Phoenix Sonoran Preserve: A Miniature Desert Wilderness Suspended in Suburbia

4 minute read
by Jake Case

Phoenix Sonoran Preserve Featured

The Phoenix Sonoran Preserve is a little slice of wilderness surrounded by city. Nestled in northern reaches of the endless suburban sprawl of the Phoenix metro area, the Sonoran Preserve is often busy with hikers and mountain bikers.

Beyond the confines of the park, views look out upon suburb neighborhoods, freeways, and strip malls. However, it is possible to escape the city and pretend you are out in the middle of nowhere.

Choose the correct trail, climb up over a ridge, and descend into a gorgeous valley surrounded by hills, man’s constructions hidden from view. The complexities of civilization will all but melt away (until a soccer mom runs by listening to Pandora radio on speaker-phone).

Come in March after a wet winter and the hills will be alive with wildflowers. This is my favorite time to come. While other photographers are clamoring out to Peridot Mesa, Picacho Peak, or Lost Dutchman, this little city preserve not 15 minutes from my home has just as spectacular a wildflower show.

In fact, this is exactly what makes the Sonoran Preserve a favorite of mine. It’s close to home. And yet, I can find magic here.

Phoenix Sonoran Desert Preserve
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

Finding Space

Valle Verde is Spanish for Green Valley. A name bestowed on my favorite trail in the preserve, the valley it traverses is an oasis of open space. I love arriving at sunrise.

Descending the hillside, the sun slowly illuminates the eastern sky over the distant McDowell Mountains. The lights of the city of Cave Creek are visible in the distance but soon disappear below the horizon when reaching the valley floor.

While this space is open, it is not empty. Rich with Sonoran Desert vegetation, the rolling slopes are filled with brittlebush, bursage, saguaro, and cholla. After the winter rains replenish the earth with lifeblood, the shrubs change from dormant grays and browns to vibrant greens and yellows.

The only disruptions from the world of man beyond the trail traffic is the occasional airplane flying overhead. Otherwise, it may as well be a remote location a million miles from anywhere.

Of course, sometimes an aircraft overhead is a welcome sight: hot air balloons. A local company operates their balloons nearby, on a near-daily basis, so a morning or evening visit often includes these floating majesties as part of the experience.

Sometimes they even fly in low while catching a gust of wind. These low altitude fly-bys make for incredible photo opportunities.

Desert Wildflowers Sunset Arizona
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

Wildflower Wonderland

It isn’t every year that the wildflowers go crazy, but after a few abnormally wet winter rains, the Preserve will burst with blooming color. The most spectacular are the famed carpets of Mexican Gold Poppies that spring from the west-facing hillsides.

And they are just as spectacular as the ones at all the more famous places. Not as photogenic, but just as jaw-dropping to witness with your own eyes are the fields of blue scorpionweed. Also known as wild heliotrope, it has a bittersweet smell that can be both alluring or repugnant, often at same time.

Sprinkled in are others, like the lupines and their tall blue pinnacles – a suiting compliment to the poppies. Or with a bit of luck, one may encounter an evening primrose, with petals still open in the morning light. These must be spotted early in the morning as they bloom at night and then close their petals when the sun shines upon them.

Even the cactus put on a wildflower performance, with shades of red, purple, yellow, and tangerine. Come through in May or June when the temperatures start to skyrocket, and the giant saguaros may even bloom. Hike up a hillside to get the higher perspective as these flowers are perched atop the saguaro’s arms, twenty or thirty feet off the ground.

Sonoran Desert Preserve Blue Sky
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

Back to the Bustle

Inevitably, a jaunt into the Sonoran Preserve will come to an end, and then it’s back to the grind. But also part of the beauty of it. Get your nature fix, decompress, and then head off to work or back home.

It’s not a full on wilderness experience, but a quick and easy place to grab a little respite from 21st century life. The Sonoran Preserve won’t replace a trip to the real backcountry, but it will keep you sane until your next big trip out of town.

Join the Territory

Sign up to see what's inspiring us to get outside.

Related posts

aravaipa canyon wilderness hiking

Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness: an Underrated Desert Oasis

We’ve hiked through a variety of Arizona canyon country over the last few years. Some of it crowded, like our mob-infested mid-October foray through Havasu Canyon. Some of it desolate, like the rugged solitude of the Eastern Superstitions. But our recent trip through Aravaipa Canyon was in a league all its own. Of all the descriptors we uttered while navigating the canyon, I think my buddy Dustin came up with the best one: “Underrated.”

best hiking near flagstaff

30 Incredible Flagstaff Hikes

For locals and out-of-town visitors alike, Flagstaff is a hiking wonderland. A high altitude region dominated by pine, aspen, and mixed conifer forests, it's a beloved summertime stomping grounds among Arizona's adventurers. Desert dwellers escape the heat for the cool of Flagstaff's hiking trails, while the locals know the summer weather is the #1 reason to live in Flag.

notes from the crown glacier

Notes from the Crown: Playing Tourist in Glacier National Park

The Crown of the Continent. Naturalist George Bird Grinnell gave this nickname to a rugged swath of Rocky Mountains known as the Lewis Range in 1901. He bestowed the name as the title of an article he wrote for The Century Magazine in which he described the wonder of high mountain peaks, cliff-hanging glaciers, and clear-running streams that form the headwaters of North America’s great rivers.

boucher hermit loop grand canyon

Boucher – Hermit Loop: A Grand Canyon Backpacking Excursion

In April 2012, I did my first backpacking trip ever, hiking 23 miles over 3 days in Grand Canyon National Park. I tackled the rugged and challenging Boucher, Tonto, and Hermit Trails on my first voyage, a much different experience compared to the corridor trails that most novice backpackers see in the Grand Canyon. While challenging, this itinerary allowed me a wilderness experience that was in no way disappointing. This article is not intended to be a blow-by-blow summary of the trips events, but a reflection of my inner emotions and perceptions that I felt during the trip, and how they have strengthened, but also changed my connection with the Grand Canyon.

potato lake trail durango

Potato Lake Trail: Easy Hikes Near Durango

Look at a topographic map of the mountainous terrain above Durango and you are certain to see an excess of high altitude lakes. Many have trails going right to them, but most of these are demanding hikes, especially for the casual hiker. However, those seeking a shorter excursion to a backcountry pool are in luck. Clocking in at 2 miles round-trip and 400 feet of elevation change, the Potato Lake Trail is an easy hike to a beautiful backcountry lake. Oh, and by the way, if you want to sound like local, call it Spud Lake instead of Potato Lake!