From the "sky-islands" of the Chiricahua mountains to the eroded volcanic rock environment of the the Puerto Blanco, Bates, Cipriano, and Ajo Mountains, the Sonoran desert landscape of Arizona near the Mexican border encompasses an incredible diversity of ecosystems. Of the four North American deserts, the Chihuahuan, the Mohave, the Great Basin and Sonoran (all of which can be found in Arizona), the Sonoran is by far the most biologically diverse.
With this variety comes a wealth of animal and plant species, including the unique saguaro and organ pipe cacti, the bald eagle, the great blue heron, the kangaroo rat, and the bighorn sheep. All make their homes in the beautiful borderlands, part of the vast open spaces of the American southwest, among the incredibly unlikely rock formations that can be found nowhere else in the world.
Visitors flock to the Arizona borderlands just to gaze out upon the dramatic vistas, but there are plenty of opportunities for more active recreation ? hiking, biking, and wildlife viewing. And this place is a special mecca for birders. Hundreds of different avian species are attracted to this area, because of the unique climactic conditions caused by its proximity to the Chihuahuan Desert, to the subtropical habitats of Mexico, the Sonoran Desert, and to the mountain habitats of North America. Where the birds flock, so go the birders. The region's many riparian zones, like Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, San Bernadino/Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuge, San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, Empire-Cienega Resource Conservation Area, and Quitobaquito Spring are especially great spots to see unusual species.
In the late 1800's, naturalist C. Hart Merriam looked at the communities of plants and animals in the Southwest and distingushed six "Life Zones." In this part of southern Arizona, you may visit them all; sometimes on a single hike.
The Lower Sonoran zone includes the hot deserts, where much of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge lies. Here you'll find a wide variety of cacti and creosote bushes among the sand dunes, where the rare desert bighorn sheep, with its distinctive curly horns, makes its home. The Organ Pipe National Monument is another excellent place to see the low desert ecosystem, especially in summer when many different cactus bloom, filling the desert with brilliant flowers of yellow, red, white, and pink. It is a show upstaged only by the springtime explosions of gold poppies, blue lupines, pink owl clover, and other annuals after a wet winter. Just across the border, Mexico's Pinacate Reserve takes in the white sand dunes of the Gran Altar desert as well as a huge area of volcanic landscape.
Grasslands, chaparral, and woodlands characterize the Upper Sonoran. In the Transition zone, you'll find pine trees. Above that, Douglas fir and the Engleman spruce grow in the Canadian zone. Higher still, fir forests dominate the Hudsonian zone. And Merriam called the area above the timber line Alpine Tundra. All of these zones, or at least most of them, can be found in some of southern Arizona's most diverse mountainous lands, including the Saguaro National Park and Chiricahua National Monument. Here, on a single hike, you can climb from low desert through savannah, until you're surrounded by pines, and eventually by firs. Such is the incredible diversity of the Arizona borderlands.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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