Monday, November 26, 2012

Freeman trail perfect for day hike with kids

Saguaro bloom at Saguaro National Park.
Topo map, Freeman Homestead Trail.

Classic Sonoran
await hikers

Located in the Saguaro National Park’s east district (aka Rincon Mountain District), the Freeman Homestead Trail traverses a beautiful yet also clearly inhospitable desert landscape.

The 1.18-mile trail is a walk through a classic Sonoran desert landscape of cholla, prickly pear and barrel cactus with barren mountain ranges lining the horizon. A number of small animals also can be spotted along the way, including wrens, flickers, ground squirrels and cardinals.

Saguaro cactus
You’ll also walk through a grove of the giant saguaro cactus, the park’s namesake. An icon of the American West, these lords of the desert can grow up to 50 feet high and weigh several tons. A highlight of the Freeman trail is a 30-armed giant.

With so little rainfall, decades are needed for the saguaro to reach its dominating size. They begin their lives by sprouting under small trees, such as the little leaf palo verde, growing only about an inch a year. They soon dwarf and in the process kill the very trees that sheltered them.

As the giant saguaro sometimes blooms only once every 35 years, they must live an extremely long time for the species to survive. The typical saguaro stays on the earth for 150 years, but some at the national park are more than 200 years old. Decades are needed for each arm to form. In addition, if caught in a storm do not stand near the saguaro as it’s a lightning rod, having absorbed salt from the desert floor.

Not quite half way along the path is the trail’s namesake - the Freeman homestead. During the early 1930s, a family settled here on 640 acres, building a three-room adobe house that is now nothing more than dirt mounds. A row of ocotillo looks suspiciously like a fence, and one might imagine that the lone large tree there once provided shade for the farm family.

Kid-friendly trail
The trail also passes a spring, a rare desert sight. Interpretive signs along the way offer suggestions for kids so they can explore and discover the desert’s wonders.

Indeed, the trail earns extra points for its kid-friendliness. The Junior Ranger kit, available at the visitor center, includes activities related to the trail.

To reach the trail, get on Freeman Road in Tucson, driving south. Turn left on Old Spanish Trail and enter the park. Past the visitor center, turn right onto Cactus Forest Drive. Park at the Javelina Picnic Area. You’ll have to backtrack on Cactus Forest Drive to the trailhead.

The trail is a dirt path with gentle rolls. A few wide rock staircases have been built into steep grades.

The best season to hike the trail is March through May when temperatures are pleasant (so mark this one on your calendar!). Summer will be unbearably hot and winter potentially cool. Many desert plants bloom in April and May, making for a colorful view.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.