Summer can be a drab time in the desert. Not this year. Greenery abounds and wildflowers — juiced up by abundant monsoon rains — are putting on a colorful summer show in deserts around Tucson.
Some sites, including Gates Pass and Tucson Mountain Park west of the city, sport carpets of summer poppies, barrel cactus flowers, and even an occasional saguaro bloom.
Long-time observers of desert weather and vegetation say this summer stands out as exceptional.
"I think I've seen this much summer color only three times here since 1979," said Mark Dimmitt, a wildflower expert and retired director of natural history at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
"The main thing this summer has done for me is remind me of how much the weather has changed since I started tracking it in 1970, when I began my graduate work in Portal," Dimmitt said. "Based on my records, those of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the late Charles Lowe who tracked weather from the 1950s, this summer was typical of what you could expect before the mid-1980s."
In that era, there were storms almost every afternoon, and the airport reported rainfall on half the days during the peak monsoon month, Dimmitt said.
"That's a 50 percent probability every day," he said. "This is only my second summer since 1990 with such frequent storms. The rains have also been well-spaced, which makes them more biologically effective, by keeping the soil moist."
For those of us visiting desert areas around Tucson, it all translates to a rare opportunity to see the summer desert in uncommonly lush beauty.
FIND SUMMER COLOR
Almost any desert area around Tucson — from Sabino Canyon northeast of the city to Saguaro National Park units east and west of town — will offer views of verdant hillsides and scattered blooms of cacti and wildflowers.
Here's one drive that will lead past some splendid colorful displays:
- Follow West Speedway as it leaves Tucson and becomes Gates Pass Road. Watch for prickly pear cacti in bloom and numerous clumps of yellow caltrop flowers, also known as summer poppies.
- On the west side of the pass, continue to an intersection with Kinney Road. Turn left and follow Kinney Road southeast toward Ajo Road. Stop at any of the pullouts along the way. At one or two of them, watch for expansive carpets of summer poppies and a few other types of blooms.
- It's possible to return to Tucson on Ajo Road. An alternative is to reverse direction and follow Kinney Road northwest, past Gates Pass Road, and continue toward the Desert Museum for more well-watered landscapes.