Written by Sandra Ozkur

Arizona is a popular winter getaway destination for Canadians. Its sunny dry climate makes it a haven for northern snowbirds (Canadians who spend the winters in the south). Its world-class resorts and golf courses attract thousands of visitors every winter. The iconic red sandstone cliffs of Sedona and the Grand Canyon are sights not to be missed. Once you’ve seen all the regular sights, you may be ready to discover one of the least mentioned yet most interesting attractions of the State—the Sonoran Desert. There exists a world to be discovered out in the desert, which is subtle and unassuming but filled with riches for those who dare to explore!

The Sonoran desert is a unique ecoregion, existing in a very localized area. It covers the southwestern part of the States of Arizona and California and Baja peninsula of Mexico. National and regional parks have been created to preserve the area in Arizona and its endemic plant and animal species. The famous Saguaro Cactus, with its outstretched limbs, grows wild here. If you remember the Road Runner and Wiley Coyote cartoons or western movies, you will get a mental picture of this area. Over 60 unique mammal species, 300 birds, an array of exotic reptiles and amphibians make their home here in one of the hottest deserts in North America.

At first glance, a desert may seem to be a lot of nothing but sand and brush; however, if you take the time to explore it, you will discover a beauty beyond description. Rise early in the morning to beat the heat of the day. You’ll need a good pair of hiking boots, a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water and snacks. Be sure to include a map and compass in your backpack. Take a walking stick along your walk to prod unknown areas for sleeping vipers that may be camouflaged. It is imperative that you are well-prepared and familiar with the trails that you will be taking, and that you have a cell phone and some emergency rations along. Many hikers die from dehydration every year when they become lost in the desert. Temperatures can rise up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, but drop close to freezing at night. The best time to hike is in the winter months, but hikers should avoid the heat of the day. March is the most dynamic time to visit, when the desert flowers begin to turn the landscape into a painter’s canvas of colour.

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If you want to hike close to the city, Camel Back Mountain is a favourite destination for anyone staying in Phoenix. The city has grown up around the mountain, so it is now the best location to get a bird’s-eye-view of the sprawling cityscape below. There are two trails — both are very challenging, but the trek up the mountain takes only a few hours and is well worth the effort. If you arrive at the summit at sunrise or sunset, the desert appears to be on fire with brilliant orange and red hues reflecting off the iron-filled soil.

I prefer to hike on trails slightly removed from the city where I can be alone in the desert — the only sounds are bees and the odd plane passing overhead. My favourite walk is just northeast of Mesa which leads you down to the Salt River. It takes only half a day, and it’s great for kids too. Take Power Road to the Coon’s Bluff Regional Park where you can leave your car and head up the path that leads over the hills and finishes at the the picnic area by the river. The trails are evident but not well marked, so be sure to watch carefully for significant landmarks, or make stone-piles to mark your route. It is only about three kilometers long, and if you leave in the morning, you can reach the river on the other side for an early picnic. More popular trails are marked with painted swatches, but it is important that you pay close attention to where you are going so you don’t get lost or step into road apples left behind by horseback riders!

As you walk, look closely and you will discover the subtle beauties that exist within this barren landscape. The sandy desert is home to exotic wildlife such as the diamond-backed rattlesnake, Gila monster, scorpion, coyote, desert tortoise, Gambel’s quail, roadrunner, kangaroo rat, and wild horse. Rattlesnakes are not aggressive and only attack if they are surprised, so be sure to look before you step, and never reach under a rock without checking first.

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The desert envelops you with a solitude that can only be experienced. The silence is deafening, for there are no leaves to rustle and therefore no sound. The vastness of the sky and the thousands of acres of mountains, hills and valleys covered in native vegetation are awe-inspiring. A variety of desert plants inhabit this seemingly barren landscape and have supported animal and human life for thousands of years. The cactus plants can survive on less than 5 cm of rainfall per year. They have ingenious ways of preserving water in their fleshy meat during the wet season to be utilized during the eight months of intense heat and scorching sunshine when there is no water to sustain life.

The Saguaro Cactus is the king of the desert. It grows only about one inch per year but can live up to 200 years. Its limbs reach upward like arms and are covered with lone sharp spines. This magnificent sentinel produces white flowers in spring and red fruit in summer. The Saguaro is supported by a porous skeleton, which birds bore into to make their nests. The Organ pipe, Barrel, Prickly pear, Fishhook and Hedgehog are other cacti that grow in the desert.

Native Americans depended on desert plants to survive. The cacti provided them with food, water, and fruit. They extracted food, medicine, seeds, and fibers from other plants as well. The fibers were used for weaving baskets and clothing, the spines used for fishhooks and the cactus skeletons used for firewood. Take a reference book of native plants along to help identify the plants and animals you encounter.

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As you walk through the labyrinth of twisting paths that lead through washes, and uphill to mesas (flat topped hills), that overlook the Superstition Mountains in the background and the Salt River below. If you are really lucky, you might see the herd of wild horses that still roam freely in the park. If you look closely, you can make out the tracks on the desert floor where the wagon trains of the pioneers passed through this area over a hundred years ago. Just imagine the struggle those people must have had trying to survive in such a hostile environment. You can’t help but admire the resilience of those settlers and Native Americans who managed to live for thousands of years from the bounty of the desert. The desert is full of life and adventure, so take a hike and enrich your visit to Arizona.

For a list of trails visit www.arizonahikingtrails.com

[box type=”shadow”] Check out Sandra’s website at www.ozkur.ca [/box]