Las Vegas trip: cactus sightings

My recent trip to Las Vegas with my friend Justin was a 3-day string of highlights. Being surrounded by monumental scenery was one: Red Rock Canyon, Gold Butte, and Valley of Fire were even more spectacular than I'd hoped, but we found beautiful desert landscapes off the beaten path as well. It often pays to take that side road just to see what's there. I'm a big believer in wonderful things happening if you open yourself up to chance discoveries. 

On that note, I wonder how many Las Vegas visitors ever leave Sin City and venture out into the desert? Most of them probably have no idea what's out there—and zero interest in finding out.

Gold Butte National Monument

Valley of Fire State Park

Yours truly walking through a slot canyon in Valley of Fire State Park

Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon

The goal of our trip was to see Mojave Desert plants in habitat, above all cacti and the elusive Agave utahensis var. nevadensis and eborispina. We struck gold with the help of friends who pointed us in the right direction. This post is about the cacti we found. I'll have a separate post about Agave utahensis—it'll be epic.

To help you visualize where we were, here's a Google map showing the main locations we explored:

Map with general locations we visited

Below are the cacti Justin and I saw. I decided to sort the listings by rough size, from small to large. 

 Cochiemea tetrancistra (Mammillaria tetrancistra)

Common name: common fishhook cactus 

Notes: Originally known as Mammillaria tetrancistra but recently transferred to the genus Cochiemea (a move sure to keep the Mammillaria community in the throes of heated discussion for years to come), this is a common cactus across the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. However, we only saw a couple. It's small, so maybe we simply stepped right over it.

Cochiemea tetrancistra

❷ Escobaria vivipara var. deserti

Common name: spiny star

Notes: Another small cactus with a large range (var. vivipara even extends north into Manitoba, Canada). It seems to prefer flats rather than hillside.

Escobaria vivipara var. deserti growing in seemingly barren flats

Escobaria vivipara var. deserti

Escobaria vivipara var. deserti

Escobaria vivipara var. deserti

Escobaria vivipara var. deserti

 Cylindropuntia ramosissima

Common name: pencil cholla, diamond cholla

Notes: I'm used to seeing Cylindropuntia ramosissima as a shrub-like cactus up to 6 ft. in height. However, all the populations we saw were tiny and prostrate. Some didn't have the long spines typical of the species. 

Cylindropuntia ramosissima, prostrate form without the typical spines

Cylindropuntia ramosissima, prostrate form with spines (great photo by Justin)

 Echinocereus engelmannii

Common name: strawberry hedgehog

Notes: This is one of the most common cacti in the southwestern US, growing from sea level to almost 8,000 ft. The spines vary in color and size, sometimes dramatically. Echinocereus engelmannii has beautiful magenta flowers; flowering season was still a few weeks ago, but we spotted a couple of early bloomers.

Echinocereus engelmannii with flower buds

Echinocereus engelmannii

Echinocereus engelmannii

Echinocereus engelmannii and Mojave goldenbush (Ericameria linearifolia)

Echinocereus engelmannii with white and reddish-brown spines

Echinocereus engelmannii with golden spines

Echinocereus engelmannii with a flower bud

Great shot by Justin of Echinocereus engelmannii in habitat

Echinocereus engelmannii in front of a young Ferocactus cylindraceus

Yours truly photographing one of the two flowering specimens of Echinocereus engelmannii we found

Echinocereus engelmannii

Echinocereus engelmannii

Echinocereus engelmannii

Echinocereus engelmannii

 Opuntia polyacantha var. erinacea

Common name: grizzlybear cactus

Notes: Unfortunately, we only saw a few specimens of Opuntia polyacantha var. erinacea. With its long, dense spines, it's a beautiful cactus, particularly when backlit. 

Grizzlybear pricklypear (Opuntia polyacantha var. erinacea)

 Opuntia basilaris

Common name: beavertail cactus

Notes: To our surprise, Opuntia basilaris wasn't as common in the places we visited as we'd expected. Out of all the cacti we saw, it was also the one that seemed the most dehydrated, even in places where other cacti looked perfectly peaky. The first photo below shows the best-looking specimen we encountered; the second photo is more typical of what we found.

Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) with its typical purple coloration

Opuntia basilaris with wrinkled skin

 Homalocephala polycephala (Echinocactus polycephalus)

Common name: cottontop cactus

Notes: Together with some other Echinocactus species, Echinocactus polycephalus was recently moved to the new genus Homalocephala and is now known as Homalocephala polycephala. It's slow-growing, uncommon in general (but often quite common where it does grow), and, to me, simply beautiful with its heavy, rigid spination. Aside from Agave utahensis var. nevadensis and eborispina, it was my “holy grail” plant on this trip. As you will see below, we found many, some of them absolute perfection. Unfortunately, this cactus is heavily poached and sells online for $$$$$. Most wild-collected specimens die in cultivation.

