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Larger than life penguins, made of recycled plastic, greet visitors at the Desert Botanical Garden near Scottsdale, Arizona. The penguins are among the 1,000 plastic animals that will reside in the garden until May. Photo by Jerry Ondash
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Hit the Road: Scottsdale’s diverse desert landscape

Been here, done this, and I’m so glad to be doing it again.

We are standing near the 2,400-foot summit of the Gateway Trail, a nearly 5-mile loop in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve ( in Scottsdale, Arizona. Surrounding us: an expanse of about 35,000 acres of the world’s most verdant desert.

Who could guess that, only a few miles away, exists a metropolis of almost 5 million residents. Count among them a goodly number of former California residents.

Verdant and desert are two words rarely used in tandem, but this portion of the Sonoran Desert, captured by the boundaries of the preserve, really is green, even though it’s November and previous months have been dry. The paloverde trees, majestic saguaros, fuzzy chollas, squatty barrels, leafy brittle bush and many other types of vegetation combine to create a soft green cast to this diverse desert landscape.

“We have the saguaros that grow (in the Sonoran Desert) and nowhere else,” explains Steve Sproviero, my guide for this morning hike. The retired businessman and New Jersey transplant loves everything about Arizona, especially this preserve. As a guide for the local REI Co-op Adventure Center (, Sproviero often leads hikes for out-of-towners.

“The plants here all have different times that they begin to flower. That allows a large bee population to thrive. We are considered to have … more plant diversity (than any other desert) due to just the right combination of water, weather and elevation.”

Sproviero has lived in Scottsdale for about a decade, is fully immersed and is an enthusiastic cheerleader for the area. “This part of the country, and more specifically Scottsdale, has such a great range of things to do — hiking, biking, running, water sports, large lakes, easy access to some of the largest parks and preserves in the country. Don’t forget the number of world class golf courses, resorts and great eats.”

Eventually, he says, this preserve will top out at about 40,000 acres. Some of the acreage was purchased during the most recent recession when developers were forced to sell large tracts of land at prices advantageous to the city and the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy.

“Scottsdale has more open space for recreational activities than any other city in the country,” Sproviero says. “Locals, visitors, businesspeople, all can enjoy the great outdoors within minutes of our great metro area.”

Across town to the southwest, near the red rocks of Papago Buttes, another expanse of lush-but-tamer desert awaits visitors. It is the Desert Botanical Garden (, 140 acres of carefully orchestrated green space that shelters nearly 50,000 plants and trees native to various deserts.

We arrive mid-afternoon; it’s in the 80s, but (honestly) it’s a dry heat. The air under the ample shade trees is comfortably cool. At each turn, I experience plant-and-rock envy. Every landscaped space appears worthy of a magazine cover, and the hardscape is an artful blending of stone, glass and cement. Gardeners of all skill levels will find inspiration here and at the very least, enjoy seeing species of cactuses and succulents that most of us will never attempt to propagate.

And if you visit before May 10, you’ll not only find the usual resident critters like ground squirrels, woodpeckers, roadrunners and lizards (perhaps even an iguana), but the 1,000 larger-than-life animals that make up the “Wild Rising” exhibit. Visitors will see meerkats, penguins, snails, bunnies, birds, bears, fish, frogs and more made of recycled plastic in eye-popping colors that are situated throughout the garden. (Don’t forget to look up.)

The “invasion,” created by an Italian artists’ collective, is meant to provoke discussion about local and global sustainability, conservation and the importance of recycling.  The exhibit “is controversial,” a docent tells us with a shrug. “The kids love it, but well, judge for yourself.”

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