Bagging Crested Saguaros


This article is an adaptation of a story that I wrote of a day that DF and I spent exploring on ten miles of Tortolita Mountain trails. It was then published in The Naturist Society’s magazine “N” this last summer. I’ve added illustrative pictures from the day for this publication.


There is much to be said of the iconic saguaro cactus and how it seems to communicate, to us. Books have been published featuring pictures of the saguaro in its many forms. The arms can take on comical configurations as they seem to imitate human characteristics. The holes where woodpeckers make their homes can become mouths and eyes with only a smidgen of imagination. With all of this variety, there are those that a stand out in their own way.

This story is about a quest for the crested saguaro. These are freaks in the vast saguaro community. It is said that these, which are identified by a crown at the top, or the end of an arm, are one in ten thousand. They can appear majestic, as if a crowned ruling monarch is presiding over the realm. When coming across one, it is compelling to have to stop and observe in fascination. It is something unique, something very special.

The saguaro produces tens of thousands of seeds, yet just a very few sprout and survive to maturity. For five and ten years, they necessitate a protecting mother plant, lest they be eaten by a desperate rodent, hungry in the stark harsh desert. As years go by, they slowly gather height. A knee high youth may be twenty or more years old. Their first arm is generally not produced until around the seventieth year. They continue living as much as 200 years and more. They are not very frost tolerant, but they thrive through long droughts, extreme heat, and the mutilation of wildlife, which make them into their homes. These mammoths, some 40 feet tall with multiple arms upon arms, survive. With this in mind, a unique crested saguaro is that much more a wonder.

Dead Crested with a Long Story

No one yet knows why the cresteds mutate as they do, although there is much speculation. A crest can appear on a previously typical body. The characteristic can be on one arm, or several. Often the main stalk wears the crest as a crown.

In our fascination, we have been collecting, or bagging photos and the experience of these specimens. Freely nude, it is a wonderful pastime under a warm Arizona sun.


Through the resources of organizations, many are listed.  In our Tortolita Mountain Range, there have been 42 documented. I have found a 43rd that began to bud several years ago. A severe freeze destroyed a dozen a few years back. Sometimes they are found as just a skeleton with remnants of a crest. It is heartbreaking to discover one that has succumbed, a friend that I have known and greeted for years. Also, these photographs through the years show the slow changes. Nearly everything in the life of a saguaro happens slowly.

On this day, we choose a trail section which topo mapping has shown to have several crested. The mapping predates the historical freeze. We don’t know what condition these may be in. The sun is in a grand turquoise sky. It is stimulating many desert plants to bloom on this late spring date. We start out early, getting the most out of this remarkably beautiful day.

The very popular access to this area is Wild Burro Canyon trail. It leads up a steep grade through a canyon of dark rock in sharp cliff cathedral walls to an elevated valley. Our naked hiking would be continuously disrupted using this route. In our favor, most people, after climbing the steep Wild Burro canyon, decide to return. We all know that there is no drinking water up here.

Large Rock Looks like a Mushroom

I know of a back way. By driving an extra hour, partially in four wheel drive, parking and then hiking over a ridge trail for 1.3 miles, we can access this mountain valley.

With this diminished population in mind, we are much less likely to encounter textile clad others.

First Hill to Climb

We will be in solitude.

After parking the SUV next to a sandy wash, we imbibe the spring flowers and climb. Very soon, we have already spotted two crested saguaros.

Crested Mutation

We take photos. It is beautiful, there are vistas in many directions and we take an hour just to savor these 1.3 miles.

We arrive at a corral marking our arrival on the valley floor.


All the ridges are thickly populated with saguaro cacti. Where our topographic resource tells us a crested may be, we often find hundreds of saguaro.

Can You Spot the Crested?

There, we stand and stare, scanning the ridges, enjoying the biodiversity, hoping to spot the illusive monarch.

High Desert

The distance is often too far to see. We take pictures here and there to blow up later and search on the computer screen.

Sometimes, it is just too difficult to visit a crested saguaro closely. This is known to be the most biodiverse area in the State of Arizona. Out of respect and love, we don’t tramp through the delicate life off of the trail. Our other reason is that it is rocky and nearly everything is prickery, barbed, or bites. You may imagine how clothing gets caught. Nude, as we are, we have to be very cautious. Movement can be slow to negotiate. We stick to the trail system that a local hiking group has maintained.

Was a Crested

They need to be commended.

We spend our day at this.

We have a wonderful lunch atop a flat rock with a view. It is shaded under a ledge and in a dry wash. From this vantage, we notice a huge hawk’s nest cradled in the arms of a saguaro. The green giants are a part of everyone’s life in this ecosystem.

Saguaro with a Large Raptor Nest

We sit fascinated by the tenacity of the roots in the exposed rock, until a swarm of tiny ants begins to take over. I jump up, and then realize that one leg is asleep. Comically, I almost fall over.

Avra Valley Far Below

There is a profound silence that is often found in these mountains. We may hear only a breeze, a bird call, or the sound of a lizard’s tail, when it scurries off in alarm, as we pass.

Horned Toad

We generally can hear someone coming up the trail. A biker comes up over a slight ridge. He has escaped detection moving quickly and nearly silent. The expression on the guy, as he quickly glances over, is apparently not sure what he saw. “Was that a woman in a white dress shirt and was that guy standing behind her naked or what?”

Another Roadside Attraction

We encounter him once again on the other side of the valley, as he is returning. We are with no cover, both of us appropriately naked. I just politely place my hands in front of my genitals and stand friendly-like, technically legal. He then says, “It’s all good.”  I shrug and drop my hands as he passes on. This guy has a big smile. He too, has been enjoying himself.

Other Saguaro Mutants

A few feet down the trail, DF is absorbed in a camera shot. As he passes her, he politely tells her, “I won’t look,” and puts his hand up like a blinder. She just makes no big deal out of it, as if everything is pleasant and ordinary.

“Y” Shaped Crested

We have only one more encounter, the valley feels truly all ours.

Saguaros are Rugged Here

A very fit elderly gentleman on his mountain bike rides past. In passing, he says, “Nice day to be working on your tan.” Then he apologizes, “Sorry for bothering you.” I immediately chirp, “Please, don’t be sorry.”

Seasonal Bugs and Flower

I get the feeling that out here; most people are okay with naked. It is a private place. We all mind our own business. No one wants to disturb the others.

Getting a Feel for Things

We have wandered in search of and in natural appreciation, traveling not much more than one mile each hour.

Is This a Budding Crested?

Eventually, our bodies have begun to redden, requiring the cover of shirts across our shoulders.

Flowers Dot the Terrain

The trek back up and over the big ridge is more arduous than it had been that morning. The heat of the day is out. We are filled with gratitude each time a light breeze churns by, cooling our working nude bodies. At the top of the ridge, the view is striking and the sight of our waiting 4×4 way below is welcome. On very tired feet, we retrace, this time in descent. The end is in sight.

Catalina Mountains





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