Experience and share the grandeur and beauty of America’s national parks with Tribe magazine.
America’s wealth has always been grounded in its bountiful natural resources. The great dream of the American settlers grew from the possibilities those resources offered—which meant acquiring them to build personal empires. So the idea of partitioning those treasure lands within a system of national parks was a radical social concept in its day.
National Parks Origins
The idea, they say, was the result of an unlikely social altruism among three rough and tumble Western pioneers who were descendents of frontier freeholders. Lawyer and Surveyor-General of Montana Henry D. Washburn, explorer and businessman Nathaniel P. Langford, and US Army Cavalry Lt. Gustavus C. Doane led the 19-man 1870 expedition that made detailed maps, explored lakes, climbed mountains, and wrote observations about wildlife in the then northwestern region of Wyoming.
The legends says that one evening, the men sat at the falls of Yellowstone River surrounded by the Standing People (trees) of the Pines. It had become clear to the explorers that they had found the most beautiful and wondrous lands; but it was also clear to them that they must waive the opportunity for personal claims and have Congress set the lands aside as a reserve for all time, for all people.
We do love our myths. But the truth is that many explorers and artists were responsible for the National Park Act signed by President Grant two years later.
As an aside to our story, while Washburn did not live to see the National Parks come into existence, Langford actually became the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. And during the last decade of Doane’s life, he vigorously campaigned to become its superintendent, but the army did not support his efforts.
Originally under the jurisdiction of the secretary of the interior, the National Park Service became a separate bureau under the Department of the Interior in 1916 with The National Park Service Organic Act. The legislation stated the purpose of the NPS:
…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
Today, you are those future generations. So tell us your experiences with the legacy that is America’s natural treasure.
Share your adventure on our Community page’s Tya Totem forum.
By Lee Karalis Original Post: April 30, 2009
Have You Seen This National Treasure?
The People and the Parks
Each year millions of visitors head to one of the 391 parks across the nation that makes up the National Parks system today. They are there to get away from the concrete and glass and heat sinks of city living for the wood and wildlife and water of our national park lands.
There is something undeniably calming and balancing about sleeping under and walking among the trees of our national forests-the most ancient “peoples” of the Americas. Many indigenous tribes acknowledge the Standing People as guardian spirits, providing food and shelter and containing Earth’s ancient knowledge and wisdom.
There is a kind of “schooling” that takes place as we walk under those lush canopies that refreshes a connection to the land that is all but lost in our cities. The air we breathe, the appreciation of wildlife, the perception of time are all altered in those natural days and weeks of reconnection. We reset so we can survive the artificial air and walls and light until we return again to reconnect and reset among the Standing People.
But in order to reconnect, must there always be a canopy of green from the People of the pines or oaks or birches or spruce? The canopy is also made up of the open Sonoran Desert sky punctuated by the outstretched arms of its own unique Standing People, the saguaro cactus (pronounced SAH-WAH-ROW).
The Southwest’s Treasure
As you travel the roads of Arizona, you cannot miss these seemingly improbable giants thriving. With a lifespan of 175-200 years, Saguaros can reach 50 feet or more and weigh over 8 tons, 90% of which is water. Their many famous “arms” begin as prickly balls that do not sprout until after 75 years of age.
Among the Southwest’s Tohono O’odham, the Desert People, the saguaro (ha:șañ) is as integrated into the community and culture as a sibling in the family. The spiny giants are included in the O’odham creation stories and are the center of celebration during the weeks of its fruit harvest, after which the life-giving monsoons return.
As a result of the harvest, sweet red fruits are made into candy, jelly, syrup, and wine. The tiny black seeds are rich in protein and are ground into flour. The skeletal ribs from those fallen and naturally decomposing become harvesting sticks, used to remove the ripe fruits from the top of the saguaro, and as building material for fences and roofs. As a part of the land, the saguaro provides for and shelters humans, birds, insects, coyotes, and javelinas. As a part of the land, the saguaro is also a part of the Desert People’s culture, included in stories of coyote and turtle.
Saguaro National Park
One of the best places to see the saguaro forests is at the Saguaro National Park edging Tucson, Arizona. Two districts make up this park, which totals more than 90,000 acres. The Rincon Mountain District, on the east side of Tucson, began in 1933 as a national monument. The Tucson Mountain District, on the western edge of the city, was added in 1961. The entire monument became a national park in 1994.
