Wild west lives on in Scottsdale
Have dinner under a desert sunset or ride in a hot-air balloon, Debbie Olsen writes.
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.