The desert in Phoenix

Autumn is a great time to hike in the Sonoran Desert in Phoenix

October marks the beginning of fall in Phoenix, as it finally brings cooler weather to the Sonoran Desert. And if the month still brings some rain, too, we, desert dwellers, are extremely grateful. Some years, the month is wetter than others, but regardless how much rain we get, the Sonoran desert is greener than we see it for months. We finally see why it is the greenest desert on the planet.

This time of the year our surroundings are beautiful, the weather is perfect, and most of us who live in and around Phoenix, go outside, and hike. Or at least walk some desert trails.

And we are lucky enough to get some rain, too, we enjoy the cactus-filled landscape even more. After a good soak in the fall, the Sonoran Desert is not just green, it’s vibrant. It is the time when I remember why I live here in the first place.

It is the time we go outside and hike. Some weekends we go out twice in one day. Just because we finally can. And even though we live in the middle of an enormous city, we have more wild places than you’d guess.

Phoenix Mountain Preserve 40th Street
Trail in a Phoenix Preserve

Although it is one of the biggest cities in the US, Phoenix is a great place for hikers in the winter. You’ll find more trails within the city boundaries that you would think possible, more than 180 miles of them in the untouched desert areas. This makes Phoenix one of the best hiking cities in the US (not in the summer though).

From easy strolls among tall saguaros or riparian areas to strenuous climbs up steep mountain slopes, you can find it all, with easy access from basically your back door.

The Phoenix Mountain Preserve

To hike my favorite trails I need to get in the car, at least for a few minutes. Though it’s worth it, especially this time of the year. But we have one trail within walking distance, and it’s home to a riparian area, with a pond in the middle of it. It’s flat though and the trail is short, so we usually opt to drive to some of the other trails that include some hills or mountains.

Cloudy Skies and sunset in Phoenix
Cloudy Skies and sunset in Phoenix at the 40th St entrance of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

40th Street Entrance

One of the closest trails is the 40th Street entrance to the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. The Preserve crisscrosses the city in all directions, with entrances in different streets. Some of these entrances are more hidden than others, but they all have access to the longest trail in the city, Trail 100.

Since it’s one of the easiest access for us to hike around a mountain, we tend to use this trail more than others. Its trailhead is right in a neighborhood, easy to reach, and out of the way, less-known for non-locals. This makes it less crowded. In fact, we rarely meet more than a few hikes or bikers on this trail.

Sunset in the desert
Hiking the Phoenix mountain Preserve at sunset

Naturally, it was our first hike of the season. A few years ago we used to hike it at sunset, and moonrise since it has a few peaks perfect for the view. Repeating this pattern, we hiked it last night and waited for the sunset on top of a peak.

Sunset Hike Phoenix 40th street Preserve
On top of a hill in Phoenix Mountain Preserve, we enjoyed the view of the city illuminated by the setting sun.

The show was worth it, not only because of the spectacular sunset but the desert vistas with vegetation twice its size and greener than ever.

Sunset in the desert Phoenix 40th street
Sunset in the desert Phoenix 40th street

Desert Vegetation

It’s amazing to think of how the desert vegetation survives and changes within hours of getting some rain. This year, with more rain than ever, I noticed especially the ocotillos, doubled in size and greener than I’ve ever seen them. Why would it double, you ask? Like any desert plant, it stores the water in its trunk, which gets way thicker than even hours before it rains. It survives years without any water, looking absolutely dead. Then when it rains, it turns green and sprouts thousands of tiny leaves. It’s a huge difference.

Ocotillo after rain in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve
Ocotillo after rain in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

The saguaros, all varieties of cholla and prickly pear cacti, and the paloverde tree go through similar transformations.

Teddy Bear Cholla in the Sonoran Desert Preserve, Phoenix
The Teddy Bear Cholla is fuzzier after the rain in the Sonoran Desert Preserve

In the summer, you might go out in the desert and feel like it’s dead. Yet, as soon as it gets some water, it turns all shades of green, starting with the olive green of the creosote bush, to the bright green of the ocotillo and everything in between.

