Crested Saguaro Society

Crest Quest Reports

January 18 - 23, 2023 Pathways Around Tucson and Back Again

Report by Joe Orman


Walking the labyrinth is another way of tapping into forces beyond our normal conscious mind.
It takes us to some ancient part of ourselves, as old as the turning of the planets and stars,
as old as the goddess and earth energies, back when night was dark,
when people knew the sky, and nature was a part of us and we of it.
This is something lost in our modern world, and the imbalance that it causes cries out for resolution.
That's why the labyrinth touches so many people so forcefully.

                                      Robert Ferre, St. Louis Labyrinth Project

Like a labyrinth, the Crest Quest is a journey with a goal but not a destination. No matter what treasures are found at the center point, it is the journey, the time spent in contemplation, the personal reinvention, that matter in the end.

My journey begins with a return ... a vigorous, boulder-hopping scramble to this crested saguaro near Congress that I'd first spotted from a distance five days earlier:

My turning path has taken me into a known crest-rich area. On the same hike, I got an updated telephoto shot of this neighboring crested saguaro (discovered by Max Latimer in 2014):

Unfortunately, I must report that another neighboring crested saguaro is now gone (Max Latimer photo from 2014):

And the hike took me right past this big crested saguaro, the center of attention for this cluster of crests (another Max Latimer discovery):

But there are other delights to be enjoyed on the journey. Hedgehog cactus gathering:

The hike also took me within sight of this tall Y-split saguaro ... I've been keeping my eye on it for years ... looks like one of the tips might finally be cresting:

But my path led much farther south. That afternoon I drove to a campsite in the desert north of Tucson that I'd stayed at before. As the sun stretched over the saguaro forest the next morning, I drove some nearby dirt roads that were previously unexplored by me. In one area I started noticing Y-split saguaros, often a sign that a crest is nearby:

Sure enough, I soon spotted this crested arm right next to the road:

I'd had a tip on a crested barrel nearby, so I turned, doubled back, and checked it out:

On a well-traveled road nearby I paused to commune with this cresting saguaro that Phil Kozol had given me a tip on (thanks Phil!):

Next, the road led me to a trailhead in Tucson Mountain Park, where I did a short but scenic hike in to see another crested barrel I'd had a tip on. Unfortunately, the tip was a couple of years old and same old story in the meantime the cactus had died and shriveled up:

But nearby I noted this mutated saguaro with one arm that looks like it might crest in the future:

I rounded out the day with a return visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:

Before entering, I took an updated photo of the stubby crested saguaro has stood just off the parking lot for many years:

Photos dating back to 2006:

Once inside, I chose the path that led to this crested organ pipe cactus I'd had a tip on for several years:

Then I looked in vain for the crested saguaro that used to stand in front of the Ironwood Terraces Restaurant, but it was gone. Here's a photo from my previous visit (2008):

Photos dating back to 2004:

But there are many paths here, all offering a variety of desert life to discover. Along one such path, I found this mutated saguaro:

Circles witin circles ... at the heart of the grounds I walked a literal labyrinth ... a microcosm of my larger journey:

In the Desert Garden area, this antelope ground squirrel posed for my camera atop an organ pipe cactus:

Then I noticed that the adjacent organ pipe had a small crest on it:

Also on the Desert Garden paths, I found this potted crested cholla cactus:

The photographer's eye also seeks out dramatic lighting, like this backlit hedgehog cactus cluster:

Besides the flora, the museum grounds also hold many examples of desert fauna. A coyote basks in the winter sun:

This fox preferred the comfort of a burrow warmed by the glow of a heat lamp:

A pack of wolves found a spot between sun and shadow:

... while the mountain lion gazed out of its shelter:

Lastly, I enjoyed an underground journey into the museum's artifical cave:

The next morning I headed out early from my hotel to see if I could find a big top-crest I'd seen on the Internet. In spite of the area's vast size, and a network of rough dirt roads, the clues I had allowed me to quickly home in on the magnificent crest. But I feared that if I stared too long into the depths of its swirling patterns, I would become hypnotized and see the stories this decades-old freak carries within its flesh. Stories of its past, and possibly my own fate. After taking my photos, I turned my eyes away and focused on my footsteps.

Crest-hunters know that these mutants tend to be found in clusters (evidence that the mutation is passed on genetically). Sure enough, making a 2-mile loop hike from that first crest I found three others:

My loop hike also happened to take me past a tiny crested cholla cactus:

... and a crested barrel cactus:

Back on the highway, I took a detour to photograph a ghost bike and contemplate the rider whose journey ended here:

Then it was time for the entire reason for me taking this trip in the first place. I met with three other members of the Crested Saguaro Society (Pat Hammes, Ted Codding, and Harry Ford) and Eliza Collins, a reporter who was writing an article on the Society for the Wall Street Journal. Eliza had brought along Ash Ponders, a professional photographer who some of us had met on a previous outing for another article.

