When it comes to a place as unique as Phoenix, it’s no surprise that people either love it or loathe it.
“It’s 120 degrees! You can fry an egg on the sidewalk! There are rattlesnakes everywhere! It’s flat and brown!” Perhaps you’ve heard some of these common misconceptions spewed out by those who have a construed aversion to the Sonoran Desert and its climate. They have undertaken the responsibility of “warning” everyone they come across about how unbearable Phoenix is. Ironically, some of these people have never even set foot in Arizona. Others have simply watched too many reality TV shows and fear they’ll uncover a rattlesnake from beneath their sheets at the downtown Marriot.
I’d like to clear a few things up.
First of all, the last time it was 120 degrees in Phoenix was back in 1990, so let’s not assume that’s a daily occurrence. The average temperature for Phoenix during its most sizzling month — July — is approximately 103-105 degrees (which, yes, can be excruciating, especially since it barely cools off at night, but 110 is far from 120; believe me). The people who’ve survived the intensely hot and painfully long summer months in Phoenix rightfully wear this feat like a badge of honor — right over their blistering sunburns. Enduring extreme heat for that long makes you feel like a beast! The beauty is there are at least five to seven months every year, depending on your tolerance of heat, that are absolutely perfect for outdoor activity.
Secondly, Phoenix is not “flat and brown.” (I’ll address that in a minute.) As for the snakes and other dangerous creatures — humans have destroyed their habitats and pushed them out of nearly every urbanized area, so most rattlesnakes are probably keeping out of the sun under a rock in the desert somewhere. When in their habitat, be observant around rocks and boulders. If you hear a rattle and there’s no baby in the vicinity, then raise your battle ax. Seriously, don’t provoke a snake if you have an encounter and you should be fine. If you do get bitten, the good news is rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal if treated promptly. According to rattlesnake expert John Henkel, “Between 7,000 and 8,000 people are estimated to have been bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year, and about five of those die.” (Those odds aren’t too bad provided your cell phone is fully charged.)
That should clear that one up.
About the egg thing – I remember hearing that one a lot as a child. I always wanted to bust out the spatula and take my short-order cook skills to the sidewalk. Sunny side up?
During a recent trip to Phoenix, I wanted a nice spot to link up with my dear friend Krista and her two young daughters. A relaxing hike in the nearby South Mountain Park and Preserve – the biggest municipal park in the world — seemed like an ideal place.
That’s right; I said the biggest municipal park in the world. It’s said to be bigger than Manhattan. That equates to 51 miles of over 58 scenic trails on 16,500 acres of land. Quite impressive for a municipal park that’s just fifteen minutes from the heart of downtown!
We slathered on sunblock, equipped ourselves with plenty of water, doused ourselves in rattlesnake repellant spray –- I wish — and hit the road to hike some desert terrain. I was on a very tight schedule this trip, so that Saturday would be my only opportunity to enjoy one of my favorite places on earth -– the Sonoran Desert.
When we arrived at the main entrance to the park, we discovered it was closed-off by big orange cones. The paved road up the mountain was devoted to some kind of bicycle race. Where’s a twelve-speed when you need one? Probably being ridden by a cyclist on a busy roadway causing the driver behind them to mumble an onslaught of obscenities, that’s where.
The curt park ranger blocking the drive up the mountain grudgingly informed me that the roadway was only open for those whose asses were wrapped in spandex. (Butt padding optional.) The bottom line was, if you hadn’t had your bowl of Kashi Go Lean that morning, you simply weren’t getting up that road. I’m more of a fruit loop girl. We pulled into the parking lot.
How disappointing that we couldn’t lazily drive the 2,330 feet to the most accessible and highest point of the mountain, Dobbins Lookout. Being that we had one infant and a small child with us, the 14.3-mile hike to the panoramic view on top was not an option. The only alternative was to stroll through the only area that the unenthusiastic park ranger claimed “might be” appropriate for us: the interpretive Judith Tunnel Trail, which was located at the base of the mountain adjacent to the parking lot.
