Hiking in the Desert Heat: McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale
In Central & Southern Arizona, you will find an abundance of fantastic recreational areas which are ideal for hiking and/or mountain biking. Phoenix, home to the Sonoran desert (also located in Southeastern California and Northwestern Mexico), is known to be the wettest desert in the world. This enables many different plants to grow, giving the area a surprisingly lush atmosphere for a desert.
It’s not all barren, but rather alive with all sorts of beautiful desert plant life. This is due in part to the strong summer monsoon season, along with rain during the winter season, for an average of 3-16 inches per year. The beautiful Saguaro Cactus, of which you will see plenty driving around the Phoenix area, is native to the Sonoran desert. Other small populations can be found in California’s Imperial county and Whipple Mountains. Most area hikes will give you a great view of these tall beauties.
Although it doesn’t look too large from the road, the Saguaro can grow to be up to 20 feet tall and can live more than 120 years. On your hike, you will get to stand side by side and experience the majesty of these beautiful plants. The Champion Saguaro, found in Maricopa county, can grow between 40-60 feet tall!
To me, Phoenix is one of the most gorgeous and interesting areas to plan a hiking adventure due to the beautiful combined views of these unique cactuses and the surrounding mountains. Nothing quite compares to a hike in the Arizona desert. Although there are many great hiking destinations in the Phoenix metro area, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in beautiful Scottsdale is a great area to start. It’s a bit less congested than the very popular, yet scenic Camelback mountain hike, giving you more time and space to explore the area.
If you are a fan of beautiful desert scenery, including all different varieties of interesting cacti, then you will love the gorgeous landscapes found at Scottsdale’s large preserve. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve offers 120 miles of trails, which can be used by hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. Trails vary in intensity from extremely easy 1/2 mile nature trails to the extremely steep and strenuous 11 mile long Tom’s Thumb loop. There are 5 different trailheads spread out along more than 30,000 acres of the incredible Sonoran desert.
The Gateway Trailhead, the largest in the system, offers access to 3 popular and relatively easy hikes: the 4 mile Gateway Loop (a moderately challenging hike with great views), the peaceful 1/2 mile Bajada Nature Trail, and the easy 1.7 mile Horseshoe Loop. The Horseshoe and Bajada trails are both perfect options for those who want to enjoy a little of the beautiful desert scenery without going all out.
Here you will experience great cactus and mountain views, without pushing yourself over the limit – not a good choice during the brutal summer months! The short distance enables you to get in a nice little workout before the daytime temps reach the 100’s (temps will still be in the upper 80’s-lower 90’s – so come prepared!).
The Horseshoe Loop is easy enough for a beginner hiker as the distance is short and there are no hills or steep sections. It’s just the right length to get your heart pumping without suffering heat exhaustion. Along the journey, you will experience up close views of all different types of cacti including the famous Saguaro Cactus, which the Phoenix area is most well known for. You will also be treated to great views of the mountains. The uniquely beautiful cactus/mountain landscape makes for some pretty great photos, especially if you can find time to do a sunset/sunrise hike.
A quick view of many of the interesting desert plants found along the way
When planning a visit to the Phoenix area, I recommend getting out there and enjoying the beautiful nature trails found throughout the region. Beyond the shopping malls, restaurants, and endless subdivisions, you will find that there really are incredible peaceful places to enjoy a hike in a setting found nowhere else in the world.
Tips for Hiking During the Hot Summer Season
*Plan your hike for very early in the morning. Unfortunately, the constant 100 degree+ daytime temps make afternoon hikes totally off limits. You will need to set your alarm clock between 5am-7am, at latest, to complete a hike before the brutal daytime sun and temps arrive. You will see many other people doing the same! Sunset is also okay, although still hotter than an early morning hike.
*Wear a camelbak or pack a backpack with several water bottles. You will need a few due to the combined heat/dry weather.
*Bring a cell phone and tell others where you will be just in case you get lost or injured.
*Take it easy. This is not the time to challenge yourself! Save longer, more intense hikes for the milder winter season. Enjoy a leisurely hike through the scenic desert, without overdoing it. I saw several joggers on the trail – not sure how they did it in the 90+ heat!
*Wear light colored clothing and preferably shorts and a very light top.
*Protect yourself from the sun with a hat and sunglasses. It’s very hard to see and take pictures without sunglasses!
Have you ever hiked at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve? What other hikes have you enjoyed in the Phoenix area?
The Gateway Trailhead is located at: 18333 N Thompson Peak Pkwy, Scottsdale, AZ 85255. Hours are dusk-dawn. No parking or admission fees are charged. Trail brochures are available near the entrance. To get to the Horseshoe loop, you will start on the Gateway Loop and follow the signs. Everything is marked well for your convenience. Enjoy the hike!