Homalocephala polycephala with desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)

Homalocephala polycephala grows both in the flats and on hillsides

Homalocephala polycephala

Homalocephala polycephala

Homalocephala polycephala and Agave utahensis var. eborispina

Heavily armed Homalocephala polycephala baby, its spines forming an impenetrable cage

Six-header (bottom center) and 30+-header (top right)


...was the biggest clump of Homalocephala polycephala we saw

At least 30 heads!

Homalocephala polycephala and Agave utahensis var. nevadensis

 Ferocactus cylindraceus

Common name: California barrel cactus, fire barrel

Notes: Ferocactus cylindraceus may be common, but both Justin and I went wild whenever we saw it. The California barrel cactus is usually solitary, but it can grow in clumps similar to the cottontop cactus (Homalocephala polycephala). According to, “Barrel Cactus sometimes grow in clumps like Cottontop Cactus, and without careful inspection, even experts can misidentify them. Cottontop Cactus can be identified by the presence of wool on the top of the plant and on the fruits, while California Barrel Cactus does not have wool. Furthermore, the flowers and fruits of Cottontop Cactus emerge from the tips of the stems, while those of California Barrel Cactus form a broad ring around the top of the stem. In addition, California Barrel Cactus has radial spines (smaller spines around the base of the main spines), while Cottontop Cactus do not.” So there you have it.

Me photographing Justin photographing a California barrel at Gold Butte National Monument


...taking this photo of a small but particularly colorful Ferocactus cylindraceus

Ferocactus cylindraceus likes a lofty perch

The steeper...

...the better

Ferocactus cylindraceus often matches the color of its environment...

...blending in, yet standing out

Ferocactus cylindraceus at Gold Butte National Monument, with Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia ssp. jaegeriana) and buckhorn cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa)

The tallest Ferocactus cylindraceus we were able to photograph, although we spotted far taller specimens growing on hillsides

In some spots there were so many young Ferocactus cylindraceus, we had to watch where we stepped

Valley of Fire State Park

Valley of Fire State Park

Valley of Fire State Park

Another great photo by Justin

The set of photos below were taken at the Agave utahensis var. eborispina location we visited. The Ferocactus cylindraceus there had predominantcomparisionly yellow spines:

Ferocactus cylindraceus growing out of a vertical crack in the limestone rocks, with an Agave utahensis var. eborispina barely visible above it

Starbucks Venti cup for comparison

 Cylindropuntia echinocarpa

Common name: silver cholla, golden cholla

Notes: Cylindropuntia echinocarpa is known as the silver cholla (see photo below). There's also a form with golden spines, which—surprise, surprise—is called the golden cholla. Silver cholla, golden cholla, all the same plant. That's why I prefer botanical names.

Silver form of Cylindropuntia echinocarpa

❿ Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa

Common name: buckhorn cholla

Notes: Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa is a common sight in Red Rock Canyon and particularly handsome when backlit.

Buckhorn cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa) at Gold Butte National Monument

Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa

Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa in Red Rock Canyon

There are more cacti native to the Mojave Desert around Las Vegas beyond the 10 I've shown in this post. lists 29 taxa, including quite a few Cylindropuntia and Opuntia we didn't come across. But we definitely saw our fair share of what are arguably the most beautiful cacti native to the area: Echinocereus engelmannii, Homalocephala polycephala (Echinocactus polycephalus), and Ferocactus cylindraceus.


© Gerhard Bock, 2022. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. Impressed as I am by the stark scenery of the desert landscape, I'm even more impressed by your ability to identify all the specimens you found!

    1. Most cactus I was familiar with because I was looking for them. The others I was able to ID by matching them against photos of native Mojave Desert vegetation.

  2. So used to seeing big beautiful specimens in gardens it's cool to see them growing in their native environments. It's a hostile world and yet they still seem to be able to survive. Ain't Nature grand?

    1. These three days in the Mojave Desert had a profound effect on me. I can't wait to do more exploring!

  3. Fantastic, Gerhard! I love seeing them all in habitat!

  4. Great photos from what must have been a fun plant-watching adventure. And all not so remote Starbucks is unavailable. Justin takes excellent phone-tos and the one you took of him with the lichen-splattered boulder is especially interesting. What colors the lichen can develop, and in the Mojave!

    1. Justin has an excellent eye for composition. I don't think you can teach it; you simply have it.

      The lichen were such a surprise, but we saw lichen and moss in many locations. Amazing how they can survive without water for so long!

  5. Spectacular scenery, interesting plants and like-minded company. What more could you want? Good on you for getting out there!

    1. Justin was the perfect travel companion. We're both on the same wavelength as to what we want to do and see. And we're both easygoing.

  6. Stunning landscape! Desert plants are so well adapted and camoufalged... its a miracule you spotted as many as you did. The black rock where the Starbucks cup was photografed: is it vulcanic rock?


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