Picacho Peak has long been an Arizona landmark for travelers. Its distinctive knob catches the eye from at least 50 miles to the north on I-10 driving south from Phoenix to Tucson.
I’ve hiked to the steep summit at 3,374 feet elevation and stood at the edge of the cliff and looked out on the world. But I most remember the peak and the little state park that surrounds it for something else. Wildflowers.
Some years in late February and early March, Picacho Peak State Park lights up with golden poppies, blue lupine and a few other colorful wildflowers.
I keep a photo in front of me in the study where I write. The photo was shot several years ago and depicts a large field of poppies in the foreground near a saguaro and a palo verde tree. In the background is the peak shrouded in cloud. Nebra and I had risen early one winter morning and driven the 75 miles from our house to the park. The excursion rewarded us with the most prolific wildflower season perhaps in the history of the park.
This year was different. A lot different.
Last Saturday, on the 6th, Nebra and I again stopped at the park entrance, paid our $7 vehicle fee and were given the bad news by the cordial gatekeeper. Virtually no wildflowers this year.
“The rains came too late,” he said. “And if it gets hot, a couple of days in the 80s, everything will turn brown anyway.”
Though we’ve had ample rain the first two months of the year, wildflowers need rain when it counts. That’s in late summer, early autumn. Didn’t happen in 2009.
We drove around to the seldom seen west side anyway on a deteriorating asphalt road and parked in the lot. Several other cars were there too. It was small stuff in comparison to the crowds that flock in good seasons.
The gatekeeper was right about the wildflowers. We discovered only a thin patch of very small poppies up the slope and a few fragile lupines in the middle of a path. That was it. But it is a beautiful desert park anyway, so we weren’t short-changed that much.
Maybe next year. But it will be a different kind of experience no matter what the wildflower count. The park closes on June 3 due to the huge state budget deficit and steep cuts in services.
My hope is the state will at least reopen the park next year for a few weeks if the wildflower season is a good one. Otherwise viewers will just have to get out of their vehicles and hike a bit. Not a bad thing either.