Winter Hikes in Phoenix

With temperatures finally dropping, Phoenix becomes a paradise for hikers.  You wouldn’t expect that from a huge city, home to over four and a half million people.  Yet, we have hikes for people of all abilities.  Huge areas of the desert are left untouched and protected  within the city’s limits. One of them, South Mountain, is the largest preserve in the US in an urban area.

Within 41,000 acres of park preserves, Phoenix has more than 200 trails to enjoy. Though it is not only inadvisable but even dangerous to go out on any of these trails in the summer,  in the winter they are the perfect place to be.

The Desert in Phoenix the Winter
The Desert in Phoenix the Winter
Easy Hikes for Families with Young Kids, or Those Who Are Not Ready for Anything Strenuous

You’ll find some of the easiest hikes in and around Papago Park, in the center of Phoenix.  Each trail within the park is fit for children of all ages, and people of all abilities.  One of the most popular hike here is the hole-in-the rock trail.  It offers and easy walk around this known Phoenix spot. Kids and adults alike have enjoy looking at the city through the hole in the rock.

The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area is another spot for easy hikes.  The trails run along the Rio Salado Riverbed, and offer a glimpse into the riparian habitat of the desert. You will find that the desert can be very green,  full of life, especially along riverbeds.

Many of the Sonoran Preserve Trails offer easy walks through beautiful desert vistas. Most of them start at the Apache Wash Trailhead.

Riparian Area at Reach 11, Phoenix
Riparian Area at Reach 11 in the winter

The Reach 11 Recreation Area in North Phoenix offers plenty of short and easy hiking trails.  Enjoy the desert vegetation and wildlife that you will most likely see on any of these trails.  You can even walk through a riparian area, if you take the trail to the pond off Tatum Boulevard.

You’ll find one easy trail in the North Mountain Park as well, the interpretive loop of the Penny Howe Barrier Free Trail.

For A Little More Serious Hikers the City Offers Many Moderate Difficulty Trails

Most of the trails in South Mountain Park are of moderate difficulty, still fit for most hikers.  You’ll find beautiful scenery, gorgeous views and lots of petroglyphs on any of them.

North Mountain Park also offers miles of trails with moderate difficulty. On some you’ll hike up a few buttes, on others walk with some elevation gain through the valley between the peaks.

Desert Trail in Phoenix in Winter
Desert Trail in Phoenix in Winter

The trails in Dreamy Draw and Piestewa Peak are also fit for hikers of all abilities, and offer only a bit of a challenge. Hiking through the are you will most likely encounter desert wildlife, including coyotes and jackrabbits.

All the trails in Lookout and Shadow Mountains, areas known only to locals, are in this category.

Most of the trails in the Sonoran Desert Preserve that start at the Desert Hills trail head, are also moderately difficult. They take you through beautiful desert areas.

For the Serious Hiker, Phoenix Offers a Few Difficult to Extremely Difficult Trails

Th best known trails within the city limits also happen to be the most difficult ones.  I am talking about the two trails that summit Camelback Mountain. 

Echo Canyon Trail is the city’s most famous hiking destination, known to hiking enthusiasts all over the world.  Though challenging, not only for its elevation gain, but the rocky terrain and exposure, since there is no shade on it, most Phoenicians hiked it at least once.  Why do we live here, if not for this challenge, after all? Even if you don’t summit, the views from the trail are exquisite.

View from Echo Canyon Trail
View from Echo Canyon Trail. Image by Flickr

If you want to summit Camelback Mountain from the other side, the Cholla Trail is also spectacular, and just as difficult.  Although at the bottom it does have an easy part. So if you want to hike within Camelback Mountain’s boundaries, but want an easy walk, start on this side, and turn around when it is too much.

With So Many Trails, There Is No Excuse to Stay Inside When the Weather is Finally Nice

When the temperatures drop, Phoenicians usually hit the trails.  The summer months, with temperatures over 100 degrees, are so long, we usually can’t wait to get outside.

