Sunset Hike on the Apache Wash Trail

My Best Hiking Moments On The Apache Wash Trail In The Sonoran Desert Preserve

The easiest trail in the Sonoran Desert Preserve in North Phoenix, the Apache Wash Trail is also one of the greenest in the area, and, at 7.4 miles full round-trip., the longest.

I only hiked its whole length once. With a few connecting trails, you can make the loop as short or as long as you wish. I tend to go to the second connecting loop, which gives me about four miles of flat terrain in the middle of the greenest desert in North America. Even without going all the way through the largest loop, the trail meanders through a few ecosystems with vegetation ranging from the giant saguaros, different cholla cactus varieties, to desert shrubs and palo verde trees.

Besides the actual Apache Wash Trail, my favorite trails in my vicinity are those starting at this trailhead. The Apache Wash Trailhead in the Sonoran Desert Preserve is the gateway to several different trails, some short and easy, others leading uphill, and yet others leading far out into the desert. It is truly one of the best areas to explore the desert wilderness north of town. And, being north of town, the air is cleaner than in some of the other preserves.

To reach the trailhead, drive north on Cave Creek Road, then take the scenic Sonoran Desert Drive road through the preserve. The Apache Wash Trailhead offers more parking spots and it’s more developed than the Desert Vista Trailhead leading to a different side of the same preserve.

On the Apache Wash Trail in the Sonoran Desert Preserve

The Sonoran Desert Preserve

The Sonoran Desert Preserve is one of my favorite wilderness areas in and around Phoenix. One of the newest preserves within the city limits, it is – usually – the least crowded, and still offers gorgeous vistas on all of its trails, that run about 36 miles in total. The preserve covers about 18,000 acres of protected desert just north of Phoenix.

And, being north of the desert metropolis, it also has cleaner air than the other preserves within the city limits. For now.

The Sonoran Desert Preserve, view from the Apache Wash Trail
Surrounded by desert vegetation. In the greenest desert; On the Apache Wash Trail.

Since it covers such a large area, it stands the reason to have a few access points. You can get to different parts of it from three trailheads, the Desert Vista, Desert Hills, and Apache Wash. Over the past few years, we tried all the access points, and, while I like them all, lately the Apache Wash Trailhead is my favorite.

You have a few choices of easy to moderate hikes in this area, but one of the easiest while still most scenic is the Apache Wash Trail. As the name suggests, the trail follows the Apache Wash, crossing it a few times back and forth. While it’s rare to see water in the wash, it still offers enough moisture for the Sonoran Desert vegetation to make its surroundings greener than the rest.

the Apache Wash Trail
Flat and easy hike. On the Apache Wash Trail.

On the Trail

Over time I’ve hiked parts of the Apache Wash Trail, connecting to other trails for shorter hikes. I’ve climbed Apache Hill, enjoying some of the prettiest desert vistas in the area.

I also hiked the longest loop at around 7 miles total, bringing me far out into the desert. Surrounded by the vegetation of the greenest desert on the continent, I enjoyed the easy stroll away from the hustle-and-bustle of Phoenix. Few people go the whole distance of the trail, so the farther I was from the parking lot, the more deserted the area felt. As enjoyable as it is, for a short late afternoon/sunset hike I don’t go the distance.

The Sonoran Desert is known as the greenest in North America.
On the Apache Wash Trail we can see why the Sonoran Desert is known as the greenest.

A Short Sunset Hike

For a short sunset trail we set off on the Sidewinder Trail on the East side of the Apache Hill, as we turned around the mountain, we continued on the Apache Wash trail. Even without climbing to the top of Apache Hill, the views were spectacular on all sides, with mountains and the city in the distance. Since it was late in the day, we chose not to go far off one of the longer trails, but kept it short and simple, with an easy stroll around the mountain, combining parts of two trails.

The Desert in Bloom in Late December

Though I am used to the desert plants blooming in late November and in December, I didn’t expect to see a cactus in bloom on the trail. But there it was, one of the healthiest cholla cactus, with its pretty yellow-red flowers right by the trail.

Cactus in bloom in December on the Apache Vista Trail
Cactus in bloom in December on the Apache Vista Trail

Sunset on the Trail

Sunset on the Apache Wash Trail
Sunset on the Apache Wash Trail

As we turned around the hill, on the Apache Wash Trail, the sun was setting, turning the sky into shades of orange, yellow and blue. The clouds, unusual for the desert, gave the place another dimension. As we continued walking, we were watching the ravens fly back towards the town, towards warmer areas, to roost.

As we continued walking, I looked up to see Apache Hill lit up by the last rays of the setting sun.

Sunset in the Sonoran Desert Preserve, on the Apache Wash Trail
The last rays of the setting sun lighting up Apache Hill in the Sonoran Desert Preserve.

Hiking The Full Length Of The Apache Wash Trail

The Apache Wash Trail starts left off the main trailhead and leads away from the mountain. If you follow the trail markers, you’ll see it as AW. It follows and eventually crosses the Apache Wash. Though I’ve never actually seen water in the wash, the vegetation surrounding it is greener than farther off in the desert.

Soon after forking off the main trailhead, we cross Apache Wash, then walk on its banks, enjoying a greener side of the preserve. This stretch gets busy on the weekends, but only until it reaches the first connector trail, making this a short circle. I am usually not ready to turn at this point, so we keep walking. Farther on the trail, we usually find ourselves pretty much alone on the trail, even on a busy weekend.

For a while, the desert seemed to stretch on forever, and even though I knew I was still practically in town, I could imagine being lost in the middle of nowhere. But as harsh and unforgiving as it seemed, the desert was still beautiful and full of life.

Wildlife in the Sonoran Desert

Even on that long hike I only spotted birds and lizards in the flat desert, though I’ve noticed sings of large desert mammals. Over time, I’ve encountered rattlesnakes, coyotes, roadrunners, quails, even a tarantula in different parts of the Sonoran Desert, but most of the time I still only run across birds of the desert and lizards.

in the desert...
I finally caught a bird sitting on top of a tree in the desert.

On that long hike, I stopped a few times to enjoy hummingbirds on the nearby palo verde, and a cactus wren on a saguaro. But it was mostly just quiet, though I could still hear the constant hum of the highway in the distance. At times I heard birds in the nearby bushes or trees, but I rarely saw one sitting long enough to catch it on camera.

Occasionally we passed a dead tree, standing like a piece of artwork in the desert.

A dead tree standing like a piece of art work in the desert.
A dead tree standing like a piece of artwork in the desert.

Back on the More Traveled Path

Soon we got back to the more traveled path, walking around the hill close to the trailhead. The desert seemed greener here, or at least with more variety of plant life.

Pencil cholla joined the jumping and teddy bear cholla along the trail and the hill we climb sometimes, though not on this hike.

It was a perfect morning in the desert, and we were back at the trailhead just a bit past lunchtime.

Make sure you are prepared for a hike before you start

I have to admit, at some point, I was fading, disappointed that I was so out of shape that I had trouble even with this flat, easy trail. That was until I realized that I left home without a proper breakfast and it was past lunchtime. When we left home, I planned on taking a shorter hike, the three-mile loop. At least I had water with me, but with no food, even a leisurely walk in the desert, if it’s too long, can take its toll.

But since we’ve lived in the desert long enough and know that at times we end up taking longer hikes than we set out for, we always carry a cliff bar. It came in handy, and after a few bites, I regained my energy and was able to enjoy the rest of the hike.

No matter when or where you go hiking in the desert, have a snack and plenty of water. And don’t forget a hat and sunscreen, even in the winter. As pleasant as the weather is, the sun is still strong.

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