Located at the confluence of the Sonoran Desert and the Great Basin Desert regions, the Ironwood Forest National Monument is protecting one of the best preserved stands of ironwood trees in the US, a species that lives almost exclusively within the boundaries of the Sonoran Desert and can reach 800 years of age. While ironwood trees are the ones that gave the name to the national monument, you’ll also find thousands of saguaro cacti, barrel cacti, ocotillos, and plant communities typical to both desert regions blanketing the valley floor. Living among them are hares, lizards, roadrunners, deer, desert tortoises, bats, and the area’s last remaining population of desert bighorn sheep. Ironwood Forest was declared a national monument in 2000 and it spreads across 188,619 acres (76,331 ha) (read the Presidential Proclamation to learn more about the importance of the monument). The city of Tucson, AZ is only a short drive away and a good base to explore the monument, as well as the nearby Saguaro National Park. If you start early in the morning you can head to the most impressive landmark in Ironwood Forest: Ragged Top Mountain, with its jagged, volcanic shape dominating the valley floor covered by a forest of saguaros and ironwood trees (a good description of the hike to the top here). If you arrive to the area in spring, you will find a colorful blanket of desert wildflowers among the tress and cacti, and if the conditions are right and you’re there in May you might witness the bright purple bloom of the ironwood trees. Ragged Mountain is also where the population of desert bighorn sheep live, which is why the BLM requests that visitors refrain from summiting the top between January 1 and April 30 for the lambing season. Ironwood Forest National Monument is one of the least developed for visitation, which makes it great for those seeking solitude and adventure along unpaved roads and unmarked trails. Even the more popular hike up Ragged Top Mountain can be challenging to find and the route is unmarked. You’ll need a high clearance vehicle to move through the national monument, but you’ll be rewarded by some truly beautiful views of the desert, alive with birds, rodents, lizards, snakes and tortoises. Within the national monument there are also important historic and cultural resources, of which the Cocoraque Butte Archaeological District is the most visited. We spent a day in the national monument, doing walks on unmarked trails and driving the loop along the Silver Bell Road (visible on BLM map). From West Silver Bell Rd you’ll see the large open pit copper mine which has been operating here since before the monument. Thorough information regarding hikes and trailheads isn’t as readily available online, so you can contact the BLM Tucson Field Office and maybe stop for a visit there to get all the resources you need for a safe visit. While in Tucson you may want to stop by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to gain some insight into the ecology of this fascinating region and maybe pick up more information on things to do in the national monument. The rugged land of the national monument allegedly sees a good amount of illegal activity from across the border, so many aspects are to be kept in mind while visiting, especially if spending the night wild camping. If you don’t mind hiking with a group, you will get a lot more from your visit and gain a better understanding of the beauty of this national monument by signing up for guided trips with Friends of the Ironwood Forest National Monument. They also organize plenty of other activities in the Tucson area to promote the national monument. For the most part the beauty of Ironwood Forest revealed itself to us from just being inside the monument, driving along its dirt roads and walking among trees and cacti. It’s a stunning, inspiring landscape of a desert ecosystem which deserves to be preserved in perpetuity.
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