As soon as we do, we are rewarded with beautiful desert vistas and a variety of trails to choose from.  Yes, we might live in the city, but we can get lost in the wilderness of the Sonoran Desert within a few minutes of stepping on a trail.  This is what makes living here worth it.  And this is what attracts so many visitors here in the winter months.





A Southern Arizona Road Trip

A road trip is just what we needed on a long weekend, with school being out on Friday. Since it is mid-November, almost winter, we opted for a Southern Arizona trip.

On a normal year this is the time when things finally cool down in the desert. On a normal year.  However. This year is still a bit too warm.  Next week is Thanksgiving. And we are still hot.  We had the air conditioning on a few days ago.  Yeah. Life in the desert.

Saguaro National Monument, AZ

Still.  It is only in the eighties, and mornings and nights are pleasant.  A Southern Arizona road trip seemed like a great idea. We haven’t been passed Tucson in years. And I wanted to take my youngest child to Kartchner Caverns. She’s never been there.  The older two visited on school trips years ago.

First we figured, as usual, let’s go! Then we looked up the site – fortunately – and realized that we needed reservations. Since it is such a popular destination, we had to do it well in advance. We did make a reservation for sometime next month.

As luck would have it, someone canceled and we ended up with reservations for both tours in the same day, this past Sunday. Lucky us! Of course, we took the opportunity and made a three-day-weekend road trip out of it.

First Stop: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Our first stop was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  And of course, we were hot. Still, the museum is spectacular, a combination of zoo/aquarium/botanical garden/Earth Science Center all in one.

Despite the heat, we had a great time.  And heat is relative.  It wasn’t in the 100s, only the high eighties.

Mountain Lion in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The animals were a bit sleepy, but we saw them all, even the mountain lion.  I remembered them having more than one, but that was many years ago. I might have been mistaken.  We caught a presentation of a ranger with a beautiful barn owl on her arm, sat in the shade watching hummingbirds flutter around us, walked through an aquarium, through an underground exhibit, under water through a riparian habitat, and even through a cave.  We were going to see the real deal at the end of the trip, but this was a nice little preview.

Road Trip Stop 2: Saguaro National Monument

Since we were basically in Saguaro National Monument already, we decided to stop at the visitor center, and maybe even take a short hike. We did stop and enjoyed some time in the shade of the outdoor area, but we felt too hot for a hike.  We live in the desert, after all, we have plenty of opportunities to hike through the land of cacti.

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona

However, we don’t see such a concentration of saguaro cacti in one place anywhere else.  It was nice to enjoy the view of it, then drive through it for a while.

Unplanned Stops: Apple Annie’s Country Store and the Amerind Museum

We spent the night in Wilcox, a small desert town with not much to see.  But as we were driving towards it, we noticed a sign for the Amerind Museum.  We originally planned to drive to the Chiricahua Mountains the next morning, however, after a fw minutes of debate, we decided to take a side trip the next morning and visit the Amerind Museum, as soon as it opens.  It is the place where they have on display most of the finds from the archaeological site Paquime in Mexico, not far from the border, and we knew this.

We have been in Paquime (Casas Grandes) more than fifteen years ago, and we thought it would be great to see some artifacts from the site. So we changed the plan for the next day, and decided to visit the museum before heading to the Chiricahua National Monument.

Since it opened at 10am, we had some time on our hands, and stopped at Apple Annie’s, where we bought a delicious loaf of apple bread and spent some time enjoying a country store. (We are city slickers, don’t get to see many of them often).

Apple Annie's Country Store

We drove a few miles on a dirt road to reach the Amerind Museum, and it did seem like it was in the middle of nowhere, in a nice desert location though.

Amerind Museum - Door of the Art Exhibit

It didn’t have as many artifacts as we hoped for, but it was still pretty good.  They have other Native American exhibits worth a look, and it is well organized. As bonus, we got to even visit an art exhibit on the premises – all Native American art, of course.  In one of the first rooms we entered, I noticed the name on the painting as Ed Kabotie. I didn’t know he was an artist, too. We’ve seen him perform multiple times in Flagstaff with his reggae band.

