Cacti & Critters

The Sonoran Desert is teeming with more than 2,000 native species of plants and nearly 700 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and freshwater fish. Keep an eye out for these common desert dwellers on your next adventure.


The Giant Saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and can grow to 50 feet in height.
After a rare desert rain, the Creosote shrub gives off a fresh, unmistakable fragrance.
The barbed thorns of the fuzzy-looking Cholla have earned them the nickname “Velcro of the desert.”
The whip-like branches of the Ocotillo sport fiery red blossoms in the spring.
The Barrel Cactus tends to grow leaning toward the south, which is why it is also called the “compass” cactus.
Juice from Prickly Pear fruit buds is used in drinks, syrups and candy.
The bean-like pods of the Mesquite Tree provided a source of food for pre-Columbian desert dwellers.
It’s hard to miss the bright gold blossoms and green, chlorophyll-bearing trunks and branches of the Palo Verde Tree.


Coyotes are best known for their mournful howl, the signature sound of the Southwest.
Staying true to its name, the Roadrunner can reach ground speeds of up to 15 miles per hour.
Gambel’s Quail are gregarious birds that spend most of their time scurrying along the ground in search of food.
Resembling small wild boars, Javelina can weigh up to 55 pounds and live in groups of 2 to 20 animals.
Desert Tortoises are gentle creatures that can live for up to 40 years. Note: Desert tortoises can be observed at close range but must never be picked up. They store water in their bladders and will release it if frightened, thereby depleting their precious water source.
Jackrabbits are known for their huge ears, long hind legs and large feet.
Feisty Cactus Wrens are strikingly spotted and typically nest in saguaros, chollas and palo verde trees.
Rattlesnakes spend most of their time under low-growing shrubs, rocks and other desert debris. These poisonous snakes are identified by the warning buzz of their rattle.
Harris Hawks can be identified by their dark brown bodies and long black-and-white tail feathers.
Measuring nearly two feet tall, Great Horned Owls have white throats, striped undersides and prominent ear tufts.
Scorpions fluoresce under ultraviolet light, so a black light is a must for nocturnal scorpion hunting (though if you find one, observe it from a distance – their stings can cause localized pain and swelling that can be severe and, in very rare instances, fatal).

For more ideas and resources for exploring Scottsdale’s great outdoors, download the Desert Discovery Guide, which features trail listings and provides a comprehensive overview of the Sonoran Desert.