The Cave Creek Regional Park, one of Maricopa County's newest parks, protects
roughly 3,000 acres of extremely lush desert foothills just north of the Phoenix
city limits. The steep and very rocky slopes offer excellent habitat for cacti,
desert trees, and many other plants. The sparse soil is very well-drained,
retaining little moisture. Yet the steep slopes provide profuse runoff when
it does rain. In other words, ideal desert conditions. The result is
exceptionally beautiful desert scenery.
(Photo left: a stately, multi-armed
saguaro standing perhaps 25 feet tall. Above right: a hedgehog cactus which
is about one foot tall. Right: a profusion of saguaros on a rocky hilltop.)
The saguaro is the largest cactus of the Sonoran Desert and its most well
known feature. Almost all non-desert dwelling people immediately visualize a huge,
multi-armed saguaro when they think about deserts. However the saguaro is
actually a rather finicky plant and thrives only in particular conditions
such as those found at this park. Large multi-armed saguaros are actually not that
common. (There is in fact local concern about conserving saguaros and other
large cacti. When developers clear out land for building, they are required
by law to preserve the saguaros for transplantation elsewhere.)
The photo left highlights numerous desert plants. The small, shiny cactus
which dominates this steep slope is the teddy-bear or "jumping" cholla. It propagates by
dropping spiny links off its arms. If you brush against one while hiking a piece may "jump"
into your leg! Not only is this painful, but they can be difficult to remove.
There are many varieties of cholla. Buckhorn cholla also likes well-drained slopes
and is very common here. The tiny "pencil" cholla is less common but found here, too.
The red cacti are barrel cacti. They are far less common
than other cactus varieties and prefer very steep and rocky hillsides.
The large "shrubs" on the hillside above are actually small palo verde trees. Generally,
desert trees are found in well-watered canyon bottoms or wash areas. However trees
do occur on the hillsides here at Cave Creek, especially the versatile palo verde
(which is the state tree of Arizona). Other trees found here are varieties of mesquite,
ironwood, and desert broom. Deciduous trees do not occur here.
The hillside shown right features two bright
green ocotillo in the foreground, more teddy-bear chollas, a large palo verde,
and saguaros on the hilltop in the background. The dense
ground cover which gives the foothills its lush look consists primarily of
burrsage and brittlebrush. The brittlebrush puts out large yellow flowers and can make
a very impressive display following a wet winter. Also common are Mormon tea and jojoba.
The ocotillo is not actually a cactus. Under normal dry desert conditions, it sheds
its leaves and with its long thorns, the ocotillo definitely looks like a cactus.
However after a period of heavy rain the ocotillo becomes covered by beautiful
bright green leaves as shown left. As a bonus, it grows bright red flowers from its
tips in the spring.
Shown right is a cluster of prickly pear cacti. The prickly pear prefers dry
hillsides but is extremely versatile. It is found on dry hillsides all over the
country and is quite common at higher elevations and in transition zones (where
deserts end and mountains begin).
While civilization does intrude somewhat on the park's fringes (right), the park
trails offer miles of fine hiking and unspoiled vistas. A modern (and inexpensive)
full service campground makes the park attractive to out-of-town visitors.
Metropolitan Phoenix is one of the fastest growing areas in the country.
While the area has started to suffer many of the woes attributed to
extreme growth, the city of Phoenix and Maricopa County have set aside
substantial tracts as parks, preserves, and recreation areas. Phoenix has
more square miles of parkland than any other city in the country. No matter
where you live (or are staying) in the metro area, you have quick and easy
access to a quality outdoor experience.
Special thanks go to Natalie Trager, park naturalist, for her patience
in answering my questions for this article.