4. Chiricahua National Monument

One of the highlights of the trip, Chiricahua National Monument is a beautiful place, and, being higher in the mountains, we finally felt cool enough to enjoy a few hikes.

Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

The scenic drive through Bonita Canyon is spectacular and we enjoyed the slow winding road.  We hiked to Echo Canyon, and a little beyond, a short but spectacular trail, with breathtaking views all around, then stopped at Massai point and hiked a little more.  It was nice to feel cold at times in the shade of the cliffs. Once back at the Visitor Center, we hiked on the Rhyolite Trail, in the forest, for a short time as well.

Chiricahua Mountains, AZ

We did not encounter either one of the jaguars seen in these mountains. Since 2015 as many as three jaguars were spotted in the mountains, to the delight of all those who hope to see them return to the US one day.  I was looking out for them, but I guess fortunately for me, we didn’t see either one.

The Main Destination of This Road Trip: Kartchner Caverns

The highlight of the trip, the reason we took this road trip to begin with, Kartchner Caverns was our last destination. Save the best for last. Well, that and we could only get the reservations for Sunday.

I heard and read a lot about these caves.  Still, seeing them was a treat I will never forget.  No, it wasn’t my first time in a cave.  We’ve been exploring caves in the Yucatan for years. I have been in a few in my childhood, growing up around he Carpathians.  But this cave is truly magnificent.

Again, we left the best for last.  Our second tour was the Throne Room, with Kubla Khan in the center. The light show was spectacular, we would not have been able to see this huge column and the surrounding stalactites, stalagmites and smaller columns in this room that the cave’s first explorers called Xanadu.  Why did they call it that? Well, read the poem and you’ll guess.  Then definitely go see the room.

The Throne Room tour is shorter than the Big Room.  I am not sure which one I like better overall.  As spectacular a Xanadu is, the Big Room has so many more things to explore. Bacon, fried eggs, and other food-related names on those formations made us all wonder if cave explorers are a starving bunch.  Our guide indeed confirmed this, telling us that before entering a cave, they don’t eat for a while, so they are already hungry.  Staying under ground without food for a long time, all they will think about is going to be food.  Though no matter if you’re hungry or not, the formations called bacon, indeed look like perfect bacon slices. Interesting, and beautiful (if you happen to like bacon).

No photos because we were not allowed to take cameras or phones inside.  You can look on their website for some great ones.





Bryce Canyon National Park – Hiking through Hoodoos

One of our latest weekend trip took us to Bryce Canyon National Park.  It has been over ten years since our last visit, but the landscape and the park hasn’t changed.

Although geologically speaking, hoodoos, the rock formations that Bryce Canyon is famous for, don’t last long, one lifetime in human years doesn’t make a difference in their shape.

<img src="brycecanyon.jpg" alt="Bryce Canyon National Park,"/>

What Are Hoodoos?

Tall, skinny spires of rock, hoodoos seem like tall totem poles, carved by nature.  At Bryce Canyon, they range from 5 to 150 ft tall, and come in all shapes and widths.

<img src="hoodoos.jpg" alt="Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park "/>

I see hoodoos as children of a parent rock, slowly parting from the whole family and becoming their own beautiful, separate selves. The “family” that supports them, the rock formation that forms them is called the Claron Formation in Bryce. This rock was “born” 30 or 40 million years ago in an ancient lake.

<img src="hoodooformations.jpg" alt="hoodoo formations in Bryce Canyon NP "/>

As a natural process of aging, hoodoos are formed by different weathering processes.  The extreme temperatures on the plateau cause a freezing then thawing process to repeat more often than other places.

The melting snow seeps into the cracks of the limestone, then it freezes, which makes it expand. (Yes, water expands when freezing. If you need to see the process, freeze water in a plastic bottle, and watch what happens.) In the case of the limestone, this freeze/thaw process causes cracks to appear. This process is called frost wedging.

