After the two Park Rangers in Saguaro National Park West recommended I split my time in Tucson to include Catalina State Park, I figured I had to cut my time short at Gilbert Ray so as not to miss it. One even went to far to say that Gilbert Ray had been his favorite campground…”until I saw Catalina.” So my expectations had been set pretty high.
Imagine my shock when I arrived at the Catalina front gate and went inside to register. I asked the elderly, somewhat cranky volunteer behind the desk if he had a map of the east side of the park. His answer was “Everything to see is back at Saguaro National Park WEST! It’s the biggest attraction in Tucson! There is nothing to see here!! GO BACK!” I kept waiting for a wink. A smile to crack. Some indication that he was joking. But when his next comment was “You can always visit the biosphere. It’s 20 miles north of here,” I realized he was dead serious.
After that long, hot commute across Tucson through traffic to reluctantly change sites, I could honestly feel the tears welling up in my eyes. But I had come this far, I wasn’t turning back, especially since I was now on the north side of town, poised for my northbound journey come the weekend. So I parked the rig, downed a couple of cold beers, and gave it some time to soak in.
I did a couple of short hikes from the park trailhead during my lunch break, at which time I began to notice that the saguaros seem a little bigger here. They had many more “arms” than those on the western side. A saguaro can live to be 150 years old, and does not even begin to produce arms until around 70 years. So some of these must be quite old. Still, the Texas-looking mesquite trees and prolific thistle blooms were no match for the beautiful desert blooms I just left behind at Gilbert Ray. But I tried to withhold judgement until I could actually see the east side of the National Park.
Saguaro National Park is actually divided into two sections, the Tucson Mountain District to the West, and the Rincon Mountain District to the East, separated by the city of Tucson. So I decided to make my way across northern Tucson to check out the east side of the park. A quick chat with the Ranger there reinforced what the volunteer at Catalina had said….the main attractions were in the west branch of the park. There was little to see or do here beyond the eight-mile scenic paved “Cactus Loop Auto/Bike Tour.”
It was approaching sunset, but it had been a frustrating day at work, so I really wanted to ride the trail. Back home, it takes me only 45 minutes to cover eight miles, and I had an hour and a half. “No problem,” I thought. The gates closed at sunset, but the Ranger at the kiosk told me where to park outside the gate, and assured me that although you can’t enter by car, you can go anywhere in the park “24/7” on foot or bike.
I grossly underestimated the time it would take me, due to all the hills. Just as with hiking, I am great at long distances, but when it comes to climbing, I slow down to a tortoise pace. So I was five miles into the eight-mile trail when nightfall overtook me. No problem, I will just follow the pavement stripes, I thought.
I can see far in the distance a vehicle is approaching. Since it is after sunset, I know the gates are closed, so it is the Park Ranger making his “sweep.” As he approaches, I pull off onto the side of the road, way off into the dirt, and wait for him to pass. He stops. I wave and say cheerfully, “Almost done!” He replies, “Where are your lights? You do have lights, right?” I say assuredly, “Oh, yes,” (lying through my teeth) “I have a headlamp in my backpack. But I don’t need it. I can see just fine in the twilight.” He says, “The lights are not for you. They are for protection and safety of other visitors in the park.” I look side to side. I have not seen another car in the last half hour, and the parking lot was empty when I started. The last person I saw was the ranger in the kiosk. But I grit my teeth and say “Okay, no problem!” as I start rifling through my backpack looking for a headlamp that I know is not there. As he drives off, he leaves me with one parting message…..”It’s the LAW!”
As I crest the final hill, I see him waiting at the park gate. Probably on “official business” with the park now being closed, yet I can’t help but feel watched. I figure I have no choice but to try to fake it by pulling out my iphone to activate the flashlight app. But I can’t ride safely while holding my precious cargo. Can this guy ticket me? I don’t know. I take no chances, and walk my bike the rest of the way to the exit. As soon as I leave, he drives away.
I think back to the nighttime magical experiences I had in Saguaro Park West where the Park Rangers all encouraged us to avoid unnecessary light pollution and embrace the light of the night while in the park. And I have to agree with the cranky old man at the Catalina registration office. “West IS best!”
(Footnote: To the kind person/s who ordered items from Amazon using my link, a heartfelt thanks for your support!! — Suzanne)