Left to Right: Joe Orman, Harry Ford, Ted Codding, Pat Hammes

Click here for a PDF file of the article

Screen captures of the print edition (click each page for full-size image):

For the first stop on our saguaro tour, Harry led the group to this crested saguaro in the countryside south of Tucson. This saguaro is not only notable because it sports three crests (two at eye-level!), but has also been genetically sampled (with Harry's help) for an in-progress study by scientists from Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute. 2018 photo by Harry Ford:

Photos dating back to 2006:

After that, I led the group to several "domestic" crested saguaros along the streets of a nearby town. This was the first of several I showed the group (photo by Ted Codding):

Reporter Eliza Collins with the crested saguaro that the Society voted to name "Eliza's Crest" in her honor (photo by Harry Ford):

Photos dating back to 2011:

This crested saguaro was one of two that were adjacent to a parking lot (photo by Pat Hammes):

Photos dating back to 2011:

Pro photog Ash Ponders and I examine the strange structure of a crested barrel cactus (photo by Harry Ford):

Amazingly, this saguaro just started to crest out 7 years ago ... look at it now! Ash captures the shot:

Photos dating back to 2016:

I had reached the center of my journey, and the treasure I found there was the company of friends old and new, those who speak and seek the language of the crest. But eventually we had talked enough "crested saguaro talk" and it was time for us to head our separate ways. Harry later reported that he and Ash made had a successful outing the next day to photograph a few more crested saguaros. As for myself, I spent another night camping in the desert and the next day took a solo tour of the sights of Tucson. At one of the scenic overlooks above the city, I paused to take an updated photo of this crested saguaro:

Photos dating back to 2005:

... and this nearby one:

2015 photos:

On the overlook road was another ghost bike:

Nearby, another hill could not be driven, so I hiked it in the late afternoon. Off-trail hiking is not allowed, but I got this good telephoto shot of a crested saguaro on the hillside:

Atop the hill, a reward for completing the hike a beautifully-symmetrical top-crest:

Photos dating back to 2013:

From the hill, hikers get a great view of downtown Tucson and the University of Arizona:

As twilight deepend that evening, from my campsite at Tucson Mountain Park I was treated to this view of the planet Saturn just above the brighter Venus:

Before leaving the campground the next morning, I decided to check up on a very rare double-crested barrel cactus that I'd visited many times before. This time, I was sad to find it dead and down:

Photos dating back to 2014:

Driving out of Tucson Mountain Park, I paused for this updated photo of a roadside saguaro that I'd spotted when it had just crested back in 2014:

Photos dating back to 2014:

... and along the same road, this one that had just started cresting in 2018:

Then, there was nothing left to do but turn back. The place where the unwinding began is Ironwood Forest National Monument. There were a few dirt roads I'd never driven, and on one of them I found this arm crest (Extend-O-Cam view):

According to my notes, this is the 2100th crested saguaro that I have photographed!

At one point, the dirt road I was on dead-ended. From the turn-around spot, my binos picked out this short top-crest nearby (Extend-O-Cam view):

Another dirt road took me past a saguaro that used to have a small arm crest; unfortunately I found the saguaro collapsed and the crest decayed on the ground:

2011 discovery photos:

From a high point, I scanned the saguaro forest with my binoculars. Among thousands and thousands of saguaros, I spotted an arm crest! So I took a bearing, drove closer, and hiked to it:

Exiting the Monument, I paused to take an updated photo of the famous "Saguaro Ladder Crest" a couple of the saguaro arm "rungs" of the ladder have broken off since my last visit, but the ladder still looks climbable:

Photos dating back to 2006:

At the ghost town of Sasco, I stopped to photograph the remains of a stone and mortar building, and contemplate those who are no longer here:

According to the book Arizona's Best Ghost Towns by Philip Varney, this building was either a general store or the Rockland Hotel. "Sasco, an acronym for Southern Arizona Smelting Company, was a smelter town for the nearby mines at Silverbell and Picacho. The smelter was built in 1907 and closed down just after the end of World War I. The final tragic event before Sasco became a ghost town in 1919 was an influenza epidemic that killed many citizens."

The next day, before heading home, I stopped to photograph this fine crested saguaro north of Phoenix (the landowner had sent me the tip, and escorted me onto the property):

Photos dating back to 2006:

Having completed my labyrinthine circuit, I took one last turn homeward. I'd found enough balance to last for now. And, like the labyrinth, each journey's end invites another beginning. Resolution is an ongoing process ... we are in a state of continual becoming ... circles flow inward and outward, on and on.

Back to Crested Saguaro Society Crest Quest Reports page.

Revised: February 19, 2023