<img src="brycecanyon.jpg" alt="view from trail at Bryce,"/>

Then rain, sun and wind slowly erodes the rocks and separates the hoodoos from their parent rock.

Of course, the same process that forms hoodoos, will eventually erode them, too.  We don’t see the difference since the erosion happens at the rate of 2-4 feet every 100 years. But in another few million years they won’t exist as they are now.

We are the lucky ones who get to enjoy them.

<img src="brycehoodoos.jpg" alt="hoodoos sunset Bryce,"/>

Hiking to the Bottom of Bryce Canyon

While my husband decided to walk down and into the canyon on the most strenuous (but most spectacular) trail, my daughter and I took the easier, more traveled one.  I usually choose the less traveled path, but sometimes, when I am out of shape, I don’t mind easy.

<img src="queensgardentrail.jpg" alt="hiking the Queen's Garden's Trail in Bryce Canyon,"/>

In the morning, to catch the best light, we set off from the Sunrise Point on the Queen’s Garden Trail.  It was pleasant, an easy hike (of course, it was downhill), though slightly crowded. The short trail got down to the Queen’s Garden.  Queen Victoria, that is.

<img src="trail.jpg" alt="tunnel on the trail in Bryce Canyon,"/>


“Why would they name that rock formation Queen Victoria?” asked Karen.  “She’s never even been here.”

Yes, I know.  I guess whoever named the rock has seen the queen and felt that it resembled her, looking over her garden of other hoodoos. It took me a while to see the resemblance, but I finally got it while sitting in the shade of a tree in front of it.

<img src="queensgarden.jpg" alt="Queen Victoria and her garden, bottom of Bryce Canyon,"/>


Instead of returning the way we came, we walked through the canyon for about a mile, and took the Navajo Loop Trail back up, through the Wall Street formation.

<img src="bottomofBryceCanyon.jpg" alt= "hiking on the bottom of Bryce Canyon,"/>

Given the fact that it was sunny and hot by midday, when we got there, Wall Street was the highlight of this particular hike for me.  We spent a fair amount of time in the shade of the tall rocks surrounding us.

<img src="wallstreetbryce.jpg" alt= "walking wall street at Bryce Canyon,"/>


Of course I was a slow turtle going up the steep switchbacks, but I made it.     It was worth it, every step of the way both down, and up.

The Overlooks

When we first arrived the day before, we drove to the Southernmost edge of the park, and stopped at Rainbow Point.  The easy hike on the Bristlecone Loop, through a pine forest took to Yovimpa Point, offered a far view into the Four Corners area.

<img src="rainbowpointview.jpg" alt= "View from Rainbow Point Bryce Canyon,"/>

We stopped at the Natural Bridge overlook, where we enjoyed the view of the arch.

<img src="naturalbridgebryce.jpg" alt= "Natural Bridge Overlook Bryce Canyon,"/>

After we settled in the lodge, we walked the rim trail between Sunrise and Sunset Points, with a great view of the amphitheater below.

<img src="rimtrailbryce.jpg" alt= "Rim trail Sunset Point Bryce Canyon,"/>


Now, after a relatively long hike, we were on the shuttle to Bryce point, with an overlook of one of the most scenic vistas of the whole amphitheater. Different view, different perspective. The Peekaboo trail, a harder hike into the canyon, starts there, but I left it for another time.

<img src="brycepointview.jpg" alt= "Bryce Point View,"/>

Before leaving the park, we stopped at the Fairyland Canyon overlook. One of the most strenuous, but also most spectacular trail starts here, about eight miles long with an elevation gain of over 1100 feet. In comparison, the combination of two trails that I did was a little over 3 miles long and an elevation gain of about 600 feet.  I thought that was high. Of course, I left without hiking the Fairyland trail.  I need to train for that, if I ever want to make it.

