The unanticipated spectacle

After an endless succession of dry, cloudless days, the occasional cloudy day brings a welcome break in the monotony. On one recent October day, it remained sunless until just before the very end, but as the day drew to a close, the sun staged this unanticipated spectacle over the high desert grassland near Mescal in Cochise County, Arizona.

The lay of the land

With a bit of elevation, the complexity of the Southwestern landscape becomes more apparent. Given enough time, it’s possible to gain some sense of the lay of the land. It’s only a generalized sense however; the intricacies of the mountain ranges, the maze of canyons, and the web of draws, washes, and arroyos defy the mind’s ability to grasp. The land does not reveal its mystery, and it remains ultimately unknowable. The photo was taken at Windy Point in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona, facing east.

Focused intensity

The summer rains, locally called the monsoons, are quite different from the widespread and gentle rains of winter. Summer rain events usually arrive in the form of violent thunderstorms, and can be highly localized. They can produce torrential downpours and flash floods over a relatively small area while other areas nearby remain parched. These small yet potent storm cells can deliver severe downpours with a focused intensity, leaving the perfectly dry neighbors to enjoy the visual spectacle. This one was a late summer storm just to the southwest of the J-Six Ranch area of Cochise County, Arizona.

A “wonderland of rocks” indeed

Countless columns and spires of rock fill the landscape below Massai Point in Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona. The product of explosive volcanism, wind and water erosion, and eons of time, this area was dubbed “The Wonderland of Rocks” by the early settlers.

Douse the sun

A lone isolated storm moves across the desert, trailing a curtain of rain beneath. As luck would have it, this storm cell moved over part of the Mulberry Fire and aided firefighters in controlling its spread. From this vantage point, the showers seem to douse the sun, a fitting metaphor for its fortuitous appearance over the wildfire.

The arboreal desert

The Sonoran Desert of Arizona shares many of the same flora and fauna as the Chihuahuan Desert further to the east. Both deserts also share a similar climate and the same basin and range topography. Despite these similarities however, the Sonoran Desert presents a different visual aspect than its cousin to the east, largely because of the presence of taller stature plants. Towering Saguaros dominate the Sonoran Desert’s Arizona Upland to the extent that they become a feature of the landscape, but in addition, there is a profusion of small desert trees such as Palo Verde,Ironwood, and a number of others. This produces a striking contrast to the low stature vegetation which dominates the Chihuahuan Desert, and because of all its desert trees, the Sonoran Desert is sometimes called the arboreal desert.

Texas Canyon

East of Tucson, between the small towns of Benson and Willcox, Interstate 10 traverses a saddle between the Little Dragoon Mountains on the north side of the highway and the Dragoon Mountains to the south. This area, known as Texas Canyon, is famous for its spectacular boulder-strewn landscape. As the quartz monzonite boulders of Texas Canyon have weathered over time, they have tended to become increasingly rounded. This process of eroding and fragmenting rock is called exfoliation. Today, Interstate 10 follows the old stagecoach route of the Butterfield Overland Mail which operated here during the years just before the Civil War, allowing visitors to penetrate the heart of this fascinating area of gigantic rock outcrops.

Cold storage

As February progresses, things start warming up in the low deserts of Arizona, and the procession of rainy winter storms moving in from the Pacific starts to wind down, soon to grind to a halt. There is still some moisture left behind, however, held in cold storage as it were, high in the mountains that make up the Sky Islands. The water, in the form of ice and snow, is released gradually and helps to tide the land over until the arrival of the summer monsoons. This February photograph is from Bear Wallow at 8,000 feet in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

The vagaries of weather

Though generally sunny and dry, the Southwest is subject to the vagaries of weather. In the winter, cold storms can suddenly sweep over the landscape, dumping snow on the mountains and bringing welcome rain to the parched valleys. In addition, they often add a bit of spectacle to an already dramatic landscape. The fast moving front in this photograph advanced through Cochise County, Arizona on a cold January afternoon.

The high life

The mountain ranges that make up southeastern Arizona’s Sky Islands are high enough and cover enough area to support forests at their higher elevations. Each forested mountaintop is an island unto itself, separated from the others by the surrounding “sea” of desert. The highest of all the Sky Island ranges is the Pinaleños. These mountains have 7,000 feet of vertical relief and are the only Sky Island range that reaches elevations over 10,000 feet. The high point is the summit of Mount Graham at 10,720 feet. The high life, indeed.