When everywhere else is cold and grey and people enjoy being inside, we, desert dwellers, finally venture outdoors. It is the best time to visit Phoenix, when weather is perfect, the sky is still blue, and being outside is a pleasure.
Since everyone knows this, the city’s population quadruples this time of the year. Not only we get a lot of visitors, but we also have “snowbirds”, retirees who spend the winter here.
What do you do in the middle of the desert in the winter? Most of us go outdoors, and enjoy hiking of biking.
We have lots of trails to choose from in nature preserves in and around the city. We can even find ourselves alone in the desert on some of them.
For those who seek different attractions, the city offers options to enjoy the outdoors.
Visit the Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve
Located in Northwest Phoenix, the Deer Valley Preserve is an indoors/outdoors museum. It showcasing ancient left by the Hohokam and the Patayan in this area. It is rarely visited, even by residents, so you’ll have a chance to be alone among petroglyphs, some of them 7,000 years old.
Start your visit at the indoors muesum, to learn about the ancients who left them behind. Then head outside and walk among the huge boulders filled with petroglyphs.
Take a Hike in South Mountain Park
To see more petroglyphs, head over to the other side of the city, to South Mountain Park. The largest nature preserve/park within city limits in the US, South Mountain Park is worth a full day to explore. Look for petroglyphs on the trails. But even if you don’t find many, enjoy the outdoors in the greenest desert of the country, with great views of the city below.
Learn About the Ancients at Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Site
The museum preserves and showcases ancient buildings, a garden and ball court. Stop in the indoor exhibit to learn more about the ancient people who made their home in the desert before air conditioning.
Head outdoors to check out the remains of their civilization. They knew how to build a home to use the natural conditions for heating and cooling it. Also known as the canal makers, you’ll see one of the canals they dug in ancient times, still in use today. They built most of the canals in Phoenix still in use today, thousands of years ago.
Walk Through the Desert Botanical Garden
To understand the desert around you, you might want to learn about the native plants surrounding you. The best place to do this is the Desert Botanical Garden. You’ve seen it in the garden of the Hohokam, but you’ll understand better the concept of gardening in the desert. You’ll also learn about all the native species of plants in the Sonoran Desert.
The Botanical Garden is committed to the conservation of the biodiversity of the deserts of North America. They are especially concerned and working with the Southwest region. Leader and coordinator of the Central Arizona Conservation Alliance, it cares for the desert preserves around Phoenix.
Enjoy the Outdoors at the Phoenix Zoo
Another conservation site, the Phoenix Zoo showcases animals from all around the world.
While you visit, notice how the animals are cared for. They all have large habitats, but the staff goes beyond it. They go out of their way to assure that the animals live as close as possible to how they would in the wild.
The conservation program at the Phoenix Zoo helps to preserve diversity in nature. They have a breed and release program for some of the most endangered species. One of their special project is the black-footed ferret. You’re not going to see any of them in exhibits though. They are susceptible to human illnesses, and the stress of being on exhibit would also harm them. Still, when you visit the other exhibits, you know that you are helping with rehabilitation of endangered species.
Encounter Animals at the Wildlife World Zoo
Another zoo, on the West side of the city, the Wildlife World Zoo offers a different type of experience. This one has Arizona’s largest number of exotic and endangered animals.
The Wildlife World Zoo is also dedicated to helping species survivals as well. In particular, they work hard for rhino conservation. They also award money, support, and staff to other organizations that work for wildlife conservation.
Learn About Local Wildlife at the Southwest Rescue and Rehabilitation Center
If you care about local wildlife and conservation, the Southwest Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is the one of the best place to visit. You do need a vehicle that handles dirt roads, since to reach the Center you’ll have to drive through a few miles of dirt road. You also need to register for a tour in advance, since they don’t have regular opening hours.
They don’t have animals from all over the world. What this Center is doing instead, is rescuing desert animals that got injured, or displaced in any way. Most of their animals get rehabilitated and able to live in the wild. Those are their temporary residents.
But, a few of the animals they rescue cannot be returned to the wild. They become permanent residents and you can visit them, or even “adopt” them. My daughter adopted Leonardo, the Jaguar/leopard, because she was moved to tears by his story.
