Wild west lives on in Scotts­dale

Have din­ner un­der a desert sun­set or ride in a hot-air bal­loon, Deb­bie Olsen writes.

Kenora Daily Miner and News - - TRAVEL - Deb­bie Olsen is an award-win­ning writer and pho­tog­ra­pher and a na­tional best­selling au­thor. Fol­low her at wan­der­woman.ca.

There’s an edgy kind of beauty to the Sono­ran Desert.

Spend some time in the 30,500-acre (12,343-hectare) McDow­ell Sono­ran Pre­serve out­side Scotts­dale, Ari­zona and you’ll learn to love the giant saguaro cacti that look like trees in a for­est and the sky that seems to stretch for­ever.

Scotts­dale is known for its up­scale re­sorts, vi­brant arts scene and in­cred­i­ble din­ing, but its out­door ad­ven­tures rank near the top for many win­ter visi­tors. Mild tem­per­a­tures and sunny days, 299 days an­nu­ally on av­er­age, pro­vide plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to en­joy the mes­mer­iz­ing beauty of the desert.

Here are five great ways to get out­doors — in­clud­ing some out­doorsy things for those who aren’t par­tic­u­larly out­doorsy or ath­letic.

Din­ing in the Desert

Pop-up restau­rants are all the rage and the desert brunches and din­ners of­fered by Cloth and Flame are one of the most uniquely de­li­cious things to do.

These events sell out quickly, and it was easy to un­der­stand why. We were greeted at an out­door cock­tail sta­tion and led to lovely set ta­bles sur­rounded by twin­kling mini-lights and out­door heaters — quite an ac­com­plish­ment in the mid­dle of the wilder­ness.

As pink and or­ange rays from the set­ting sun tinted the desert sky, we dined on a multi-course meal art­fully pre­pared in an out­door kitchen set up specif­i­cally for the event. The food was ex­cel­lent and din­ing out­doors in the Sono­ran Desert at sun­set was an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence.

De­tails: Brunch events start at US$80. Pri­vate din­ners can be ar­ranged for an ad­di­tional fee. (clothand­flame.com)

Explore McDow­ell Sono­ran Pre­serve

A mere 20-min­utes out­side the city, the McDow­ell Sono­ran Pre­serve is home to the McDow­ell Moun­tains and more than 30,500 acres (12,343 hectares) of pro­tected land. Over 300 km of trails pro­vide end­less op­por­tu­ni­ties to explore the Sono­ran Desert. Road­run­ners, rat­tlesnakes and many cacti live here, and a guided cycling or hik­ing tour can help you get to know them.

“Things in the desert will ei­ther prick you, poke you, scratch you or bite you,” said Phil Richards, our moun­tain bik­ing guide. “That’s the edgy part of the desert’s beauty.”

As we cy­cled to Cathe­dral Rock and took in the views, we re­al­ized it was worth the small risk.

De­tails: There are no fees to explore McDow­ell Sono­ran Pre­serve. Ari­zona Out­back Ad­ven­tures of­fers bike rentals or guided day tours start­ing at US$112. (mc­dow­ell­sono­ran.org or aoa-ad­ven­tures.com)

Hike Camel­back Moun­tain

Hik­ing Camel­back Moun­tain is one of the iconic things to do in Scotts­dale.

With 433 me­tres of el­e­va­tion change, it’s a steep trip up to the sum­mit, but the views are worth the ef­fort. We lin­gered at the top, en­joy­ing a 360-de­gree view of the val­ley with a pic­nic break­fast.

There are two trails, but I chose the Echo Canyon trail be­cause it’s slightly shorter at just un­der two-kilo­me­tres re­turn, and it has bath­room fa­cil­i­ties at the trail­head.

De­tails: Climb­ing Camel­back Moun­tain is a free ac­tiv­ity, but park­ing space is lim­ited at the trail­heads. It’s best to go early in the day. (climb­camel­back.com)

Hot Air Bal­loon­ing

A hot-air bal­loon ride over the ex­pan­sive Sono­ran Desert is one of those once-in-a-life­time things to do. It’s an amaz­ingly tran­quil ex­pe­ri­ence to stand in a hand­crafted wicker bas­ket and gaze out at unob­structed views of moun­tains, desert and city sights from 1,500 me­tres up. One of the best parts of this tour is be­ing wel­comed back to earth with a cham­pagne break­fast.

De­tails: Rides start at US$179 per adult or $129 per child. (ho­tair­ex­pe­di­tions.com)

Verde River Trail Ride

Though mod­ern Scotts­dale is bet­ter known by the New York Times de­scrip­tion — “a desert ver­sion of Mi­ami’s South Beach” — the city’s real slo­gan is “The West’s Most Western Town.”

Of all the ac­tiv­i­ties avail­able, horse­back rid­ing is ar­guably one of the most “western” things to do. One of the best places to en­joy an old-fash­ioned trail ride is on the pris­tine lands of the Fort McDow­ell Yava­pai Na­tion.

Two bald ea­gles soared over­head as we rode along the east bank of the Verde River, but the high­light of the ride was see­ing the wild horses that roam there. Our ride took us through a va­ri­ety of in­cred­i­bly scenic ter­rains and in­cluded two river cross­ings.

De­tails: Trail rides start at US$65 for one-hour or $90 for two hours. (fortm­c­dowellad­ven­tures.com)


With in­cred­i­ble scenery and de­li­cious food, the pop-up desert din­ners of­fered by Cloth and Flame sell out quickly. You can also book pri­vate din­ners.

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