Local people say that no one can walk the Sonoran Desert and not be changed; that it has a natural power that both uplifts and humbles the spirit. Ringed by mountains and stretching across not just two states (Arizona and California), but two countries (U.S.A. and Mexico), this wonderful desert has more plants and animals than any other North American desert. Two distinct rainy seasons are the reason for its rich biodiversity. In winter, when cold weather fronts from the Pacific Ocean bring widespread gentle rains, the desert turns into a wildflower paradise, especially in the west where annuals like poppies and lupins burst into life. In summer, from July to September, wet tropical air blows in from the Gulf of Mexico, causing violent thunderstorms and localized flooding. The surrounding mountains trap the rain clouds, thus providing the area with enough moisture to support a rich diversity of plants and animals.
This desert is hometo over 2,500 species of plant and 550 species of vertebrate. About half of the Sonoran Desert’s plant life is tropical in origin, with life cycles that are closely tied in with the summer monsoon. Despite all the rain, this is still the hottest of North America’s four major deserts.
A number of remarkable plants and animals distinguish it further. The Saguaro cactus, with its distinctive crooked “arms,” is one of its best-known plants, and found nowhere else in the world. It can live for more than 200 years, and grows so slowly that the first arm only appears alter 75 years. Ironwood trees, bursage, palo verde, creosote, and mesquite inhabit the hottest parts of the desert.
Despite the extreme heat of the desert, there are a number of animals that manage to survive in this climate—the Mexican gray wolf (el lobo), mountain lion, great-horned owl, golden eagle, roadrunner, and the rattlesnake.
The Sonoran Desert is vast, but one way to appreciate it is by visiting the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, near Tucson. This 20-acre (8-hectare) outdoor site is at once a zoo, a natural history museum, and a botanical garden, showcasing the most interesting plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert.