The Valley of the Sun’s many parks, preserves and peaks make for happy trails.
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.