Into the Tortolitas: Downstream: Trip Report


We had a computer meltdown on publication day, sorry for the delay. Another post will appear in just a couple of days.

We decided to explore the downstream side of a wash, that cuts across the jeep road, which leads up into the Tortolita Mountains. We usually head upstream, and I had only traveled a short distance in this direction. There had been construction of an exclusive subdivision somewhere past here. They had been putting roads in to connect the multi-million dollar lots. It needed to be seen before the changes and there was curiosity.


The January weather, at the brink of Arizona Spring and Groundhog Day, felt wonderful. The air was calm and the sun warm as we climbed the steep road, about a half mile or so, to the wash. The vista gives a clear view. We could tell that there was no one near. If seen, the distance would be too great to see nude detail, or even the distinction of clothing.

We walked through the small sandy wash among the boulders and rock outcrops. The vegetation was wintry brown and grey. The distinct rock formations were bare to see, as the leaves were missing from many plants.

A few hundred feet down brought us past the ancient Hohokam ruins of a dam. Hundreds of years ago, they build these to collect water and grow crops of agave and corn. All that is left is a wall of rocks beside the stream. The rest has been washed away for many years. The Native Americans have populated the Tucson valley continuously, for 11,000 years. Pottery shards are found in numerous spots in the Tortolitas. Petroglyphs and even more ancient pictographs are found in the area. Archaeological digs have uncovered ball courts and 40,000 processed agave where this stream meets the bajada of the Tortolita fan, a few miles below.

In time, a puddle greeted us in the sand. Numerous animal tracks surrounded it. At this time water is sparse. Paws and hooves must dig it out of the ground. There have been wild horses found up here. We are always on the lookout, but a cattle fence hinders their movement in this spot.



All along here, the rock formations are a treat. This becomes a steep walled canyon. Vegetation and of course a multitude of saguaros grow out of the harsh conditions, often without soil. A crack in a rock may hold the root system of a large plant, even a saguaro that weighs tons.


Down in the depths, we see the scar of a road’s construction in the not far distance. A few steps and it disappears again behind the vegetation. Plant life is thick here, where a stream comes through and sandy loam gathers at the base of the hillside. Up on that hillside, I spot a rare crested saguaro, one in ten thousand.

Crested with another mutant in the foreground

Crested with another mutant in the foreground

We jockey through the bushes, cactus, the prickers and needles to get a good camera angle. It is high and has its mane pointing to the side, so we have to travel to get a shot of its breadth. The zoom lens is inadequate. I do my best. Perhaps it will blow up well on the computer and we will have a closer look at home.


We have left our pack to wander in this lush treat, just to see what we find. Surprised, we notice a distinctly powerful energy presence at the base of a saguaro. We move around searching the parameters, and stand basking in the sensation. There is probably an accumulation of water here below the surface. It is fun being naked and wandering with all senses.

A particularly tall saguaro has our awe.


It has been there quite a while. It had grown a more common group of arms, but the main stalk just seems to wind up may be over 40 feet tall.


It has many signs of age. It has sustained frost damage on its west side where the sun didn’t warm it soon enough one especially cold morning. The outside has the protective scaring, turning a black color.


Saguaros do this when woodpeckers drill their nests into them. When they die, among the skeletal ribs, this material is often left in the shape of a shoe, called saguaro “boots.” Sometimes, this doesn’t give a scar, but disease is introduced instead. The brown sap indicates that the saguaro is doomed. This old fella has been tough. Arms have been knocked off, but the awe comes from wondering how it is that the thing didn’t tumble down from its own weight years before.


We meander, through the growth, twisting our naked bodies around perils with care.


Fun things are found like an old rusty barbed wire from a different age, but the overwhelming treat is just the sense of this desert cove. There is something special in the stark nature that surrounds us. There is empty silence broken only by the echo of our movements and the occasional passing breezes.

We also discover a lot marker with a number. This pristine jewel is for sale, the dollar amount well into seven figures. This was never to be developed and to remain public land and sanctuary, but that is another story.

We decide to explore further to the new road. We must be alert and not be found here. We can’t be sure what may be under construction, or activity, suddenly around any bend. There are security patrols and a quick cover is difficult in this rugged mass of rock and sharp things.

Coming out of the wash onto the road, we are very exposed for a long distance. It is a larger canyon here. On the opposite face the main road winds along above our position. It is still quiet enough for sound to travel from easily a mile away. We realize that there will be plenty of warning. Still it feels vulnerable. There is a sense of being extra naked, as if in a public place with no clothing.

We are not sure, but there is a good chance that this is the road that will lead back to our main jeep trail, which is over a mountain ridge. The new grade is quite steep. We decide to risk the patrols and hope that this is the shortcut. Passing through here before would have been a bushwhacking, boulder climbing nightmare before this road.


Our gamble pays off. The views are spectacular and we have been unmolested. We have a much better idea what this unscrupulous developer is creating in our backyard playground.


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