The Chihuahuan Desert surrounds the City of Tombstone Arizona. This desert has its particular types of plant-life. But within this zone is much variability. It’s dependent on the elevation.
The elevation of Tombstone is 4,541 feet above sea level. In Chihuahuan Desert areas, for an elevation increase of 1000 feet the temperature drops by 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Bisbee, 20 minutes Southeast, is about 1000 feet higher. It’s normally that much cooler than Tombstone.
This difference in temperatures in the Chihuahuan Desert also has an effect on plants in an area. To some degree, it affects animal life also. Another aspect is sunlight and mountains. On northern sloping areas, out of most direct sunlight, the temperature can be much cooler.
Several types of desert biomes exist throughout the world. Each of them also have their own microclimates. Sometimes the microclimates of adjacent deserts coincide, and sometimes they diverge. Tombstone, and much of the Chihuahuan Desert in the U.S., can be considered a warm/intermediate desert.1
For instance Tucson Arizona is in the Sonoran Desert. I believe it is one of the most beautiful deserts (if not the most!) in the world. The plant-life is abundant, diverse, unique and extraordinary.
Tombstone Arizona is about 70 miles from Tucson.
Yet Tombstone is in the Chihuahuan Desert. This desert in the Tombstone AZ area has a 2,352 foot higher elevation, and gets about 2 inches more rain each year. Yet it has less varied natural plant-life.
In general, the Chihuahuan Desert is a high desert, especially compared to the Sonoran Desert, and some of the other deserts in the United States.
Visual Comparison of the Deserts
The Sonoran Desert:
Compared to the Chihuahuan Desert:
Chihuahuan Desert Animals
There are some typical, common animals you may experience when you travel the Tombstone area. Some are less common. You might see these while hiking. That would be an exciting experience! Sometimes welcome – other times, maybe not!
Javelina – People sometimes refer to them as a “pig.” They sort of seem like a wild variety, but they’re collared peccary. Only vaguely related to pigs, kind of like second cousins, in that they’re in the same Order: Artiodactyla, which also includes sheep, goats, even giraffes! Javelina are in a different family: the Tayassuidae. So they have different specific characteristics from pigs:
- Smaller ears and tails
- Three hind-foot toes instead of four
- Straight canine teeth instead of curved
- Moms give birth to a litter of two who are on their feet quickly, instead of numerous dependent young.
Family groups often herd together. They have poor eye-sight, but a good sense of smell.
Coyote – Usually heard more than seen, making a crying yip-like sound. When seen, they’re often alone. In winter, they’ll gather in groups. They hunt small animals, or eat carrion. Just like you’ve probably seen and heard in the cartoon, they are very wily!
Coues Deer – A small white tail deer variety. There’s a black tip on the tail. Often seen around town in Tombstone Arizona at dusk.
Mountain Lion – Also called a cougar, or sometimes a puma. They’re very adaptable, though they prefer mountainous areas. More often, when you might see them, would be while hiking. But it would be an unusual encounter. They have been seen on occasion, around the Tombstone area. So they are known to be into the Chihuahuan Desert, and into the surrounding Tombstone Hills.
Kit Fox – Usually seen as darkness approaches, but not easily! I’ve seen them rarely. They hunt small animals, but will eat fruit if needed.
Horned Toad – It is really a lizard. Also known as a horny toad, or called a horned lizard, etc. They look dangerous, but they’re sweet and harmless to humans. Their primary food source is ants.
Among several defense mechanisms are:
- Their coloring provides fabulous camouflage in the Chihuahuan desert surroundings.
- Their ability to squirt foul bloody secretions at an enemy.
They are seen less in recent years because their native environment is diminishing. That is sad. I think they’re cute!
Ringtail – These guys are real “night owls”! Their excellent eye-sight serves them well in the dark. They like rocky canyons, and even mine shafts. So the Tombstone Hills serve them well! They have a fluffy tail with black & white ringed stripes. They’re related to raccoons, and are real tricksters!
Coatimundi – Cute, curious little family groups travel around the higher elevations of the Chihuahuan desert. They’re also related to raccoons. Unlike their ringtail cousin, they’re awake in the day. They’re quite “nervy” brave creatures. Yes, daring! They’ll sneak up and approach a picnic basket, if they think they can retrieve some food from it! Read More>
Black-tailed Jackrabbit – You’ll notice its huge ears that help eliminate heat. Their eyes are high up and to the side on their flattish head. This helps them see almost fully behind them. They’re not a rabbit, but a hare. Which means babies are born with open eyes and fur.
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake – A pit viper – heat sensing openings behind their nostrils. You’ll notice the triangular head shape and the black & white stripes just in front of the rattle. If it rattles at you – heed the warning and back off!
Gila Monster – A stocky lizard. Its coloring is black with pinkish orange markings. It is venomous. If it bites, it chews to release the venom. Human attacks are exceedingly rare (they happen when someone is really provoking the lizard!). Arizona law protects them! (Illegal to collect, kill or harm them.) So please, don’t bother one if you encounter it – it won’t bother you. Just be glad you were able to meet one from a safe distance. You’ll have a rare treat!
Scorpions – There are two kinds in the U.S. Chihuahuan Desert. They’re nocturnal ancient creatures. They show up under black light! Typically these scorpion stings don’t cause death. But if an allergic reaction occurs – that changes the situation!