Sonoran Desert Preserve Phoenix
Creosote Bush in the Sonoran Desert Preserve

The desert is quite alive and well, especially after a few drops of rain. Not to mention during the wettest October on record. Well, yes, unfortunately, we even get mosquitoes now. Take the good with the bad.

Animals in the Desert

Even the animals come out to play after the rain. At least a few bunnies did last night. While hiking, I ran into a few of them jumping around and chasing each other. They didn’t even run away when they spotted us, only got out of the trail.

Since we left after the sunset, the bats fluttered around us. I always recognize them from their seemingly erratic flying pattern. Besides, they start flying as soon as the birds stop, so you know they are not birds. I noticed a few smaller ones fly around me as we were leaving.

The owls stated hooting as soon as the sun went down, too. The desert was alive and well.

I didn’t see or hear them this time, I hope they are still around, but a few years ago I met up with a pack of coyotes on this trail. It was early morning, around seven am when they crossed my path (or rather I crossed theirs). I counted eleven of them, as they walked off in front of me. They did stop and we looked at each other for a few seconds, but they didn’t stop for long, continued on their way. I felt so special, I’ll never forget that moment. It felt like they greeted me, as in “good morning, nice to see you” sort of way. If I hiked at sunset I used to hear them. I haven’t yet this year, maybe I’ll stay later next time.

The Sonoran Desert Preserve

The second hike we took this season was at the Sonoran Desert Preserve, just North of us, in a new development. We noticed a patch of desert disappearing, replaced by a new development, it seems. Or maybe just a storage center. It’s crazy.

But at least a huge area is set aside as a preserve, protected from development. Here, we can feel like we are away from the city, as soon as we climb a mountain and walk into the valley beyond. I usually take a 3-mile hike here, though my husband prefers the 10-mile long one, taking him around the whole preserve. At least we have ten miles here, in the city, yet away from it. Even the three miles I do make me feel like I’m far away from the city.

Sonoran Desert Preserve
In the Valley, surrounded by Giant Saguaros, you feel far away from the city in the Sonoran Desert Preserve

I didn’t see any animals on this hike, though last season we saw an owl’s nest right on the trail, in a huge saguaro. No longer needed, since the babies have grown, the owl family must have moved on, since the nest itself wasn’t there anymore.

Sonoran Preserve Trails Phoenix
On the trail in the Sonoran Desert Preserve

On the other hand, I feel like the desert here is greener, with more vegetation, even on a regular day, not only after rain, which makes it my other favorite trail.

A Glimpse of the Next Few Months

These are only two of my favorite trails, the ones I usually take as soon as the season start. During the next weeks of fall and the whole winter, we usually explore more trails in and around the city. I really love the desert. In the fall, winter, and spring. Which sounds like most of the year, but only until you realize that summer in Phoenix,at least weather-wise starts late April and continues at least until the end of September, sometimes even though the beginning of October.

For now though I am enjoying autumn, the second spring of the season in the Sonoran Desert. Fall is like spring here, when temperatures drop, the rains might come, or continue, everything turns green and most of our plants bloom.

Phoenix Mountain Preserve After Rain
Phoenix Mountain Preserve After Rain

If you ever want to visit Phoenix or the vicinity, if you want to hike in the winter, without the winter gear, it is the best time and place to be between now and April.

Listening to the birds the other day I remembered the time we moved out to Arizona. It was early March, we drove through snow and ice to get here, and the very first thing I noticed about our new home was the sound of thousands of birds chit-chatting around our apartment. The sun was shining, though not too hot, the birds were singing, and the hill behind our apartment was filled with green vegetation and yellow flowers. I thought I landed in Paradise. The days of fall in Phoenix, as much as spring days remind me of that.

The desert is not always hot and barren. Sometimes it is cool and green; and just perfect.

Fall in Phoenix

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