In the Desert

Hiking in the Sonoran Desert Preserve in Phoenix, Arizona

One of my favorite spots for hiking in Phoenix is the Sonoran Desert Preserve and Cave Butte Recreation Area, one of the best nature preserve in the city. Of course, I only hike in the winter and sometimes in the shoulder seasons, and when I do, the green of our desert always amazes me.

While in the summer months I keep dreaming and planning of moving away from Phoenix, when winter comes, I forget all of those plans. I can’t think of a better better place to enjoy the outdoors in the winter than in my own backyard, so to speak. It helps that I don’t ski and was never a good ice skater, so I don’t miss the winter activities.

And I definitely don’t miss the cold. When temperatures get down to the 60s or 70s, it is cold enough for me. And it is the perfect time to take a hike. I wish I could get away from the city though, but on some of the trails, I can feel far away from it.

Hiking trail in the Sonoran Desert Preserve, Phoenix.

We have more hiking trails within the city limits of Phoenix than any other place I know. I have a few favorites, some of them because they are close, others because they can take me away from the city even while in the middle of it.

The Sonoran Desert Preserve

Three different access points lead into the Sonoran Desert Preserve just north of town. The Apache Vista and the Desert Hills Trailheads both lead to some of the same trails, from two different sides.

The Apache Vista Trailhead leads to some of the longest, but easiest trails in the preserve. One of these is the Apache Wash Trail, one of the least difficult trails that offers easy access to a show of wildflowers in spring. With its trail head on a scenic drive off Cave Creek Road, it is also the most popular.

The Desert Hills Trailhead is off Carefree Highway, farther out of town, and leads to some spectacular trails, too. But we don’t use it often since the other trailheads are closer to home and offer the same environment.

The Desert Vista Trailhead is the least used, being in a neighborhood, and having a small parking lot. It is more of a trailhead for locals, but it is one of my favorites. All trails here start out a bit steep, but once in the wilderness, you’ll feel miles from the city, just like off the other trailheads.

Desert Vista Trailhead

This particular weekend I decided to join my husband on a hike on the Desert Vista Trail. The vistas take me from a view of the city to an area that feels hundreds of miles away, with no sign of civilization. In less than three miles.

This desert vista seems far from the city. Sonoran Desert Preserve

Since I am out of shape, I prefer not to hike up the mountains in the area. If you’re in search for a long hike, you can walk up to ten miles in this preserve. For me, at least now, it was enough to hike about three miles, with little elevation gain.

At the Desert Vista Trailhead, we have a few choices of trails, from easy to moderate to very difficult. They all start at the same spot and we set off, deciding for the next step at the different divergent trailheads.

I end up hiking the Desert Wren Trail, a moderate, but mostly flat and wide trail that connects a few shorter ones.

Even for Short Hikes, I Grab A Waterbottle

I need to say this because I see too many out-of-town hikers without one. You are in the desert, you will get dehydrated fast, even in the winter.

Unfortunately, I occasionally also see hikers carrying plastic one-time-use water bottles. Why? This makes me so upset. We know how bad that is for the environment, it’s not like we are ignorant. People, please, stop buying and using those. Besides, water stored in those plastic bottles might cause long-term health problems. And, if you buy one bottle – metal and insulated -, even the most expensive ones will pay for themselves over a short time.

We don’t have plastic water bottles in our house, and I stay away from them. I also tell my kids and everyone I encounter to do the same. It is easy enough to buy a reusable water bottle and remember to fill it up. Yes, I know, tap water is not the greatest in our city, so we have a water purifier system installed, in addition to a smaller filter that we use for drinking water. In the long run, any of these filters pay for themselves, if you count the number of water bottles you would buy otherwise. Especially if you live in the desert. Not to mention your impact on the environment.

Yes, I needed to rant. I’ll be happy if I return from a hike and can say that I did not see one person with a single-use water bottle. I’ll come back to this post and put a huge “thank you hikers” note here.

Now, we can get on the trail. With a proper water bottle or CamelPack.

Hiking on the Desert Wren Trail

The beginning of the trail seems the most strenuous since it is climbing on a steep angle. We were on the Hawk Nest Trail here, but at the first fork, we took the Desert Tortoise Trail to the Valle Verde Trail then connected with the Desert Wren Trail.

After the first moderate climb, the trail evens out, and we have a great view of the city below. On a good day, it looks nice. Most of the time, we see the smog that is settled in the city. We always notice that the area we live in, the Northern part of the city, is relatively clear. I don’t know for how long.

But in these pockets of wilderness, where we hike, the air is clean. When we are out here, we can escape the pollution for a short time.

Morning View of North Phoenix from the trail on the Sonoran Desert Preserve

As I continue on the trail, the city disappears. Instead, I enjoy the green desert surrounding me. Yes, the desert is green in the winter. Not Pacific Northwest green, but not brown like in the summer, either.

The teddy bear cholla looks cute and fuzzy in the morning light. Every time I see it I feel an urge to touch it and if I didn’t know better, I would. It is still a cactus variety. Those cute fuzzies would hurt if stuck in my fingers, which they would. And they are hard to remove. Since I know this, I resist the urge. I take a few photos of them instead.

Fuzzy Teddy bear Cholla on the Trail Sonoran Preserve Trails Phoenix

Giant saguaros surround me. They are the symbol of our desert, and we have plenty of them in this area. In some places, it reminds me of Saguaro National Monument. Since it finally rained recently, they look healthy and green. Some have many arms, twisted and pointing in all different directions, but most are younger and only have a few of them.

hiking in the Sonoran Desert in Phoenix, surrounded by Giant Saguaros.

I still enjoy walking through this landscape, twenty-some years after I fell in love with it. I’m still amazed at the hardiness of this environment, where so many species of plants and animals live. They adapted to some of the harshest environments on the planet, surviving without water for months. then as soon as they get some rain, they look happy and healthy.

Back Into Town

The trail eventually takes me back to the neighborhood it started in. I walk above some of the homes, and I think I might like to live in one of them. I’d like to be able to walk out into the wild every day, without the need for a car ride, to wake up looking in my backyard and seeing the desert, instead of other homes. But I realize that I like my privacy too much for that. Anyone on the trail could look down into my backyard, and they would because it is the way the trail goes. Still. The homes are in a great spot, right under the trail.

I encounter more hikers on this last stretch of the trail. While a few of them are locals, I realize that most are snowbirds, retirees who live here seasonally, in the winters. They get the best of both worlds, perfect weather year round. I think it is what we want to do when we get older. Not a bad nickname, either. My ancestors were nomads, I could be one, too. At least migratory, like the birds.

As I get back to the car, I realize that I feel great. The crisp air, great desert vistas, and the hike itself get me ready for the rest of the day. It’s just another beautiful day in the desert, reminding me why I live here in the first place. I didn’t go out-of-town for a change and didn’t feel the need for it.

Hiking in the Sonoran Desert Preserve pin
Scroll to Top