the Holidays in the desert around Phoenix

Celebrating the Holidays in the Sonoran Desert

The Winter Holidays are the best in the Sonoran Desert. We don’t get the white winter wonderland we tend to associate with this time of the year, but we are surrounded by an environment where we can spend time outdoors without freezing.

This is the time of the year when we keep saying: “I remember why I live here”. Though I’m still not happy about living in a major city, the weather is perfect, the desert comes to life, and we finally get to enjoy the outdoors again.

Spending the winter Holidays in the Sonoran Desert means enjoying the outdoors
Spending the winter Holidays in the Sonoran Desert means enjoying the outdoors.

Which is why we usually spend most of the holiday season at home. Although in the past few years we also spent time in Mexico, and we had plans to do the same this year. At least for part of the season.

We had tickets to fly to Cancun the day after Christmas. But 2020 has not been a travel-friendly year. We canceled more flights this year than in our whole life up until now. So we added one more canceled flight to our collection. Next year, if we get to fly, we’ll have our tickets already, both for the Pacific Northwest and Mexico.

In the meantime, we are staying home for the whole Holiday season. Which is not a bad deal, given our location.

Enjoying the Desert in the Winter

Instead of leaving town, we’ll spend time hiking the trails in the desert preserves around the city. We have plenty of them, from South Mountain Park, the largest park within a city’s boundaries in the US, to tiny neighborhood preserves. We can choose from strolls along paved, flat areas filled with palo verde trees, shrubs, and a riparian area surrounding a pond at Reach 11 to some of the most strenuous vertical hikes at Camelback Mountain.

Since we prefer to hike in areas where we can feel alone, we avoid the well-known trails, like those leading to the top of Camelback, or trails in South Mountain Park, or the busier access trails to all other preserves in town. Though spectacular, we’ve experienced them over the years, and now we opt for those less traveled.

Spending the winter Holidays surrounded by giant saguaros in the Sonoran Desert Preserve
Spending the winter Holidays surrounded by giant saguaros

Living in the same city for a few decades means we know most of the neighborhood trailheads into the desert preserves in town. So we can enjoy the same scenery you’d get from the well-known trailheads, entering the area through little-known trailheads accessed from neighborhood streets.

In the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

One of these trailheads leads through an area of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve showcasing everything you’d want to see in this unique environment. We walk through arroyos, up a hill (or more, depending on which trail we take), in areas filled with giant saguaros and palo verde trees, with bright white quartz pieces scattered like snowballs at our feet.

winter hiking in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve
We see white during the winter Holidays: quartz pieces scattered in the desert resemble snow – with a bit of an imagination.

We usually see wildlife in this area. This is where I saw a pack of eleven coyotes one morning years ago, crossing the path in front of me. They each turned their head and looked at me as if to greet me, but kept walking.

Dove families are a common sight here, the babies walking in line behind their mother.

On rare occasion, we’ve also seen roadrunners in this area.

Rocky hills block the street view and noise from the nearby busy areas. By the time we are halfway through the trail, homes and streets disappear along with the noise associated with them. We feel like we are in a desert wilderness.

The city disappears behind the hills in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve
The city disappears behind the hills in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

We hike stretches of the trail with no other human in sight, but during the full outing we always meet a few fellow hikers and bikers. The area never gets too busy though. In the middle of a huge metropolitan area, we can feel far away from civilization.

Winter on the Apache Wash Trail

In the past few years, the Apache Wash Trail in the Sonoran Desert Preserve became my favorite. Just north of town, it is in a less polluted environment, and offers a variety of trails. We can hike on flat and easy, but possibly as long as seven miles roundtrip trails, to others up a hill, offering gorgeous views of the surroundings.

Though we rarely see water in the Apache Wash (we only did once), the area around the wash is always greener than its surroundings. Even if they only get water about once a year, desert plants here hold on to the moisture and survive long periods of time in the bone-dry riverbed.