Chaco Canyon – In the Footsteps of the Ancient Ones

As I walk through the ancient structures in Chaco Canyon, I think of the people who once called them home. It is hard to imagine them surviving in the harsh desert, let alone thriving.  Yet, they built a civilization here, lived and died here for a few centuries, before moving on to a slightly more hospitable land. They left behind their ceremonial center and homes, for our present-day archaeologists to study and the ret of us to wonder about them.

Chaco Culture National Park is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the Southwestern US,  and it is also a World Heritage site. It preserve structures built centuries ago, witness to human history.

Watching the road and the surrounding high desert through a window of a Chacoan structure

Getting There

Visiting Chaco is always an adventure. We drive through the high desert in the Navajo Reservation. Most of the area seems deserted, and we have the opportunity to enjoy the colors of the desert. The surrounding rocks form a swirl of color, from deep reds through coral, yellow and even green. Still, as beautiful as the landscape is, it doesn’t seem possible to support life.
Yet, again and again, we notice tiny one-track roads leading off towards nowhere that we can see. An occasional hogan stands witness that people live here.
We almost miss the dirt road leading to Chaco.  We’ve been there so many time, yet it is always hard to remember where exactly the turn-off is.  
The dirt road seems deserted, as we expected. After a few minutes of driving we notice other cars ahead of us.
“We are not the only ones going to Chaco today,” I comment.
Although the road continues to a small Navajo settlement, we know these are not locals. These are cars, in good shapes, not barely-held-together trucks that locals drive.
Chaco is getting more visitors. It is a long weekend, so it is not a total surprise. Still, I am sure it won’t get crowded, like most other National Parks.

The Site

As we enter the site, we stop at the Visitor Center. We show our National Park’s pass, and decide against taking another brochure, we know the site well by now.  Not quite ready to get back in the car, we check the newest exhibits.
The sun is blinding as we step out from the visitor center. I forgot how bright it is here, with no shade other than the structures. Still, far from being hot, it is comfortable to walk.
We decide to take the short walk to Una Vida.  It is a first, we haven’t done it before. On top of a small hill, though far from impressive, the site offers a great view of the surrounding area.
Leaving the parking lot, we set of on the nine-mile loop trail that goes through the real Chaco.
After about a mile we stop at our first big house, Hungo Pavi. This set of ruins consisted of over 100 rooms, some of it reaching four stories height. We walk through it, stopping in the shade of its back wall.  The kids are way ahead of us, but we stop at the great kiva, or ceremonial center.
 Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito
Our next stop is the parking lot for both Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito.  We usually spend a lot of time here, and this time is no exception.
We walk over to Chetro Ketl first. Not quite as large as Pueblo Bonito, it is still impressive. Its most distinctive feature is the elevated kiva, different from the other ones in Chaco.  We walk through and around it, then make our way to Pueblo Bonito.


Kiva at Chetro Ketl, Chaco
The elevated kiva at Chetro Ketl
Instead of walking back to the car, we take the petroglyph trail between the two ruins.  We walk slow, trying to look at each petroglyphs on the wall by the trail.  Some are clear, but others are so eroded, we can barely tell they are there. 
A few minutes later we reach Pueblo Bonito, the highlight of the site. With over 650 rooms and 35 kivas, it is the most impressive structure in the park.  Since it is pleasant still outside, we walk outside through the kivas first. As it starts getting warmer, we head inside the larger structure.
Inside Pueblo Bonito, Chaco
Room Inside Pueblo Bonito
As I walk through the rooms, I remember my kids, playing hide and-seek here when they were younger. The doorways through the interconnected rooms were the perfect size for them.