The Center also helps with the rehabilitation of the Mexican wolves and returning them into the wild.
Try to go on a tour later in the day. If you are there at dusk, you’ll be able to listen to the wolves howling. They really howl in harmony, you wouldn’t believe it unless you heard it. It is some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard.
With temperatures finally dropping, Phoenix becomes a paradise for hikers. You wouldn’t expect that from a huge city, home to over four and a half million people. Yet, we have hikes for people of all abilities. Huge areas of the desert are left untouched and protected within the city’s limits. One of them, South Mountain, is the largest preserve in the US in an urban area.
Within 41,000 acres of park preserves, Phoenix has more than 200 trails to enjoy. Though it is not only inadvisable but even dangerous to go out on any of these trails in the summer, in the winter they are the perfect place to be.
Easy Hikes for Families with Young Kids, or Those Who Are Not Ready for Anything Strenuous
You’ll find some of the easiest hikes in and around Papago Park, in the center of Phoenix. Each trail within the park is fit for children of all ages, and people of all abilities. One of the most popular hike here is the hole-in-the rock trail. It offers and easy walk around this known Phoenix spot. Kids and adults alike have enjoy looking at the city through the hole in the rock.
The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area is another spot for easy hikes. The trails run along the Rio Salado Riverbed, and offer a glimpse into the riparian habitat of the desert. You will find that the desert can be very green, full of life, especially along riverbeds.
Many of the Sonoran Preserve Trails offer easy walks through beautiful desert vistas. Most of them start at the Apache Wash Trailhead.
The Reach 11 Recreation Area in North Phoenix offers plenty of short and easy hiking trails. Enjoy the desert vegetation and wildlife that you will most likely see on any of these trails. You can even walk through a riparian area, if you take the trail to the pond off Tatum Boulevard.
You’ll find one easy trail in the North Mountain Park as well, the interpretive loop of the Penny Howe Barrier Free Trail.
For A Little More Serious Hikers the City Offers Many Moderate Difficulty Trails
Most of the trails in South Mountain Park are of moderate difficulty, still fit for most hikers. You’ll find beautiful scenery, gorgeous views and lots of petroglyphs on any of them.
North Mountain Park also offers miles of trails with moderate difficulty. On some you’ll hike up a few buttes, on others walk with some elevation gain through the valley between the peaks.
The trails in Dreamy Draw and Piestewa Peak are also fit for hikers of all abilities, and offer only a bit of a challenge. Hiking through the are you will most likely encounter desert wildlife, including coyotes and jackrabbits.
All the trails in Lookout and Shadow Mountains, areas known only to locals, are in this category.
Most of the trails in the Sonoran Desert Preserve that start at the Desert Hills trail head, are also moderately difficult. They take you through beautiful desert areas.
For the Serious Hiker, Phoenix Offers a Few Difficult to Extremely Difficult Trails
Th best known trails within the city limits also happen to be the most difficult ones. I am talking about the two trails that summit Camelback Mountain.
Echo Canyon Trail is the city’s most famous hiking destination, known to hiking enthusiasts all over the world. Though challenging, not only for its elevation gain, but the rocky terrain and exposure, since there is no shade on it, most Phoenicians hiked it at least once. Why do we live here, if not for this challenge, after all? Even if you don’t summit, the views from the trail are exquisite.
If you want to summit Camelback Mountain from the other side, the Cholla Trail is also spectacular, and just as difficult. Although at the bottom it does have an easy part. So if you want to hike within Camelback Mountain’s boundaries, but want an easy walk, start on this side, and turn around when it is too much.
With So Many Trails, There Is No Excuse to Stay Inside When the Weather is Finally Nice
When the temperatures drop, Phoenicians usually hit the trails. The summer months, with temperatures over 100 degrees, are so long, we usually can’t wait to get outside.
As soon as we do, we are rewarded with beautiful desert vistas and a variety of trails to choose from. Yes, we might live in the city, but we can get lost in the wilderness of the Sonoran Desert within a few minutes of stepping on a trail. This is what makes living here worth it. And this is what attracts so many visitors here in the winter months.