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A short ode to Sonoran Desert National Monument

This post was originally written for the photography book Our National Monuments: America’s Hidden Gems, by photographer QT Luong. The book includes short essays from 27 local citizen groups who protect and steward these treasured places. I’ve served as an advocate for this area since 2005, helped launch the Friends of the Sonoran Desert National Monument, and eventually served as its Executive Director as it morphed into Arizona Conservation Partners in 2015.

To the uninitiated, Sonoran Desert National Monument stands primarily as an unfamiliar blob of color on the state map, sandwiched between two Indian reservations, a bombing range, and a generally blank space on the map. Cleaved into thirds by both an interstate and a state highway, and situated near the sprawling edge of the nation’s fifth largest city, a would-be visitor might imagine this to be a busy urban playground. A place to arrive early in order to find an open parking spot.

Instead, it’s nearly half a million acres of classic Sonoran Desert habitat: forests of iconic saguaro, veins of usually dry washes punctuated by mesquite, ironwood and palo verde trees, and basalt-strewn slopes that lead up to craggy high points, sometimes separated from one another by a flat valley occupied by a creosote army.

A place without a visitor center, only a handful of signed access points, and few obvious tourist destinations. A place large enough to contain within it three separate designated Wilderness Areas. A place where it’s not hard to find some solitude, especially when you get out on foot and follow your own path.

While I’ve traveled to many of our nation’s most cherished places—from Acadia to the Everglades, Yosemite to Denali—I feel most at home in the diverse Sonoran Desert, a land of specialized plants and animals each remarkably adapted to thrive in an arid climate. One of the best places I’ve found to explore this special ecosystem is Sonoran Desert National Monument.

This is classic wandering territory. It’s cresting a rocky ridge line to see the desert unfold in front of you towards the morning sun. It’s finding a small tinaja during an otherwise dry month. It’s passing the remains of a prehistoric toolmaking site, not far from a historic trail through the low mountain pass. It’s unintentionally startling a coyote who was eyeing lunch. It’s spinning in a circle and not seeing a single building. It’s stillness and quiet as you turn to face a cool breeze.

There are no crowded parking lots here, but a few rough dirt roads penetrate inwards from nearly every edge, allowing deeper explorations into this unique national monument. But do not enter if you’re unprepared. There are hazards and dangers here, along with occasional natural resource damage, and of course, harsh elements that can ruin more than just your day.

While you can see a lot of this place through a truck window, you can’t experience its soul without getting your feet dusty. One thing I love about the desert is that it requires you to look down, often, to place your next step. This has always helped ground me more closely to the land. I notice more: the path a lizard made in the soft soil, a wildflower searching for sunlight from under the edge of a bush, an occasional pot sherd, a rusty pop top from a previous era, a glistening rock trying hard to be noticed in the late morning sun, a small piece of cholla looking for its next free ride.

I wasn’t there when the Butterfield Overland Stage passed through, nor when Juan Bautista de Anza or the Mormon Battalion did. And certainly not when the descendants of today’s indigenous tribes did. But I’ve walked these same paths too, stopping often to smell the creosote, survey a hillside crowded with saguaros, listen to the desert birds make themselves known, trudge through sandy washes, and inspect a peculiar variety of cactus I hadn’t noticed before—just as all those before me might have. Walking here feels like my own personal connection to the past.

Perhaps the biggest threat to this national monument is that it’s too often overlooked, by visitors and advocates alike. In a state blessed with iconic parks and uber-famous public lands, it’s sometimes easy to disregard the places you don’t see in every traveler’s social media feed.

For many though, places like this offer the real magic of our treasured public lands. Because it’s in these places—large, protected, mostly undeveloped landscapes like Sonoran Desert National Monument, where you can explore largely on your own terms—that you discover truly intimate and unforgettable experiences. There are important personal treasures to be found here, and it’s our collective responsibility to ensure future generations have the same opportunity to find them, too.