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Hit the Road

Happy trails on spring desert hikes

My Midwest friends just don’t get it; they don’t understand the desert.They think the word is synonymous with sand dunes, barren landscape and a place devoid of life, but we Southwesterners know differently. We also know that spring is the ideal time to explore the deserts — to get up-close-and-personal to see the magic that happens before temperatures soar.

I travel to the Phoenix area several times a year and always try to take advantage of some of the open spaces that serve well its 3 million residents and a whole lot of snowbirds. I’m speaking of the city’s South Mountain Park; Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve; and Tempe’s Town Lake Park and Crosscut Canal Park.

South Mountain’s 16,000-plus acres qualify it as the country’s largest municipal park. I’m grateful that Phoenix had the foresight in 1924 to buy the initial 13,000 acres (for $17,000). Today, it’s apparent that the citizens got their money’s worth. The park’s 58 miles of trails are well used, but rarely feel crowded.

In January, I hiked the park with two of my sisters, and though we were but a few minutes from their homes, it felt as though we had traveled much further. It was early in the area’s high season, but the winter rains had worked their magic. A few cacti were already in bloom, and the panoramic view from the park’s many elevations gave the impression that the desert wore a fine, green velvet cape.

We began our hike on the Mormon Trail, which goes mostly up, then took the Hidden Valley Trail, which provided some dramatic landscape, thanks to the giant boulders and rock formations. Our three-hour hike covered only a fraction of the many trails. Visit

McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a gem for which we can thank the residents of Scottsdale, who taxed themselves (twice!) to buy a goodly portion of the 27,800 acres (43 square miles) that comprise this choice piece of desert landscape. Multi-kudos also go to the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy whose volunteers worked ferociously to put this spectacular real estate off-limits to development. The preserve also serves as a wildlife corridor leading to the nearly 3 million acres of Tonto National Forest. The goal is to expand the acreage to 34,000, nearly a third of Scottsdale’s land area.

From the trails hikers can see magnificent saguaros and many other cacti, as well as abundant wildlife. The preserver is a natural paradise within a sprawling metropolis. We chose the Gateway entrance, one of many, because it offers ample parking, restrooms and a beautiful ramada (open shelter) that features information about the area’s ecosystem. You could spend all day and then some in the preserve, but it’s also perfect for brief hikes. Visit

Tempe offers many urban trails; I’ve discovered a couple.

The Cross Crosscut Canal Multiuse Path is a walker/runner/cyclist’s delight. While some industrial areas are visible along the way, you’re much more likely to see beautiful desert terrain, a waterfall with riparian foliage, riders on horseback and the public art that is incorporated into the path, which is also accessible to wheelchairs. The canal’s reservoir is a hotspot for wildlife. The path runs from downtown Tempe, along Town Lake, through the Arizona State University area and Papago Park, and ultimately to downtown Scottsdale. Visit

Lastly, I may never get used to the fact that Tempe has a lake, but the city’s man-made Town Lake has become the second most visited destination in the state (the Grand Canyon is first). More than two dozen pieces of public art punctuate the path, which circumvents the lake. A wildly contemporary pedestrian bridge connects the north and south shores, and south shore-walkers will pass the Tempe Center for the Arts, a dramatic building that features an “endless pool.” The bridge also serves to shade the massive rubber dam that created the lake, part of the Salt River. Visit