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  • Writer's pictureScott Carnahan

Sonoran Scenes: Adventures in Arizona, The Quintessential Desert State

The golden sun blazes through translucent clouds, illuminating a lush desert landscape filled with cacti and scrubby plantlife. Saguaro National Park, Sonoran Desert, Tucson Arizona

Saguaro National Park, Sonoran Desert, AZ - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue


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The Grand Canyon State holds much more than the seminal canyon carved by the indomitable Colorado River. From the Mexican border all the way up to Utah, the wealth of desert landscape is remarkable, and holds countless opportunities for adventure that pushes the limits of an explorer’s credulity. This article is just a taste of the fantastic beauty Arizona holds, from the land of cactus forests to the legendary world of red rock formations carved by the celestial paintbrush of time.

Arizona is a rich land of immense beauty that encompasses portions of all four American deserts, and hosts an awe-inspiring range of iconic landscapes supporting unique plants and animals. With the Mojave Desert in the west, the Sonoran Desert in the south, The Chihuahuan Desert to the east, and the Colorado Plateau in the north - Arizona is the quintessential Desert state.

Stars light up the blue black night sky over Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona. In the foreground, a Saguaro cactus dances gleefully

Dancing Cactus: Organ Pipe National Monument, AZ - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

The lowest point in Arizona is 72 feet above sea level (San Luis, AZ) in the lower Sonoran Desert - the highest point is Humphreys Peak at 12,637 feet in the north. This diversity in elevation lends itself to an ecological mixed bag, giving the state everything from lowland deserts to alpine tundras. Southwest Arizona from Phoenix to Yuma is the lowest part of the state - the elevation climbs to the north and east, building toward the Grand Staircase starting just south of Utah. My journey took me from the lush low desert up into the desolate high desert. Experiencing Arizona’s transitional zones from desert to desert is a glimpse into the dry biome that is so essential to Earth. The low desert is known for its bi-seasonal rains and scarce freezing periods, opposite to the high desert’s deep freezes and wet winters. These two contrasting biomes give Arizona its unique character of diverse landscapes.

Vibrant colored Prickly Pear cacti sprout up from the reddish brown desert soil, with scrubby plantlife and tall red hoodoos rising in the background. Sonoran Desert, Arizona

Prickly Pear Cactus: Sonoran Desert, AZ - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Massive monsoons build in the Gulf of California and descend upon the Sonoran Desert, making it the wettest desert on the planet. There are two main rainy seasons: one occurring in early spring and the latter in the late summer months, both bordered on either side by hot and dry periods. This gives the Sonoran a unique array of animals and plants that aren’t found anywhere else on Earth.

The official wildflower of Arizona is the blossom of the mighty Saguaro cactus, the most iconic of the state’s plants. Though it is only found in the Sonoran desert, this cactus is a symbol for deserts everywhere - and for good reason. The Saguaro live upwards of 150 years, taking on their unique shapes as they reach for the sun; hitting heights of up to 40 feet tall. These Sonoran señors line the highways of Arizona and make for a horizon that isn’t found anywhere else. It is breathtaking to speed down a Sonoran thoroughfare - especially during sunset.

Sunset blasts oranges and yellows across the bottom of the horizon, as the darkness of night begins to overtake the sky. A lone Saguaro rises majestically out of the desert. Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

Sunset over Organ Pipe National Monument, AZ - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

an extreme closeup of a mottled grey-brown Arizona Coyote in Saguaro National Park, Tucson Arizona

Experiencing this absolute gem of a biome can be done via a variety of National Monuments and National Parks. My favorite protected desert world is the wondrous Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This famed monument is on the border with Mexico just south of Ajo, AZ, protecting a rich forest of the namesake cactus, Saguaro, and ocotillo that rest between picturesque desert mountains. The piglike Javalinas, legendary Desert Bighorns, notorious Mountain Lions, and renowned Coyotes govern this arid paradise that exists between the United States and Mexico.

The borderlands add a special character to this National Monument - Border Patrol stations and sporadic Border Patrol vehicles on park roads bring an added sense of adventure to this picturesque landscape, divided by the barrier between nations. With the lights of the Mexican town Sonoyta flickering in the distance, and the sweet smell of Ocotillo and Opuntia blooms in the air, I was lucky enough to watch April’s pink full moon rise above the vast desert - a moment that will forever be in my heart.

The namesake Organ Pipes of Organ Pipe National Monument are dozens of Saguaro Cacti rising up to partially obscure a brilliant moonrise, illuminating the sky a royal blue - almost purple color

Full Moon Rising over Organ Pipe National Monument, AZ - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

To the north of the Sonoran Desert is another treasure trove of striking settings that seem to be from a world of fantasy; the famed Petrified Forest National Park in the Painted Desert is a wondrous landscape that is absolutely unforgettable. Sedona with its divine rock monoliths will stamp the imagination, and Lake Powell as it sits between regal canyons is begging to be explored.

Baking in the sun just below the Utah border lives the most iconic of rock formations...

Monument Valley - a breathtaking sight to see, deep in the heart of the Navajo Nation. Arizona is a treasure of landscape, plants, animals, and culture. No journey across America is complete without diving into this desert greatness. Epic sunsets, unforgettable landmarks, and a special charm that isn’t found anywhere else on earth - The desert calls for you to explore it.


Scott Carnahan will be taking a much-deserved 2 week break from his regular Monday column on the Pathloom blog - our other staff writers and guest bloggers will do the best we can to fill his shoes in the meantime!


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