Spending the winter Holidays in the desert

12 Nature Parks And Preserves In Phoenix To Enjoy The Desert Environment

Though one of the largest metropolitan areas, nature parks and preserves in Phoenix offer miles upon miles of outdoor spaces to enjoy in the cooler months. As soon as the temperatures drop in the fall, the capital city of Arizona becomes a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Home to several mountain and desert preserves, it features over 200 miles of hiking and biking trails, and about 40 access points to several protected wilderness areas within its limits.

These parks and preserves in Phoenix offer places to enjoy the outdoors for anyone, regardless of fitness level. From easy trails meandering among giant saguaros to steep ones perfect for hikers who prefer climbing steep mountain slopes, the desert and mountain preserves throughout the city offers a place to enjoy the outdoors for everyone. Long and strenuous hikes through extensive wilderness areas to short interpretive trails in the city, they all offer an excellent introduction to the desert environment. Below, I compiled a few of the best outdoor destinations in Phoenix and its unique desert environment.

1. Papago Park

The Whole-in-the-Rock in one of the most best-known of the nature parks and preserves in Phoenix, Papago Park.
Papago park – Hole-in-the-Rock

Home to the most recognizable images of Phoenix, the red buttes with the famous Hole-in-the-Rock, Papago Park is one of the best-known of the nature parks and preserves in Phoenix. As a bonus, it is close enough to the airport to offer a nice stroll in the desert, even if you only have a few hours in town on a long layover, waiting between planes.

Trails with little or no elevation gain offer easy ways for outdoor enthusiasts of any fitness level to enjoy the desert. But those who prefer a bit more of a challenge are not disappointed here, either. Several trails lead to the top of buttes offer a workout and gorgeous views of the surrounding cityscape. Even those who would rather fish than hike can find a lagoon for their favorite activity.

But none of the trails are as popular as the Hole-in-the-Rock. Locals and visitors alike climb the butte to sit in a rocky hole overlooking the city.

2. Desert Botanical Garden

The Phoenix Botanical Garden, with Chihuly pieces.
Chihuly in the Desert Botanical Garden. Photo credit: AOT

Across from Papago Park, near thePhoenix Zoo, theDesert Botanical Gardenshowcases the flora and fauna of not only the Sonoran Desert but also that of desert environments from all over the world. Besides the cacti and desert plants, you’ll find a butterfly garden here.

Visitors who want to learn about people who lived here in ancient times, find insights into their lives along the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail. And a short uphill hike on the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail offers stunning views of the surrounding desert.

This winter, we can enjoy once again the giant glass sculptures of Chihuly, adding a bit of extra color to the environment.

3. The Phoenix Zoo

At the Phoenix Zoo
Cheetah at the Phoenix Zoo

Next-door, the Phoenix Zoo offers walking trails along exhibits showcasing animals from all over the world, alongside those from the Sonoran Desert. Besides a chance to see different species, the zoo also offers visitors a chance to learn about them. And, its conservation program helps the animals they give a permanent home to.

With a few exceptions, you won’t see any of the animals in cages. They all have habitats resembling the ones they would inhabit in the wild. Beside this, the Phoenix Zoo also helps endangered species. It has a breed and release program for some of the most endangered species. So when you visit the other exhibits, you know you are helping rehabilitate of endangered species.

During the winter nights, you can also enjoy the ZooLights, a tradition of over thirty years.

4. South Mountain Park

South Mountain Park, the largest of the nature parks and preserves in Phoenix - and in the US.

The largest of the parks and preserves in Phoenix, South Mountain Park/Preservestretches over 17,000 acres of unspoiled desert. The park offers over 51 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking. However, visitors can experience the surroundings without a hike, either by driving to the top on the scenic drive, or taking ahorseback ridethrough the park for a true Western experience.

A quick stop at theSouth Mountain Environmental Education Centeris a must for out-of-town visitors who are experiencing the Sonoran Desert for the first time. The Center offers a great introduction to the desert environment of the park, while its interpretive indoor exhibits follow the history of South Mountain Park.

Inside the park, different trailheads are starting points for hikes of all lengths and levels. From short one-mile walks to strenuous 10-mile treks, there is a trail for everyone. Some of them offer views of ancient petroglyphs left behind by the Hohokam who lived here thousands of years ago.

5. Camelback Mountain

View from Echo Canyon Trail on Camelback Mountain
View from Echo Canyon Trail. Image by Flickr

Resembling a camel’s back in the center of the city,Camelback Mountainis visible from all areas of downtown, and it is the best-known of all the parks and nature preserves in Phoenix. As one of the top hiking destinations in the country, it attracts outdoor enthusiasts from around the world. Two trails lead to the top of the 2,704-foot summit, both difficult. Steep elevation gain, rugged terrain, harsh elements of the desert, and despite it all, the crowds on both trails make ascending difficult.

This is the main reason I haven’t hiked it in many years. The first time I climbed it, I enjoyed both the challenge and the views of the surrounding city in the middle of the desert. About twenty-six years younger, at the time, it didn’t seem too difficult. But at least we didn’t deal with crowds. Though we weren’t alone on the trail, we had plenty of personal space while hiking.