A Hike to the Mesa Top

At the far side of the loop, we stop again.  This parking lot leads to back country trails, and it is the first time I decide that I want to go to the top of the mesa.  The kids are much older now, I don’t worry about them, and I am ready to explore something new.
We sign up at the trail head and put the papers in our car window.   Klin-Ketso, another great house, is a short half-mile walk on the trail.  We explore the site, and find the trail that leads to the top of the mesa.
The most fun part of the trail goes through a narrow passage, between two tall rocks. Huffing and puffing, I slow down as I climb the rocks. I am out of shape, but I don’t want to admit it. I decide to blame it on the heat, and pretend to stop in the shade of the two rocks to cool down, not to catch my breath.
The “wind tunnel” on the trail to the mesa top.
“Mom, do you need help?” I hear my daughter. “I’ll carry your water bottle and your camera if you want,” she offers.  She was way ahead of me.
I appreciate the offer, but I have a feeling that helping me is not the only reason she ran back. She admits that she enjoys going up and down the narrow wind-tunnel. At age ten, she’s a mountain goat, loves to run on rocks, where most people only stumble.
We make it to the overlook of Pueblo Bonito.  From up here, the site looks even more impressive.  We can see its distinctive D-shape, and its straight wall in South-North direction.  
Before heading back, we sit down and enjoy the view for a long time. 
Chaco - Pueblo Bonito
View of Pueblo Bonito from the mesa top

Casa Rinconada, the Great Kiva

The sun is setting by the time we stop at Casa Rinconada, the great kiva.  Isolated from other structures, it is the largest kiva in Chaco Canyon, with a diameter of 64 feet.  The short walk to it takes us through barren land. No structures, no trees, only small bushes add a little green to the area.
The kiva is spectacular, standing alone in the sunset. We spend some time sitting around it, as we imagine the ceremonies that took place in it centuries ago.

The People of Chaco

As I sit at the side of the great kiva, I look around the landscape.  Across the road, the structures look beautiful in the sunset.  It is quiet now, most visitors left already, I only spot a tiny hare running across the field not far from us. The canyon is quiet, deserted.
It is hard to imagine the place filled with people, living their lives.  They held ceremonies in the great kiva only at certain times of the year.  But the other structures housed people living day-to-day lives, in this harsh environment.  
Yet, they did.  The canyon was home to ancient people long before the first structures were built. The first evidence of people living here date back 4000 years. Yet, they didn’t build anything lasting until 400-500 AD, when they erected the he first pit houses. Around the end of this period they started building more centralized structures.  
The biggest transformation happened around the 9th century though. The great houses, like Pueblo Bonito, started to emerge.  This is so distinctive to Chaco, archaeologists call it the Chacoan Phenomenon. The population of the area designed the area as a whole, a city or ceremonial center, or both. 

Who Were the Chacoans?

Archaeologists call people who lived here the Chacoan Anasazi. They were part of an ancient Puebloan civilization.
After the first great houses, the Chacoans built more for the next 250 years. They traded with other cultures around the Southwest and the Mesoamericas. They built dams, canals and a road system.  
Evidence suggest that very few people lived here full time. But Chaco became the center of the world for many more. Most of them traveled here on a pilgrimage during certain times of the year, for special events. 
But by 1150 Chaco was starting to loose its importance as a regional center. 
There are many theories as why this happened. A lot of factors came in consideration. Drought was one of them. Overpopulation, depletion of the natural resources is probably more important.

Where Did They Go?

The Chacoans didn’t disappear.  Many clans moved to other sites. They settled along the Hopi Mesas, Mesa Verde region, the Zuni Mountains, Mount Taylor and the Chuska Mountains, and along the Rio Grande
Hopi clans trace their ancestry to Chaco. Pueblo people from Acoma, Zuni, Zia, Laguna, and others have traditions and stories that talk about their clans migrating from Chaco.  The Navajo also trace the origins of some of their clans back to Chaco. 
All these nations consider Chaco sacred. 

Back to the Present

Standing in the middle of this deserted city, the canyon is so still, I can hear the leaves rustling in the breeze. The walls of Pueblo Bonito glow red in the setting sun.

The deserted structures stand witness to an ancient burst of human activity.  Chaco tells part of the story of human history, with its good and bad parts.

We have a long way to go to get back to civilization, so we need to leave. I know we will be back. Every time we come, we find something new, or we see the same in a different light.

Further reading:

Chaco. A Cultural Legacy, text by Michael Strutin; Photography by George H. H. Huey. Published by the Western National Parks Association, Tucson, AZ