Winter is the best time to enjoy the Sonoran Desert in Phoenix. On the Apache Wash Trail
Winter is the best time to enjoy the Sonoran Desert in Phoenix. On the Apache Wash Trail.

No matter how often I hike in the desert I can never get over the resilience of the plant and animal life here. This year, it’s been drier than I ever remember. The desert floor looks scorched in most places. But still, the palo verde trees and the giant saguaros, along with other cactus varieties are green, waiting patiently for rain, whenever it may come.

The giant saguaros are skinnier than I normally see them, their accordeon-like spines shrinking as they use up all the water they have stored. I know that as soon as they get even a few drops of water, they will expand to absorb as much as possible. Maybe they will get some rain for the Holidays.

Going out into the desert more often this time of the year, we are aware of the importance of water, and how precious it is. In he city, I get annoyed when I see so much wasted water. Maybe if more people would go out and pay attention to the desert, we would all learn to appreciate and preserve it.

Sunset Walk

Sometimes we take it easy, and walk at the Reach 11 area, a short, flat trail in the middle of the city. Still, we often see wildlife here, too. The area is filled with desert rats, and, naturally, raptors.

Raptor in the desert - Reach 11 area, Phoenix
Raptor in the desert – Reach 11 area, Phoenix

It also has an area where theoretically you can see burrowing owls. I know where to look, I’ve sat there a few times, but so far I haven’t seen any. Maybe by the time they come out, it’s too dark to see them.

On the other hand, we alway stop at the pond, where we might see ducks, frogs, and more birds, sometimes even a bright red cardinal.

During the Holidays, after a hike in the desert, we go back home and enjoy some baked goods, a long-time tradition in our house.

Celebrating the Holidays by Baking

Winter, the time around the Holidays, is not only hiking time in the desert, but it is finally baking time. To clarify, it is the time when I can bake, when I don’t feel guilty about turning the oven on. We go half the year without baking anything; all we have to do is walk outside, we can feel like we are in an oven, there is no way I can turn one on in the house. We have the air conditioning working overtime already, I can not justify making it work even harder. Even though I love to bake.

So, the Holidays bring baking weather, the greatest gift for me. I can finally bake traditional Hungarian cakes and cookies, and mostly sweat breads. I’m sure my waistline is happy our winter doesn’t last too long.

Everyone’s Favorite: the “Mákos Bejgli“, Hungarian Poppy Seed Roll

Though I love to change things around, and bake something new every year, as a Hungarian I can’t go through a Christmas without the traditional bejgli (beigel), poppy seed and walnut rolls. I had them every Christmas as long as I remember. As a child, I was looking forward to my grandmother’s bejgli every year. We couldn’t imagine our Christmas without it.

When I moved to the US, I brought this tradition with me. Except here I am doing the baking. Fortunately, my family loves it, almost as much as I do. It is my children’s favorite Holiday treat, and they look forward to it each Christmas, just like I did years ago.

Though I make both, my family’s favorite is the mákos, the one filled with poppy seeds. Since it’s hard to find large enough amounts of poppy seeds in the store, we have to buy it online. We do this towards the end of November, our way of getting ready for the Holidays.

And since I’m talking about it, here is my recipe:

Hungarian poppy seed roll - mákos bejgli

Hungarian Poppy Seed and Walnut Rolls – Mákos és diós bejgli

Make the dough

1 tsp sugar
½ cup milk
1 pack of active dry yeast
1 egg yolk
½ cup melted butter
¼ tsp salt
lemon grind from 1 lemon
4 cups of white flour

To make it:
Warm the milk to room temperature.
Mix half the milk, sugar, and yeast; let it sit to proof.
Mix the other half of the milk with the egg yolk, melted butter, salt and lemon grind.
Add both to the flour, mix it then knead it. (Either with hand or with the kneader of a mixer.)
Let it proof for about ½ hour to an hour.

