McDow­ell Sono­ran Pre­serve of­fers some­thing for all

The Arizona Republic - - Explore Az - Roger Nay­lor Spe­cial to Ari­zona Repub­lic USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Time to give Scotts­dale its due. Many cities pay lip ser­vice to qual­ity-of-life is­sues. Some go so far as to carve out a few strate­gic buf­fers of open space. The epic scale of what Scotts­dale set aside, how­ever, is spec­tac­u­lar.

Es­tab­lished in 1995, the McDow­ell Sono­ran Pre­serve en­com­passes more than 30,000 acres. That’s larger than the city of Tempe. With no ad­mis­sion fees and more than 200 miles of hik­ing and bik­ing trails, this makes the McDow­ell Sono­ran Pre­serve a great desert play­ground for the next sev­eral months.

To plan your route, maps are avail­able at trail­heads and can be down­loaded at www.mc­dow­ell­sono­ran.org. The McDow­ell Sono­ran Con­ser­vancy of­fers about 90 guided hikes and bike tours be­tween Septem­ber and April. Dates and lo­ca­tions are posted on the web­site.

Here are a few fa­vorite trails to get you started.

Mar­cus Land­slide Trail

A half-mil­lion years ago a nu­clear bomb went off in the McDow­ell Moun­tains. At least that’s the amount of en­ergy ex­pended when a slab of moun­tain sheared off, plunged earth­ward and roared across the val­ley floor. Nearly 26 bil­lion pounds of rock, soil and veg­e­ta­tion flowed about a mile in a fu­ri­ous tor­rent be­fore com­ing to rest.

That tale of long-ago vi­o­lence un­folds through in­ter­pre­tive signs on the Mar­cus Land­slide Trail. The path am­bles along the base of the moun­tains for 1.5 miles, cut­ting through a vir­tual for­est of cholla cac­tus. Ris­ing above are a col­lec­tion of boul­ders as big as cars and cot­tages.

As the trail curves closer to the moun­tains, signs iden­tify the break­away scar, a con­cave scoop along the ridge­line. Just then, the level trail tilts up­hill as you climb the slide mass, roughly 4,000 feet long and 100 feet above the desert floor.

The trail makes a mile loop as it picks its way through the maze of jum­bled boul­ders that took such an abrupt jour­ney eons ago. To­day they seem per­fectly con­tent where they are. Re­turn to the trail­head for a hike of 4 miles. Tom’s Thumb, 23015 N. 128th St., Scotts­dale.

Jane Rau Trail

Ev­ery­one should take a walk on the Jane Rau Trail as a trib­ute to one of the peo­ple who spear­headed the ef­fort to es­tab­lish the pre­serve.

Jane Rau is a long­time com­mu­nity ac­tivist and ed­u­ca­tor. The trail that bears her name cir­cles through a lovely wash area punc­tu­ated by tall saguaros and clumps of boul­ders. Enjoy views of Brown’s Moun­tain, a slanted hump ris­ing from the desert floor, and the smooth pre­ci­sion of neigh­bor­ing Cone Moun­tain.

The Jane Rau Trail is less about big vis­tas and more about small de­tails. It pro­vides a chance to move slowly and sa­vor the lit­tle flour­ishes of the land­scape — the way the sun splin­ters on the spines of teddy bear cholla, the soft land­ing of a but­ter­fly on a yucca stalk and the bob­bing gait of Gam­bel’s quail scur­ry­ing for cover.

The bar­rier-free Jane Rau Trail is a 0.4-mile loop that meets ac­ces­si­bil­ity stan­dards. Brown’s Ranch, 30301 N. Alma School Park­way, Scotts­dale.

Di­ablo Trails

The Di­ablo Trails sit di­rectly north of Cholla Moun­tain and can be reached via Browns Ranch Trail­head, about a 9mile round trip.

The twisted corkscrews of North and South Di­ablo seem to ex­ist in a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic world pop­u­lated by half-mad bik­ers. They’re tucked be­hind a gate in a pre­vi­ously un­mapped cor­ner of the pre­serve. Big warn­ing signs are posted to scare off all but the most crazed spoke jock­eys.