Both districts offer bike and car tour routes, picnic areas, fabulous views, and 165 miles of hiking trails ranging from the lowland into the mountains. The Eastern District also has the 71,000 acre Saguaro Wilderness Area for those more adventurous hikers, backpackers, and campers—permits are required.
Exploring the East District
From the visitor center, the 8-mile Cactus Forest Drive loops as a paved, one-way road through the heart of the saguaro forest and back to the visitor center. The narrow road is a very popular destination for serious bikers and runners, as well as those wanting a relaxing stroll. The road rises, falls, and twists with the natural curves of the land. There are pullouts along the route with short trails for hiking and biking, as well as scenic overlooks with great photo opportunities and picnic areas. The self-guided Desert Ecology Trail is a popular 0.25 mile path beside Javelina Wash offering Sonoran Desert plant and animal exhibits plus resting benches; it is wheelchair accessible. The loop has picnic areas and trailheads and 12 new roadside exhibits. The 2.5 mile multi-use Forest Trail is an easy walk to the lime kilns historic site within the loop.
Many trails throughout the park are suitable for longer hikes and backpacking. They rise from the saguaros of the desert lowlands, riparian areas, and foothills (such as the 5.3 mile Garwood Loop) up into the Rincon Mountains with their grasslands, oaks, pines, and firs. And while there are no campsites accessible in the park, there are six back-country campsites.
Exploring the West District
The Tucson Mountain section of the park has 12 miles of paved roads, but the unpaved (mostly gravel) 6-mile Bajada Loop Drive offers spectacular views, frequent pullouts, and picnic areas. The Loop’s Desert Discovery Trail is 0.5 mile long with Sonoran Desert exhibits, trail guides in Braille and cassette tape formats, trail texturing, and shade armadas with benches for resting. The 1.6-mile Ridge View Trail climbs to a turnaround with rocky side canyon views.
Two other trails are available for exploration. The Hope Camp Trail is 5.6 miles that parallels riparian areas and passes by windmills, water towers and storage tanks-all offering wonderful photo opportunities. Another short but satisfying hike, the Signal Hill Petroglyph Trail, offers a rare view of dozens of examples of rock art from the Hohokam period (AD 300 to 1450) scattered around the rocky hilltop.
The Hohokam, ancestors of the Tohono O’odham, were socially, politically, and scientifically sophisticated desert dwellers. Long before first contact with Europeans, they built complex public works systems, including an intricate canal system that irrigated their fields of cotton, tobacco, corn, beans, and squash. American pioneer farmers later excavated those ancient canals and used them to successfully irrigate their own farmlands.
Park Plant Species
There is a story that speaks of a man from Phoenix, a very angry man, who took a drive into the desert, hoping to calm his rage. But his anger would not be abated.
So he stopped along a road less traveled, amid a grove of saguaros. He took out his rifle, turned toward the saguaros, aimed his sight at one of the younger ones, and shot. And shot again. And again. And again.
When he finally stopped, the young saguaro’s top-half lay on the ground next to its bottom-half, sliced and oozing.
The angry man was so amused by this sight that he decided to take on the largest saguaro in the area.
He saw a giant near the youngster he had just destroyed and nodded. He lifted the gun again. And again he shot. And shot again. And again. And again.
But this time, while his shots were obviously creating holes, the giant’s arms and trunk remained intact. Irritated that he had not sliced up this colossus as he had the smaller one, he walked closer and began another barrage.
But still it remained standing. So he moved even closer-until he was looking straight up the torso of the desert titan, its many arms reaching up to the sky as if in supplication.
The angry man aimed the sight of his gun along the elder’s side and shot again and again and again at the base of one of the arms above him. As he finished shooting, he heard a crack. The very long, thick, and water-laden arm above him broke off and fell on the angry man, crushing him beneath its weight.
Is this story true or just one of the Southwest’s famous urban legends? Does it matter?
Stand among the Sonoran Desert’s Standing People and decide for yourself.
Explore the Saguaro National Park for Yourself
Contact information: Saguaro National Park
Rincon Mountain District (East)
3693 South Old Spanish Trail
Tucson, AZ 85730
Tucson Mountain District (West)
2700 North Kinney Road
Tucson, AZ 85743
For complete information on lodging, contact:
Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau
100 South Church Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85701
Lodging near the East District (Tucson)
Lodging near the West District (Tucson and Marana)
Camping facilities are available in the:
Coronado National Forest
300 W. Congress Street
Tucson, AZ 85701
Tucson Mountain Park
Gilbert Ray Campground
Tucson Mountain Park
8200 W. McCain Loop Road
Tucson, AZ 85735