Mystic Park

Tucson Mountain District Ranger M.G. Langoni maintains that she's "not very good at putting things into words in a dramatic way," but either Langoni is fibbing, or the beauty of Saguaro National Park is enough to turn anyone into a poet prone to using the word "mystic." "When you've been here for so many years," says Langoni, "you take so much for granted. But coming out here in the morning when there's ground fog, and only the tops of the saguaro are showing ... it's just so mystical. And then on other mornings, you've got mountains that are just starting to glow in the sunrise, and at night, so much of the mountains and the rocks turn red, and the sunsets are breathtaking ... people come from all over the world just to experience the sunsets here."

Saguaro National Park is offering more ways than ever to experience the overwhelming beauty of the Sonoran Desert, with a range of sunset and moonlight hikes scheduled through the end of March 2005, all led by Sandy McMahan (once a Tucson ranger, but now a ranger at Washington's Cascades National Park).

The Wasson Peak Moon Hike is a six- to seven-hour hike that covers eight miles while climbing (and then descending) 1,700 feet to the highest point in the Tucson Mountains, reaching the summit just in time to take in a 360-degree view of the sunset. Hikers make their way down the trail by the light of the moon; the hike itself is described as taking an "easy" pace, but those interested should remember that they'll be walking over rough terrain in the dark and make their decision accordingly. The Sunset Hike is a three- to four-hour hike that covers only three miles and gains little elevation (700 feet); hikers make their way to a ridgeline in time for sunset, then return under moonlight. The Moon Take Day Make Night hike is a gentle, relatively flat, three-hour, two-mile walk up a desert wash during the transition from day to night.

"The moonshadow when we come down off the top is incredible," says Langoni. "Once we reach our destination, we do not use flashlights ... unless there's an emergency," she quickly adds--always the safety-conscious ranger. "People will be startled at their ability to see as much as they can. Most people never get to experience moonshadow, because we always seem to have some sort of light around, wherever we come from. So this is something, this very mystic glow you see from the moonshadow as you walk."

In addition to the three hikes offered, there is also a "Moonrise Over the Mountains" monthly patio talk, scheduled on nights when the moon is full. "It's a wonderful way to end the evening," says Langoni. "There's music; we have a fire going, and to watch that moon rise up over the mountain peaks and outline the saguaro up there, it's really something to see. She recommends bringing lawn chairs or blankets and wearing warm clothes; although close to 100 people generally show up for the patio talks--thus necessitating the bring-your-own-seating clause--it's not enough to generate the kind of body heat that would offset the cold that sets in after dark.

When asked what visitors are likely to see on a hike, Langoni replied, "A lot of the animals have started to go underground and hibernate, so you won't see that many reptiles right now (though the park contains one of the most diverse groups of reptile life on the planet), but you'll see a lot of birds, and there's the possibility of seeing javelina and coyotes, mule deer ... we do have a mountain lion around, but it's very unlikely you'd see that. I think most people realize that they see you long before you see them.

"The plants are talked about, and how they relate to the animals, how everything works together, the relationship between everything here ... everything is needed and works together; when there's a ripple, it's quite a long ripple, as far as when we destroy things. To think about the fact that some of these saguaro have been here 200 or more years ... " Langoni says, trailing off. She goes on to mention the cultural resources of the park--the Signal Hill picnic area features one of the only major petroglyph sites open to the public, where more than 200 glyphs were left on the side of a hill between 300 and 1450 A.D. --and to talk about spring, when "the prickly pear come out, and the whole rim of each pad is just loaded with flowers, and the saguaro with their beautiful, waxy blossoms, and the bats that come out at night to pollinate those as well as the white-winged doves. ..."

While the park is open daily from sunrise to sunset, the hikes require advanced reservations. (Porch talks do not require reservations; feel free to crash.) Upcoming Sunset Hikes are scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 23 and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22; Moon Take Night Make Day hikes are scheduled for 3:45 p.m. Friday, Dec. 24 and 4:15 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 23; the next Wasson Peak Moon Hike is 2:15 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21; and the next two Moonrise Over the Mountain porch talks are scheduled for 5:55 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 26 and 6:45 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 25.

For information and reservations, call 733-5218.

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