We had been hiking up for the better part of an hour, past the ancient one-armed saguaros, past the place where the gravel path led to an uneven stairway of solid granite. The afternoon was windless and hot. The sharp sun was the only thing that pierced the unfailingly blue sky.
For a couple of snow-stung escapees from Minnesota, it was perfect.
We followed the narrow trail as it zigzagged across South Mountain, reached deep into the shaded canyon, then angled back across the sun-bleached mountainside.
Given the terrain, we could have been in almost any western wilderness. Except for two things: We were surrounded by people, including packs of Boy Scouts finishing a 10-mile hike, joggers running up (yes, up) the trail and whole families, with young children and little dogs in tow.
The other thing? For much of the climb, we were treated to magnificent views of the desert landscape — cholla cactus and shrubby mesquite, with nothing but rugged peaks beyond the peak we were climbing. But then the trail would take a turn, and we’d be looking down onto the greater Phoenix metropolitan area — a chockablock carpet of houses stretching as far as we could see, interrupted only by a few patches of skyscrapers.
The Phoenix area (known as the Salt River Valley, the Valley of the Sun or just the Valley) wasn’t on the top of my list of winter getaways, given its reputation as a sprawling behemoth. But we’d just come off one of those below-zero spells and we wanted to get somewhere warm — fast — and do some hiking. Phoenix, we discovered, was just the place.
Sure, growth has left its mark on the desert. But the winter climate can’t be beat. The people are astonishingly friendly. And the valley, which encompasses a wide swath of central Arizona, is surprisingly beautiful. Encircled by mountain ranges, it’s also shot through with parks, preserves and stand-alone peaks, all of which offer miles of trails that wind through the desert, scale a summit or lead you into a rugged mountain wilderness. The city of Phoenix alone offers more than 40,000 acres of park and preserve land with 180 miles of trails.
From the hip boutique hotel we stayed in near downtown, we were within a half-hour’s drive of dozens of day hikes. The hard part was picking which ones to do. We had only three days, and after searching the Internet and talking to friends who knew the area, our list was already too long. Of course, once we arrived, we couldn’t help but ask everyone we met — the waiter, the desk clerk, the people we sat next to at breakfast — about their favorite hikes. (That, we quickly discovered, was like asking a Minnesotan to name her favorite lake.)
Overwhelmed by options, we let the crowds steer us. We’d planned to tackle Camelback Mountain first. But the parking lot for the city’s best known and most central climb was full by 10 a.m., even though it had recently been expanded. On the advice of a city park ranger, we opted for three trails, which the ranger said were local favorites, in three very different parts of the city.
There were only a few cars in the parking lot at the new Apache Wash trailhead of the Sonoran Desert Preserve in northern Phoenix, and we took that as a welcome sign.
After talking trails near the entrance with a retired transplant from Michigan, we chose an easy 3-mile loop that threaded a saddle between two rises. (None of the parks have printed maps and the signage is limited, but it’s easy to pick out the trails, especially in this part of the desert, where the paths wear to a blood-red color.)
We walked at a leisurely pace, stopping to inspect the skeletons of dead cactuses, trying to identify the shrubs. While this part of the desert receives more rain and is considered lush, it looked desolate. The cholla and teddy bear cactus, the creosote bush, the mesquite were all a stonewashed, grayish green.
But even in winter, the desert is alive. As we made our way up the gently sloping trails, we could hear the urgent alarms of the quail we’d disturbed. When we stopped to look at the blooms on a sage bush, we could hear the rustle of a gecko making for shelter. And the massive saguaros were as impressive as any white pine.
Halfway up the crest, we stopped in a patch of shade on the edge of a switchback to share an apple. Though we’d met a few other hikers earlier (who’d all greeted us cheerily), there wasn’t anyone else on the trail, aside from a horse and rider, who made a perfect Old West picture as they moved through the valley below us.
Suddenly, we heard a muffled “oof!” and the screech of brakes as two mountain bikes caromed around the switchback and barreled toward us. They slowed to make the sharp turn near where we sat, gave us quick nods and were out of sight in seconds.
Until then, I hadn’t known that many of the area trails are multiuse and that there’s a pecking order: mountain bikers yield to hikers, both yield to horseback riders. After that encounter, we kept out of the way of anyone moving faster than us.
It was a short hike to the top of the crest, which offered a split-personality vista common in Phoenix: uninterrupted desert on one side, housing developments on the other.
Although we’d missed lunch, we made it back to the hotel in plenty of time to soak in the hot tub and snack on guacamole and chips before dinner.
For our second hike, we headed to the aptly named South Mountain, near the city’s southern border. With 16,000 acres, the massive park is the largest municipal park in the country. On the sunny Saturday we visited, it seemed like one of the most popular parks, as well.
We toured the environmental education center to orient ourselves and, of course, talk about which trail to take — the park has 51 miles of trails. The folks there recommended the Holbert Trail to the Dobbins Lookout.
Even before we got to the trailhead, we realized this wouldn’t be a commune-with-nature experience. Droves of people were heading from the parking lot to the trailhead: groups of teen girls posing for selfies, runners with their ear buds firmly in place and families with chihuahuas leading the way.
Once on the trail, every one we met greeted us with a “Hi! How’s it going?” or an encouraging “You’re halfway there!” It seemed more like a movable picnic than a mountain trek.
But it was a challenge. The trail, which was rough, dropped off sharply in places, and we gained an elevation of 1,100 feet in less than 3 miles.
Getting to the top was a bit of a letdown. Dobbins Lookout, one of the highest peaks on South Mountain, is accessible by road, and the small parking lot was jammed with cars, motorcycles and bikes. Aside from an old stone shelter and a brass marker that identifies the cities you can see from the lookout, it wasn’t as interesting as the trail that led us there.
It took us about half as long to get down the trail as it did to get up it. So, even after we stopped in a low canyon to look at some petroglyphs, we still had time for what had become our favorite way to finish a hike: a hot tub, with a serving of guac on the side.
The Arizona Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon threw a wrench in our admittedly loosely formed plans for the last day. Roads along the route were closed, making it difficult to get around. So we opted for a short hike in nearby Papago Park.
Wedged between a military reserve and a major thoroughfare, Papago is very much an urban park. But it boasts a fascinating history (it served as a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II) and bizarre red sandstone buttes that lure hikers, bikers and anyone with a camera.
There are marked trails in Papago, but the arid park is crisscrossed with unofficial trails, so much so that it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. So we just followed our noses to the bases of a few of the buttes, and poked around in some of the cavelike structures that had been carved out of the formations by erosion.
We ended up chatting with a young man on a bike, not just about the trails, but about life in Phoenix.
A native of Portland, Ore., Wade had gone to college in the area and stayed on. He had a good job and a nice house, but he was ready for adventure. Though his destination remained a mystery — he was thinking of a year in Japan or New Zealand — one thing was certain: He’d return to Phoenix. The city, he said, has a way of growing on you.
After we said goodbye to Wade, we cut short our hike and went back to the hotel. We couldn’t resist the lure of the hot tub.
Later, when we were watching the sunset, drinking beer and eating guac and chips, I started thinking about what we’d do the next time we came to Phoenix. Maybe we’d climb Piestewa Peak, or hike a few trails in North Mountain Park.
Wade was right. Phoenix does have a way of growing on you.