Springtime in the Arizona Desert
Memories of Spring Then and Now
I can remember, as a child growing up in upstate New York, looking for the early signs of spring. Things like tulips and daffodils beginning to poke their way through the new earth where the snow had begun to melt away from the edge of the house. A crocus or two suddenly blooming amidst the melting snow. Robins reappearing in the yard and flocks of geese flying overhead as they returned from their winter sojourn in the south.
In northern areas, like New York State, there are four distinct seasons and, while there is a transition period between each of the seasons, the transition is usually relatively short and one can easily determine the season by simply looking or stepping outside.
However, in places like southern Arizona one has to be more observant in order to note the changes in the season as we basically have one season that is divided into two phases - the phases being the hot summer phase and the cool summer phase. The hot summer phase usually begins in late May or June but can begin as early as April and lasts until mid-September or October and the cool summer phase which is the rest of the year when daytime temperatures are moderate and evening temperatures cooler sometimes dropping low enough to get a frost.
Mexican Gold Poppy
Winter in Arizona is Really Just a Cool Summer
Living in Southern Arizona where the sun shines most every day and daytime winter temperatures tend to average in the high sixties or seventies, I have found the main signs of spring are the lengthening days and a thinning of traffic congestion as our snow birds begin to leave the area and begin their migration back to the north. Snow Birds being the name we use to affectionately describe the visitors who flee the cold of the northern states and Canada every winter to spend the winter in southern Arizona where the days are warm and the golf courses always open. With the coming of spring they, like other birds who have sought refuge from the cold northern winter by flying south, now turn and head back northward where the winter is receding and days warming.
Of course the American southwest is not all desert with warm winters and hot summers as we are surrounded by mountains in which one can find cold winters complete with snow and ice and cool summers. Most of the time we can enjoy the snow by simply looking up at the snow topped mountains that surround us without having to bundle up and shovel the stuff. If we want a closer look we simply get into our car and drive up the mountain were we can spend the day frolicking in the snow and then return home in the evening to relax in our backyard hot tub or swimming pool.
Winter in the desert is also our rainy season so we do get some days which are cooler and accompanied by rain. On rare occasions the temperature will drop low enough for the rain to turn into a few snow flurries. Every four or five years we get hit with a major, crippling snow storm that can blanket the area with as much as a half inch of snow leaving land and foliage draped in white and bringing traffic almost to a halt for a few hours.
Winter Showers Bring Forth Spring Flowers
To a large extent, our Spring is dependent upon the amount of rain received during the winter. While we rarely get much rain, a dozen or so extra showers during the winter can make the difference between a spring that one barely notices to a memorable one in which the surrounding desert blooms and thrives with beauty and life.
In years with good winter rainfall, the combination of water in the soil and longer days brings about a huge abundance of greenery for a few weeks as plants sprout and cover the brown and normally dry desert. This abundance of vegetable matter brings forth an abundance of of rabbits to feed upon it. Of course, the sudden abundance of fresh rabbit meat running around leads coyotes to breed and multiply as well. In addition to rabbits and coyotes, the surrounding desert is also carpeted with wild flowers as the plants, like the coyotes and rabbits, take advantage of the good conditions to reproduce and multiply.
Cacti in Spring
A Lonely Peak and the Wildflowers Around It
While the wildflowers pop up all around, one of the best places to see them in abundance is Picacho Peak State Park where the fields surrounding the peak blossom with wild flowers.
Located just 40 miles North of downtown Tucson, Arizona and just off the Picacho Peak exit on Interstate 10, the park is well known for the abundance of wild flowers that sprout up in the park every year.
Travelers traveling in either direction on Interstate 10 can spot Picacho Peak itself miles before they reach Exit 219, the Picacho Peak exit, as it stands out sharply against the horizon. Not that the peak is that big, being basically a large hill which rises a mere 1,500 feet above the surrounding desert floor. While it is surrounded by much larger mountains in the distance Picacho Peak itself stands pretty much alone in the immediate area.
Unlike numerous similar peaks in southern Arizona, Picacho Peak is not an extinct volcano. Instead Picacho (which means peak in Spanish) was created when large slabs of volcanic rock that had previously been spewed forth by volcanoes were pushed upward in ancient times by a shifting of the Earth's crust. After pushing these slabs of rock upward to form the peak, most of the surrounding land sunk into the huge empty spaces left below ground as a result of the molten rock, that had once filled the space below the crust, having been vometed to the surface by the preceeding volcanic activity.
Thus, Picacho Peak stands high on the surface not because it was pushed up but because the surrounding land crashed down leaving the Peak to dominate the, now most flat, surrounding landscape.
The Battle of Picacho Pass Was Fought Here in Spring
In addition to its wildflowers, Picacho Peak is also the site of another spring time event that took place on the fields surrounding the peak and this was the April 15, 1862 Battle of Picacho Pass which was the western most battle of the Civil War and only Civil War battle to have been fought in Arizona. Like the peak which appears high because the surrounding land is so low, so too, is this battle remembered solely because it was the only one fought in this part of the nation.
The battle was basically a skirmish that resulted when a small Union cavalry patrol stumbled across some Confederate pickets and took them prisoner. A short time later a somewhat larger Confederate patrol came through and, in the ensuing fight, the Confederate prisoners were freed while a Union Lieutenant and two Union privates lost their lives.
Because of its historical significance and the fact that the area in the park is basically unchanged since the Civil War, it has become a spot for Civil War buffs to gather in the spring to re-enact the battle. Like the wildflowers, the size of the re-enactments vary.
In some years there is no gathering while in others a group about the size of the two forces in the original battle gather and re-enact the battle. Then there are other years where a large force representing both sides comes with their families forming a grand encampment for the weekend and re-enacting not only the Picacho Pass skirmish but also the larger battles which took place in New Mexico at Glorieta Pass and Valverde.
Yes, It's an Ostrich
Summer Comes Soon
Spring, of course, doesn't last long and, after a few weeks, the increasing heat and dryness of the approaching summer take their toll on the flowers and travelers who now elect to remain in their air conditioned cars and continue their journey past the peak. The few who care to venture off the Interstate in the heat generally limit their stop to the restaurants by the exit with possibly a quick stop at Rooster Cogburn's Ostrich Ranch to feed the ostriches.