May 2, 2011

Cactus Blooms...Late Spring in the Sonoran Desert

For the past couple of weeks, the temperatures had been in the upper-70's in Sedona and mid-90's in the Sonoran Desert. But, a cold front rolled through Friday night dropping temperatures significantly. With temperatures down to a far more bearable 80 degrees in the desert, we decided to make a little camping trip down there to see what the Sonoran Desert looks like in late spring.

Our first stop was Lake Pleasant, located just north of Phoenix at about 1,500 feet in elevation. This lake is created by pumping water from the Arizona Canal (originally pumped out of the Colorado River) into the basin of the Agua Fria River. 98% of the water you see here is from the Colorado River, as the Agua Fria is little more than a small creek that mostly flows beneath the surface.

The water is used primarily as a summer storage pond for watering Phoenix's golf courses and gardens in the summer. They pump water in during the spring snow runoff and allow it out during the summer. The lake is extremely popular with Metro Phoenicians, especially those with boats and jet skis. Hilina enjoyed playing along its shores. We were going to camp there, but the campgrounds were full and its was pretty choatic, so we decided to head over to Wickenburg to disperse camp instead.

At this elevation, the saguaros had already started to bloom. They bloom mostly in May. They are primarily pollinated by bats, moths, and in the day by bees. Each flower opens at night and stays open for 24 hours before closing up. Their fruit mature in late June, and then open up during the summer monsoons to release their thousands of seeds on the wet ground. A mature saguaro will produce over 2 million seeds in its lifetime, of which only about 1 on average will survive long enough to produce its own fruits.

Palo Verde in a brilliant display of yellow flowers

Saguaros are worshipped by the Tohono O'odham people because their fruit were a critical source of food and water at the peak of the summer heat and their presence signified the arrival of the refreshing summer monsoon season.

While the increasing heat and arid conditions have resulted in the death of most of the annual wildflowers, late spring is the season of the cactus blooms. Cholla, prickly pear, hedgehog, and pincushion cactus put on brilliant displays of pastel flowers!

Buckhorn Cholla flowers

Velvet Mesquite in bloom

While the saguaros and palo verde are in bloom in the lower elevations near Phoenix, up a little bit higher in Wickenburg, at 2,300 feet elevation, not nearly as many things are blooming. The saguaros and palo verde do not even show any signs of budding. It'll still be a few more weeks up there. But, there were still plenty of cholla and ocotillo flowering.
Prickly Pears in bloom

We camped in a small sandy wash off a dirt road on BLM land. It was nice being away from the yahoos at Lake Pleasant and having the entire desert all to ourselves. Also, with temperatures in the 70's on May 1st, it was also very comfortable.

Ocotillos in bloom

Hilina had a wonderful time camping. She was so wound up that she was chatting all into the night. But, once she finally fell asleep, she was out like a rock. In the morning, she was hyped up again and said to us "thank you for taking me camping!".

Our campsite "off the beaten track" near Wickenburg

When we were last near Wickenburg in January 2010, we climbed up that peak, called Vulture Peak. You can see the images of that climb from this blog post below;

A view of Vulture Peak from the campsite

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