But the fea­tures that make the trails chal­leng­ing for bik­ers — the stone ledges, pro­trud­ing rock slabs and sharp curves — make them great fun for hik­ers. The Di­ab­los are tex­tured trails with lots of vis­ual in­ter­est.

North and South Di­ablo are sub­di­vided into a se­ries of in­ter­nal loops. Trail signs stat­ing “Most Dif­fi­cult” point the way to the hard-core tech­ni­cal stuff for bik­ers. Hik­ers can pick and choose a route as they see fit.

Browns Ranch, 30301 N. Alma School Park­way.

Goose­neck Trail

For 7 miles the Goose­neck Trail flows in long sin­u­ous curves through the slen­der cen­tral re­gion of the McDow­ell Sono­ran Pre­serve, knit­ting to­gether the ex­panse of the south­ern and north­ern sec­tions.

Start­ing from the Fraes­field Trail­head, the first 0.8 mile am­bles west, then crosses Dy­na­mite Boule­vard/Rio Verde Road. As soon as traf­fic noise fades, things get in­ter­est­ing. The trail be­gins to weave through cre­osote flats sprin­kled with clus­ters of oddly stacked boul­ders set amid a for­est of tall spindly cre­osote. This hike must smell heav­enly on a rainy day.

Farther south, a small stock tank left over from ranch­ing days laps against a berm lined with mesquite trees. The scenery be­comes more dra­matic as the trail crosses low hills that roll like waves against the wall of the McDow­ell Moun­tains. Saguaros be­gin to gather and the clumps of boul­ders re­turn, ex­cept now they’re big­ger, more bel­liger­ent some­how. It’s pretty much ev­ery­thing you want in a desert trail.

Goose­neck ends at its junc­tion with Rock Knob Trail, near the Tom’s Thumb Trail­head. It’s best to share the Goose­neck with an amigo so you can do a two-car shut­tle.

Fraes­field, 13400 E. Rio Verde Drive, Scotts­dale.

Coy­ote Canyon

A nar­row gorge toothy with boul­ders, Coy­ote Canyon is a hid­den gem tucked deep in the pre­serve. Get­ting there means travers­ing mul­ti­ple trails from the Gran­ite Moun­tain Trail­head, a round trip of nearly 7 miles but well worth it.

Clus­tered boul­ders squeeze in around the path as you en­ter Coy­ote Canyon. It’s a sliver of a de­file, an ar­royo with dreams. But that in­ti­macy is part of its charm. The nar­row sandy path threads through a maze of gran­ite. Some boul­ders seem neatly placed; oth­ers are strewn about with aban­don.

Af­ter a few scenic twists and turns, the path corkscrews out of the shal­low canyon amid a hardy stand of saguaros. The real show­stop­per is just ahead, an un­usual dou­ble crested saguaro grows right at the edge of the trail. Lo­cated at the junc­tion with the Des­per­ado Trail, it’s es­pe­cially rare be­cause the main trunk has forked with both ends fan­ning out into a dou­ble crest. It’s like see­ing a saguaro wear­ing Mickey Mouse ears. Gran­ite Moun­tain, 31402 N. 136th St., Scotts­dale.

3 more McDow­ell Sono­ran Pre­serve hikes

trail cir­cles the boul­der-strewn moun­tain, one of the most prom­i­nent peaks in the north­ern half of the pre­serve. A short side trip leads to the pre­car­i­ously tee­ter­ing multi-ton Bal­anced Rock.

This pop­u­lar trail climbs into the hills at the edge of Scotts­dale suburbs and of­fers nice views along the way, in­clud­ing a vista of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West.

Late-day sun streaks the clouds along Lost Dog Wash Trail in Scotts­dale. ROGER NAY­LOR/SPE­CIAL FOR THE REPUB­LIC

The Cone Moun­tain Trail cir­cles the dis­tinc­tive peak in the Browns Ranch area.

The Jane Rau Trail is a short, bar­rier-free loop that meets ac­ces­si­bil­ity stan­dards and pays homage to one of the peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for found­ing the McDow­ell Sono­ran Pre­serve.

The Goose­neck Trail skirts the edge of a sea­sonal pond.

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