Now, both the Cholla and Echo Canyon trail heads are always busy. Most local I know who hike it go very early on weekday mornings. Though the Echo Canyon is less popular, it has fewer parking spots. However, no matter how difficult, Camelback is the mountain most Phoenicians summit at least once. It is also the mountain that attracts outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world to the city, especially in the winter.

6. Phoenix Mountain Preserve

Sunset Hike in Phoenix Mountain Preserve near the 40th Street access point.
Sunset in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

Home to the longest trail in the city, Trail 100, the Phoenix Mountain Preserve crisscrosses the city in all directions, with access points in several locations. Though we’ve accessed it from different points over the years, my family’s favorite hikes are off the 40th street trailhead, or in a hidden spot in a neighborhood near the park.

7. North Mountain Preserve

Wildflowers blanket the ground in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve
North Mountain Preserve

TheNorth Mountain Preserveoffers access to North Mountain and Shaw Butte, peaks dominating the north Phoenix skyline at over 2,100 feet. With over 20 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails, the preserve offers an opportunity to be outdoors for everyone. The main trailheads at 7th Street feature a relatively newVisitor Center, offering a great introduction to the flora, fauna, geology, history, and archaeology of the area.

From there, you can find a trail of any length and level. They all lead through a rich desert ecosystem filled with saguaros, creosote bushes, palo verde, and mesquite trees. Winter offers the most pleasant hiking weather in the preserve, while early spring rewards hikers with a burst of colors as wildflowers bloom.

8. Dreamy Draw Recreation Area

Home to Piestewa Peak, the second highest peak in the city at 2,608 feet,Dreamy Draw Recreation Areaoffers desert trails for hikers of all abilities. Though easy access from I-51 Highway, once on the trail, you’ll forget you are in a busy area of the town.

For a strenuous hike, the Summit Trail, climbing to the top of Piestewa Peak, offers a strenuous workout. For those who prefer easier walks, the park also offers plenty of choices of flat trails. Some lead into secluded valleys where you’ll feel miles away from the noise of the city.

9. White Tank Mountains

On the Waterfall Trail in the White Tank Mountains. photo credit: Egyed Győző
On the Waterfall Trail in the White Tank Mountains. photo credit: Győző Egyed

The oldest mountains in the greater Phoenix area, the White Tank Mountains, flank the city in the west. Filled with ridges and canyons, the range rises to 4,000 feet above the surrounding desert. The White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities, especially hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

For a short and easy to access hike, the Waterfall Trail offers a mile-long walk among gorgeous rock formations and desert vegetation, culminating in a seasonal waterfall. To see it, you need to go after a rain, a rare occurrence in the desert.

However, but even without the waterfall, the trail is worth the walk. As a bonus, you’ll even see petroglyphs along the paved area.

10. Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve

Photo: Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve/Facebook
Photo:Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve/Facebook

And speaking of petroglyphs, you can find the largest concentration of Native American petroglyphs in Phoenix at theDeer Valley Petroglyph Preserve, an archaeology museum on a 47-acre desert preserve. The outdoor trail of the museum and preserve offers walks among ancient petroglyphs, some of them 7,000 years old. Before exploring the outdoor trail, the indoor museum is worth a stop. The exhibits here offer a better understanding of the ancient people who lived or traveled through the area. Beside the petroglyphs, we often encounter desert wildlife on the trail, among the unique landscape.

11. Sonoran Desert Preserve

In the Valley, Surrounded by Giant Saguaros. Sonoran Desert Preserve
In the Sonoran Desert Preserve

One of my favorite spots to enjoy the outdoors in Phoenix is theSonoran Desert Preserve, showcasing some of the most beautiful desert vistas on the far northeast side of Phoenix. About 36 miles of trails run through its 18,000 acres.

The preserve has three different access points: the Apache Wash, Desert Vista, and Desert Hills trailheads. — hikers, bikers, and horseback riders can enjoy unspoiled desert landscape, feeling hundreds of miles away from the city. Giant saguaros, fuzzy teddy bear chollas, and creosote bushes dot the landscape of this lush part of the desert.

12. Reach 11 Recreational Area

Riparian Area at Reach 11, Phoenix
The pond at Reach 11

Home to a unique desert wash environment around a small pond in north Phoenix,Reach 11is one of the smallest of the nature parks and preserves in Phoenix. Still, it incorporates about 18 miles of trails on flat terrain. To make up for the lack of elevation variety on the trail, you’ll see plenty of wildlife.

A few duck families live around the pond, also visited by red cardinals. Prairie dogs and rabbits run in and out from the holes in the ground in this small patch of desert. We often see hawks, eagles, and smaller predatory birds. Hikers might also encounter coyotes, big-horned owls, hawks, hummingbirds, or an occasional badger. And, if you sit long enough at dusk at the viewing area set up for the purpose, you might even glimpse a rare burrowing owl.

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