I’ve got a death grip on the seat in front of me as our well-worn Hummer bumps and twists over a sandy trail that loops through Tonto National Forest, about a half-hour east of Scottsdale, Ariz. We are on a two-plus-hour tour with Stellar Adventures, seeing parts of the Sonoran Desert only possible with a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Our guide, Brian Foley, born and raised in and around Scottsdale, knows this country like it is a part of his being — which it is. He grew up on a horse ranch and maintains one today when he isn’t transporting visitors through the desert, educating them on its history, biology, geology and climate.
“Most people unfamiliar with the desert are surprised to learn about the diversity of the flora and fauna here,” he tells us as we bump and slide over the rutted, sandy road. They think of it as they see it on TV – some desolate thing. Even in other parts of the year, things are lush. This desert is full of things you’d never dream of seeing.”
On this day in late March, we are only two of the three million tourists who annually visit Tonto National Forest, and we are seeing only a speck of its 2.9 million acres, but quality counts.
Copious winter and spring rains in this urban forest have created vistas worthy of an Arizona Highways magazine spread. Carpets of golden California poppies blanket the hillsides and meadows.
Legions of lapis lupine and dense, saffron-colored brittlebush line highways and backroads. Beavertail, cholla and hedgehog cactuses are just beginning to push forth waxy flowers of magenta and yellow (low cactuses typically bloom after wildflowers).
And verdant, near-perfect specimens of saguaros, plump with rainwater, stand majestically everywhere.
At one point, we climb out of the Hummer and examine a saguaro that is easily 40 feet tall. We do not miss this photo op.
As it often is in the spring, the temperature here is a perfect 72 degrees, so wandering through the landscape is nearly effortless. But “you have to watch out for snakes at this time of year,” Foley cautions. “They like to come out and sun themselves on the rocks.”
He adds that they are unlikely to strike unless provoked, and we don’t plan to do that.
Part of our ride takes us past evidence of the massive June 2020 Bush Fire, so named because it was ignited by a car fire along the Bush Highway, which cuts through the southwestern corner of the forest. Many ancient saguaros fell victim to the flames, “and it will take hundreds of years to replace them,” Foley says.
We have visited multiple times, and since its 50,000 plants and trees are managed under a controlled irrigation system, the garden never disappoints. It showcases the Sonoran Deseret at its most glorious.
The spring months offer a bonus: the Majestic Mariposas exhibit in the 3,200-square-foot, open-air pavilion created to give mariposas (butterflies) a paradise in which to thrive and multiply.
Exploring the entire garden and its five themed trails can easily consume a full day (photo ops abound), so visitors who need a break can enjoy lunch or a snack at Gertrude’s, just inside the front gate (no ticket necessary). The seasonal menu offers tasty and healthy fare and offers plenty of gluten-free and vegan options.
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