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Summit Field Trip Explores Sonoran Desert

By January 12, 2023No Comments
close up photo of a barrel cactus showing spines.

A Thorny Situation. Closeup photo of a barrel cactus. © Frank Gallagher

By Frank Gallagher

One of my favorite places in Tucson will be the site of two field trips during the 2023 Nature Photography Summit in May. It’s Tohono Chul Gardens, 49 acres of plants, landscapes and critters with accessible paths and dirt trails through a Sonoran desert environment. Summit field trips here are scheduled for the mornings of Thursday and Friday, May 4 and 5. Jeff Vanuga is the field trip leader and participants get a 10% discount on admission to Tohono Chul. Get all the details here.

A botanical garden with many photo options

A botanical garden and nature reserve with more than 300 species of cactus, Tohono Chul has countless photographic possibilities. From groupings of giant saguaro to birds and lizards, there’s a lot to see and photograph. You can go grand and include nearby mountains in an environmental shot or you can get close for macro (but watch out for the sharp cactus spines, some of those buggers can be nasty!).

Thirty-eight species of bird live here year round and another 57 species visit seasonally. Hummingbirds frequent the feeders and the occasional hawk soars overhead. A cactus wren might peek out of the vegetation or a roadrunner scoot by. When the sun warms up the ground, a variety of lizards can be seen scampering about and, yes, there might even be a rattlesnake around. It’s a nature reserve, after all!

Things to see

In the areas near the buildings, you’ll see some interesting sculptures and works of art that you can include in you photos. Parts of the adobe buildings can also offer interesting photo possibilities. But you could ignore all that and head right into the desert.

The half-mile Desert View Trail is popular with birders and nature photographers since the plants and landscapes are in a more natural state (without interpretive signs or labels), and you have the striking backdrop of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Fewer visitors take this trail, so it’s more quiet and open.

The South Loop Trail runs through the densest stands of mighty saguaro cacti and is only a fifth of a mile long. My favorite cactus is just off this trail and looks almost like a person. The “crest” at the top is a mutation that is present in only one of every 200,000 saguaros!

The quarter-mile Saguaro Discovery Trail is wheelchair accessible and has a number of interpretive signs explaining the plants and animals of the Sonoran desert and their relationship with the native Tohono O’odham people.

Unusual saguaro cactus with crest at top. © Frank Gallagher

Tohono Chul Map

Spend an hour or stay all morning

You could photograph here for hours, shooting small details or wide vistas. If you get a little hungry, there’s a nice bistro on site where you could have breakfast. And if you want to get out of the sun for a bit, a gallery offers small but interesting art exhibits.

Bring a hat, sunscreen and some water. As you might expect, Tohono Chul has a few sensible rules:

  • Stay on trails—don’t go wandering off into the desert.
  • Don’t block trails or paths for others.
  • Be courteous to other visitors.
  • Don’t damage anything and leave everything as you found it.
  • And, of course, abide by NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices!

See you at the Summit and at Tohono Chul!

Tohono Chul is one of 14 field trip destinations during NANPA’s 2023 Nature Photography Summit and Trade Show, May 4 – 6 (with optional field events on May 3 and 7). The Summit also features seven terrific keynote speakers, 13 breakout sessions (many offered twice), Super Sessions taking a deep dive into topics like macro photography or pricing photos, informative portfolio reviews and an exhibit hall with companies like B&H Photo Video, Cognisys, Arca-Swiss and Strabo Photo Tour Collection. Don’t miss it! Get all the details here and save $100 when you beat the early bird deadline.

Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photograph services to nonprofit organizations. He serves as NANPA’s Interim Marketing and Communications Coordinator and manages NANPA’s blog. He can be found online at or on Instagram @frankgallagherfoto.