- The most harmful is the Bark Scorpion. It climbs & it’s the one that gets into homes. It likes cool, moist areas with good air flow. It’s small & light colored. The sting can be life threatening for those with health problems.
- The Stripe Tailed Scorpion, the most common here. You’d find it when turning over a rock or under a garbage can. They’re about 2 inches long. It looks vicious when threatened, but if stung it’s more like a bee-sting.
Western Desert Tarantula – Sometimes called the Arizona blond tarantula or the Mexican blond tarantula. They live in burrows in the ground. The opening is about quarter-sized. It has a silky lining or covering. The male is black with tan markings. The female is tan with blondish hairs. Abdominal hairs have irritating barbs. Their bite is venomous, but not deadly. Feeling kind of like a strong bee sting – unless you have an allergic reaction! So use caution if you have that tendency. You’d have to really annoy them to have them bite you. So be nice!
Some Birds You’ll See in the Chihuahuan Desert
Roadrunner – This amusing bird has been the subject of a cartoon. And they are quite entertaining to watch when you encounter one. They normally have a route they follow, and our yard has been lucky to have been along one! They’re a kind of cuckoo. They run along the ground and you might see one run across the road in front of your car. That’s where they got their name, after all. They don’t fly much. They can feed on rattlesnakes!
- Gambel’s Quail – These birds walk along the ground, in very cute family groups. Males have a colorful face with a black front mask & bright rusty cap. Both genders have a black feather plume.
- Gila Woodpecker – They have an unmistakable personality. Look for their red cap and black & white striped back. You’ll really notice them when they nest in an excavated hole in a tree or large cactus. They’ll make loud calls.
- Sandhill Crane – A large flocking wetland bird. Watch a crane fly. They extend their long neck. Sandhills congregate in marshes, bogs and prairies. In the Chihuahuan Desert, they have made the Willcox area, and the Playa there, a winter home. Watch…
Chihuahuan Desert Plants
Specific plants are native to the Chichuahuan Desert. They can also cross over into other Desert Biomes as well. Here are a few of the very noticeable plants you may wonder about as you travel through the area.
Tumbleweed – You’ll see it fly by, maybe even get stuck under your car – on a windy day! What is it?
You probably noticed it in those Western movies. There’s even one film named for it! About 10 plant families produce tumbleweeds. As the annual plant dies, it breaks off. The wind blows it elsewhere. Its method to distribute its seeds for reproduction. The one usually seen here is known as Russian Thistle.
Ocotillo – Easily identified, with its tall green to brown spiked stems out of its base. With rain, it will sprout leaves. During dry spells, the leaves fall to conserve water. Orangey flowers bloom at the top from about March until June.
Prickly Pear Cactus – This Opuntia family group grows in many areas throughout the Chihuahuan desert region. It’s a hardy cactus that can survive in quite a variety of desert and sandy areas throughout the world. Easily recognized as well. But be careful – most types have thorns and tiny painful spines.
Yucca – You’ll see them in the open desert and also on slopes. They tend to grow in groups, one after another. There are several varieties. The Soap Tree Yucca has a tree-like form. Yucca baccatta, or Banana Yucca, has a base of pointed leave. A flowering tower shoot grows from the middle of each variety, from 10 to 12 feet tall.
Mesquite Tree – The mesquite has small green leaves, often some thorny branches, and flowers in the spring. A pretty tree that spreads wide and grows about 30 feet tall. It produces some good and well appreciated shade. Its bean pods have been used for food by Native Americans. A very widespread type of tree in desert areas.
Trekking the Chihuahuan Desert Area
There are not any mountains right in Tombstone itself. Tombstone is surrounded by the Hills of Tombstone. That’s where the Miners of the 1880s sunk their silver mine shafts.
The area is surrounded by a number of mountain ranges that offer hiking and recreational activities:
- To the Southwest are the Huachuca Mountains, and Coronado National Memorial
- To the West are the Whetstone Mountains which contain the new Kartchner Caverns State Park, off Hwy. 90. Not only are there the cavern tours, but two trails are available, plus a Hummingbird Garden Walk. You can camp here, also. Even rent a camping cabin. Read More>
- Remember – Wyatt Earp rode through here during his Vengeance Ride!
- To the Southeast, in the Bisbee area are the Mule Mountains. Make climbs to Ballard and Fissure Peaks – 7,370 ft. Accessed via Old Divide Road turnoff. That’s a little over 1/2 mile before the tunnel going into Bisbee. Or take the Mule Pass Road out of Bisbee.
- In the East are the immense Chiricahua Mountains, which have many options. Investigate Chiricahua National Monument and Fort Bowie National Historic Site.
A very special place. The great Apache warrior Cochise is buried here. But we can’t tell you where! One area that’s a must-do/see is Cochise Stronghold. But there are other areas, many historic, to check out in the Dragoon Mountains.
Phillips, J. (2015). Growing the Southwest garden. Portland OR: Timber Press.
Brown, D. E., editor. 1994. Biotic communities: Southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
Tweit, S. J. 1995. Barren, wild and worthless: Living in the Chihuahuan Desert. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center (2021) Javelina. Retrieved from southwestwildlife.org/resident-animals/javelina/javelina.html
Godfrey, E. (December 20, 2014). Center for Biological Diversity wants Texas horned lizard declared an endangered species in Oklahoma. The Daily Oklahoman.