Make the fillings


For the poppy seed filling:
1 cup ground poppy seeds
orange grind from one orange
¾ cups water
½ cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla

For the walnut filling:
1 cup ground walnuts
lemon grind from 1 lemon
¾ cups water
½ cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla

To make them:
Mix the walnut/poppy seeds with the lemon/orange grinds.
Boil the water with the sugar and vanilla, then add to the dry ingredients. It should be wet enough to spread.

Fill the dough

Cut the dough in flour equal parts. Roll each out to a thickness of about ¼ inches.
Fill two with the walnut and two with the poppy seed mixture. Spread the filling evenly on the rolled out dough, leaving ½ inches clear at both ends.
Fold the sides, and roll up the dough.
Place them in a baking pan.
Brush them with the egg white (you used the yolk in the dough).
Place them in a cool place and let them sit for about ½ hour.

Bake the rolls

Bake them for 30 minutes at 375 degrees.
While baking, do not open the oven door.

What About the Presents? And the Christmas Tree?

We have kids, so obviously, we’ve done both for years. When we first moved out to Arizona, my husband and I decided to start our own traditions, so we went the first few years without a tree; we decorated a cactus instead. We thought we were original, clever, and eco-friendly (before we were even aware if the term). I wish we kept that tradition.

But when we had kids, and they had friends, I felt the need to give them a traditional Christmas. Yes, I am pretty sure it was peer pressure. Or society pressure, whatever you want to call it. I wasn’t immune. Besides, who doesn’t like the holiday lights, pine tree (even in the desert), and especially presents?

For a few years we had a small fake tree – we didn’t want to contribute to cutting down pine trees and bringing them in the desert. We made decorations with the kids, I made wrapped Christmas candy to hang on the tree, we colored walnuts to hang them.

By the time the tree fell apart, I knew more about the evils of plastic and man-made materials and was totally against it, so I didn’t want to replace it. But our kids were still young, so for a few years, we bought a live pine tree. Of course I could talk myself out of the guilt-trip.

My reasoning was “they are cut down anyway, we might as well enjoy them”. True enough. Also, “the trees we buy were grown on tree farms, and I made sure they were sustainable”. Whatever that means. Yes, they plant and replant the trees, they don’t clear-cut and in all reality, in some way I think they help the environment, because there are always young pine trees growing there. I am still a proponent of getting a live tree if you must have one.

Unless you live in the desert. Because to get a traditional live Christmas tree in the desert, it needs to travel thousands of miles after being cut. Which adds to pollution, if nothing else. So, I gave up my pine tree habit, but I bought a potted pine instead. I even chose one that was supposed to live in a warm zone – in the tropics. I thought I could keep it alive. The tree lived, and even grew a few inches until late spring. I was so happy I thought I found an alternative! But summer came, and … well, I didn’t run a humidifier by the tree, and watering it was not enough.

For this year, I think I want to go back to our original idea of decorating a cactus instead – with our old decorations handmade by our kids. We’ll see though, as we get closer to the holiday, I am wishing for a pine tree… I grew up with that tradition and I continued it for my kids, in one way or another.

As for presents? Yes, we always do presents. Books and trips have always been popular in our house, besides things that we might need. Then a few years ago, when my youngest daughter was ten, and decided that she would grow up to become a wildlife conservationist and save the world, I started “adopting” wild animals for her: donating to WWF and other similar organizations as a present in her name. This became a tradition, and it evolved, so now we include something similar for each of us, depending on what we each care about the most.

Outdoors Time, Good Food and Good Company Is the Highlight of Our Holiday Season

We keep our Holidays simple, which means we don’t stress about them, no matter the year. It’s just us usually, and even when we used to have company, it was close family, and we never felt the need to overdo our entertaining.

Our biggest treat this time of the year is the time we spend outdoors, since we wait for it for months. When you live in the desert, the short time period you can enjoy time outdoors is always a treat. Coinciding with the Holidays makes it even more special.

Celebrating the Holidays in the Sonoran Desert.

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