Walking Arizona’s Sonoran Desert

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By Diana Ballon

“We’re going to the desert,” my six-year-old son told his daycare teacher. It sounded unreal, a child’s fabrication. But it was true—that weekend we would be flying to Phoenix to explore the Sonoran desert, famous for its long-armed Saguara (pronounced sah-wah-roh) cactus, wildlife and incredible hiking – spread over 120,000 square miles.

Until now, my main cultural reference point for the desert had been The Road Runner Show and Paris, Texas. But now I would step away from cinema and see it in person.

I had dreamt about the desert. The dry heat, seemingly barren landscape and dust —the place of cowboys and prickly cacti. But I knew I could also expect bursts of colour to interrupt the sand-coloured landscape, and—with enough stillness—I could come across teeming wildlife you can’t find anywhere but in the southwest.

I wasn’t disappointed. In early May, the cacti are beginning to bloom. As the lushest desert in North America, the Sonoran has about 3,500 native species of plants and tons of desert creatures—from coyotes and big horn sheep to bobcats, myriads of bunnies (desert cottontail) and the infamous javelina, a smelly 40-something pound animal that looks like a wild boar.

In the midst of the Sonoran is Scottsdale. Although sometimes considered a suburb of Phoenix, it is actually a separate city with a population of about 230,000, and a geography that extends 32 miles in length and seven miles in width at its largest point. With 70 hotels and resorts, it has a high concentration of triple-A five-diamond luxury properties. To many visitors, Scottsdale is a destination for award-winning spas, fine dining, museums and galleries, shopping, golfing and corporate conferences and events.

But it is also surrounded by mountain ranges, with hiking and biking trails that wind around its peaks, and dip into its valley. You can explore the desert from above (in a hot air balloon), by rock climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, jeep rides and river rafting. It’s a massive outdoor playground for the adventurous traveller.

The intrepid traveller comes in all shapes and sizes: in my family, it involved two wee adventurers, Antonia and Felix, weighing in at 41 and 44 pounds respectively. Armed with compasses, binoculars, cameras, wildflower guidebooks, water bottles, granola bars, gummie bears, kid-sized clipboards, pencils and sheets for “desert bingo,” we set off at the trailhead of Lost Dog Trail for our three mile loop in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Although the distance proved to be, well, a bit overly ambitious for our neophyte explorers in 95 degree heat—there was much to see, and many gummie bears to be consumed!

We managed to X off most of the boxes on our desert bingo—bobcat (well, actually, we saw their skat), a heart-shaped rock, a desert wren (the state bird) and the skeleton of a saguaro, its long ribbed tree trunk lying flat along the ground. We sampled a red chuparrosa flower that tasted remarkably like cucumber, and palo verde bean pods that tasted a lot like edamame. And we rubbed a leaf of a creosote bush that smelled like the desert or “like a popsicle stick,” according to Antonia.

We also marvelled at the giant saguaro, many up to 50 feet tall. The younger ones grew next to “nurse plants,” such as the palo verde tree with its distinct yellow-ochre blossoms that formed a golden patchwork across the desert. And we saw many more really big saguaros standing solo, like lone phallic symbols—sometimes with an arm or arms extending on one or both sides—no longer relying on their nurse plants for protection. Many look pockmarked from holes bored by woodpeckers: colloquially referred to as “saguaro hotels” or “condominiums, the holes become a nesting place for birds, owls and rodents to take up residence.

We preferred to take up residence at the nearby Four Seasons Resort. If you want a resort where you feel like you’re in the desert, where the terrace of your casita is only feet away from a cactus, and the view is of a desert wall, where you can sample a cool pink prickly pear lemonade at the hotel entrance, and sip on a prickly pear margarita on their patio before dinner, then this is the place.

The next morning, we left early to climb Pinnacle Peak trail, which you can access from the Four Seasons’ property, and which wraps around the mountain. The view is stunning, the long thin branches of the ocotillo with its bright orange blossoms are everywhere, and I can hear the call of a gila woodpecker in the distance.


  • Don’t forget sunscreen, lip protector and a hat. (Think hot and very very dry.)
  • Go early in the morning or before sunset, when there’s still light but it’s cooler.
  • Don’t listen to your IPOD. If there is a rattlesnake lurking, better to hear it before you step on one.
  • Avoid the teddy bear cholla. Though sometimes called the “jumping” cholla, they don’t actually jump, but they can attach themselves to you like Velcro—and it hurts.
  • If you’re travelling with young kids, introduce them to the desert creatures in Conrad J. Storad’s fabulous books, including Don’t Call Me Pig! (A Javelina Story) and Rattlesnake Rules.


Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, www.fourseasons.com/scottsdale, 480 515-5700 and The Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa, www.theboulders.com, 480 488-9009 or 1 888 579-2631) are both fabulous properties with private views of the desert from your casita.

Hiking trails and other Sonoran adventures

Contact the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors’ Bureau at 480 421-1004 or 1 800 782-1117 or check www.ExperienceScottsdale.com for recommended hiking trails and other ways to explore the desert. Ask about Tom’s Thumb and Camelback Mountain. Or contact the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, www.mcdowellsonoran.org or 480 998-7971 to arrange a free guided hike.

Kid stuff

Learn about desert plants at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Gardens and ask about their evening flashlight tours, www.dbg.org, 480 941-1225. Or visit the Phoenix Zoo and check out the desert wildlife and wild creatures that lurk there, www.phoenixzoo.org.

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