixteen feet is a typical height, but the plants can reach over twenty feet tall. Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center
DAY 2 / EAST UNIT OF SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK – RINCON MOUNTAIN DISTRICT Saguaro National Park is composed of two distinct districts, separated by Tucson. Today’s adventure centers in the higher-elevation Rincon District east of the city. We’ll stop at the visitor center, where a living outdoor exhibit displays over half a dozen of the key Sonoran plants. Your guide will choose the best hike for the conditions of the day, with a number of great options to pick from. Wherever you go, you’re likely to encounter saguaros of varying size, various cholla species (including teddy bear cholla!), prickly pear, mesquite, palo verde, and barrel cactus. You might also see signs of deer, javelina, and coyote. If time allows, we’ll also visit the popular recreation area of Sabino Canyon. Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort
DAY 3 / WEST UNIT OF SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK – TUCSON MOUNTAIN DISTRICT, ARIZONA- SONORAN DESERT MUSEUM We’ll split this day between exploring the park and visiting the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. TripAdvisor ranks the museum as one of the top ten in the country, maybe because about 85 percent of the experience is outdoors and features living plants and animals! This district of the park is smaller and at a lower elevation than the east side, but there are areas of uninterrupted saguaro forest. The trails are quite varied, and your guide will choose the best one for the current conditions and available time. Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort
DAY 4 / KARTCHNER CAVERNS STATE PARK Taking a literal deep dive into the Sonoran landscape, we head underground today to explore the Rotunda and Throne Room of the Kartchner limestone cavern. We’re only in the cavern for just under an hour, but that’s long enough to behold the “bell canopy,” formed by water flowing over a bump in the cave wall, and one of the world’s longest soda straw stalactites, at slightly over 21 feet tall. We’ll also see the cave discoverers’ original trail, 45,000-year-old bat guano, and “Kubla Khan,” the largest column formation in Arizona. Back above ground, our guide leads the way on an afternoon hike along one of the park’s scenic trails. Casa de San Pedro B&B
DAY 5 / CORONADO NATIONAL MEMORIAL This morning we make the short drive to Coronado National Memorial. The Memorial was arranged as gesture of goodwill between the United States and Mexican governments in 1941 and commemorates the first organized land expedition into the present-day American Southwest by conquistador Francisco Vasques de Coronado in 1540. The Coronado expedition ushered in a period of cultural collapse for the indigenous peoples of the region, while simultaneously launching an era of cultural amalgamation that continues to this day. Here we’ll enjoy a picnic lunch and hike one of the trails that runs through the Memorial, including Joe’s Canyon Trail, the Coronado Peak Trail, and the Cave Trail. In mid-afternoon we arrive in the charming town of Bisbee, which earned the title of Best Historic Small Town from Sunset magazine in 2016. You’ll have some free time this afternoon to explore the downtown area before dinner this evening. Copper Queen
DAY 6 / CHIRICAHUA NATIONAL MONUMENT We have a full day to explore the trails and history of this “Wonderland of Rocks.” The Monument was established in 1924 to preserve its extensive hoodoos (the same geological formation found in Bryce Canyon) and balancing rocks. This is a birding mecca, so keep your binoculars handy to view some of the 13 different hummingbird species found in the area, many of which are native to Mexico and rarely seen in the U.S. We’ll also have time to hike today, and two great options include the Echo Canyon or Natural Bridge Trail. We return to Bisbee this afternoon, and tonight celebrate the week with a festive farewell dinner. Copper Queen
DAY 7 / HIKE AND TUCSON FOR DEPARTURES HOME On our way to Tucson this morning for flights home we’ll get one last history lesson at a stop in Tombstone—famous for its storied past, where the legends “Doc” Holliday and Wyatt Earp loom large
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