Surprisingly, it worked out well. Krista’s daughter was able to brush up on her reading and reciting skills and she taught all of us a few tidbits about South Mountain culture and wildlife. For a place that has over three million visitors a year, we were fortunate to be amongst the few people out for a stroll. The ease of the loop, the smooth, flat pavement, the shade-providing ramadas, and numerous water fountains make this trail ideal for people with disabilities, strollers, and hangovers.
Many people have the erroneous belief that the desert in Arizona is sparse, brown, and devoid of life. This is entirely false. In fact, the Sonoran desert is a very diverse biome which comes alive in early spring — with delicate magenta flowers bursting out of prickly cacti, looming saguaros (which grow exclusively in the Sonoran), rare elephant trees, cholla and colorful wildflowers that paint the rolling hills, among other unique flora.
Although “rattlers” are the most prevalent, coyotes, javelinas, Gila Monsters, scorpions, tarantulas, roadrunners, desert tortoises, jackrabbits, owls, lizards and a myriad of other animal species call South Mountain home. The highest density ever recorded of the strange looking carrot-tailed chuckwalla is located in South Mountain. Although we saw one, it was too far away to take a snapshot of. I can assure you, it is one strange looking reptile whose name suits it perfectly. Those little creatures would give Carrot Top a run for his money.
It’s challenging to find all of these unique animal species because they blend into the earth smoothly, hide out behind rocks, and burrow themselves underground inconspicuously. Being in the middle of the Sonoran and sharing the earth with this bashful ecosystem always mystifies me. Where are they lurking? How do they survive? How long will I survive if they attack me? Amazingly, these creatures have adapted naturally to an intense environment with very little water and extremely high temperatures — that’s pretty heroic.
The prehistory of South Mountain is quite impressive and intriguing. Dating back to 300 A.D. the Hohokam people, who are thought to have migrated out of Mexico, inhabited the area. Hohokam translates into “those who have gone.” Although they vanished by A.D. 1450, the Hohokam made an important impact on the future of the entire “Valley of the Sun” by constructing intricate canals and irrigation networks to water their crops. These were (arguably) the largest and most sophisticated irrigation networks ever created with preindustrial technology. They are said to rival those of the Egyptians. Today these canals lie beneath the streets of metropolitan Phoenix.
Further clues left behind by the Hohokam can be found etched in stone throughout South Mountain in the many petroglyphs scattered throughout the park.
Evidence also remains of a less pleasant time at South Mountain: the mining era. Beginning in the 1800s, the mountain, like much of the western United States, was mined for gold, silver and copper. Unfortunately, depression era work camp conditions were terrible; often times there was no running water, killer heat, and most workers earned just $2 a day.
South Mountain was bought by the city in 1924 for preservation and recreational purposes, but the mining did not cease completely. It continued until 1993, at which point the park was rehabilitated and the mines were filled and covered.
Modern day South Mountain has pretty liberal park hours. You can explore this gem at almost anytime you desire –- dawn, dusk, or twilight. According to the city’s website the park is open from 6am to 11pm. Although the entry gate closes at 6pm, the exit doesn’t, so once you’re in the park you can enjoy the enchanting desert beneath the glow of the moon for several hours.
Another fantastic thing about this park and preserve is that the trails vary in intensity and match all skill levels. Although most of the trails may not be very challenging to the advanced hiker, the gorgeous views of the expansive valley and many eclectic mountains as well as the unique Sonoran Desert experience are worth the trip. Whether you decide to drive or cycle the road, hike, horseback ride, mountain bike, take a stroll or even picnic, remember that there is much more to this ecosystem than what you’ll casually observe. If you keep your eyes peeled and pay attention, I can assure you will catch a glimpse of some of the area’s unique fauna.
If you decide to include South Mountain in your next trip to Phoenix, I suggest doing it between late fall to early spring, which is when the weather is ideal. Don’t forget to grab a park map – many people have gotten lost and ended up as a coyote’s Lean Cuisine meal.
Just kidding — coyotes are relatively harmless; it’s clearly the rattlesnake venom that you should worry about.