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western wonders

One wonders what the United States would look like now if the first colonists had landed on the shores of California instead of at Jamestown and Plymouth Bay. Would the lands comprising California’s nine national parks have survived in their pristine state if colonization and the War of Independence had played out on the West Coast? Would America’s eastern shore have been spared some of the ravages of industrialization?

We wonder this, in part, because growing up on the East Coast we always thought of it as the better of America’s two seaboards. Only now that we have spent multiple road trips exploring the western half of the country are we prepared to concede that the West Coast is best.

One look at a map of U.S. national parks renders this truth self-evident. There is Acadia all the way in northern Maine, a trio of parks in Florida, and vast stretches of emptiness in between, broken only by Shenandoah, Congaree, and the Great Smoky Mountains. To get to California’s nine, one would have to add in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave and Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley, which accounts for all of the national parks east of the Mississippi River, excluding Voyageurs (Minnesota) and Isle Royale (Michigan), which are tucked up near the Canada border and are hardly accessible from the East Coast.

The western half of the country, on the other hand, is dotted with national parks, as well as other federal lands – national monuments and conservation areas – that protect and celebrate our nation’s natural treasures. After our first road trip out West, we had resolved to try to visit every one of America’s 60 national parks.

Following our holiday road trip to Arizona and New Mexico, we are now a third of the way there. The shutdown forced us to adjust our plans somewhat, and two of the national parks we had intended to visit – Carlsbad Caverns and Petrified Forest – fell off our itinerary. We managed to get into two others, however, starting our trip with a visit to Saguaro NP, named for the Sonoran Desert’s unique cacti.

Saguaro is actually comprised of two distinct areas – the Rincon Mountain District (East) and the Tucson Mountain District (West); the city of Tucson lies in the middle. We toyed with the idea of trying to do both in the one day our itinerary allowed but decided not to stretch ourselves too thin. Instead, we spent the day in the western part of the park: looking at petroglyphs; admiring the diversity of the saguaro cacti, which towered over us with their arms akimbo; and hiking Wasson Peak, the tallest mountain in the park.

The seven-mile hike, with the sun beating down on us, took longer than we had anticipated. We got back to our car just as the setting sun lit up the desert sky in a rainbow of radiant colors. The hike was beautiful and definitely worth it, and we were glad that we decided to do it instead of trying to visit both parts of Saguaro. We intend to come back to this part of the country again, especially since we missed out on the Carlsbad Caverns, so we hope to have another opportunity to visit the Rincon Mountains.

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