I’ve been in deserts all over the world, however it’s a landscape that is foreign to me. I grew up in the Midwest and never really thought I’d actually see a desert – it was as far off as the ocean was to me as a kid! As an adult I’ve come to learn that not all deserts have sand…or camels…or no water. On my recent trip to Scottsdale – I was able to explore another desert that was new to me – the Sonora Desert, home of the Saguaro Cactus, snakes, scorpions, dust, and that always present HOT sun. The locals embrace the Sonora Desert; it serves as an adventure playground, and I was excited to try some new desert adventures in Scottsdale on my 4 day trip!
Scottsdale is considered the gateway to the Sonoran Desert that spreads across parts of Arizona, California and across the border into Mexico. It’s the perfect place to head the winter months; it’s warm during the day, but cools down at night.
Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve
Back in 1994, Scottsdale started thinking about how they could preserve the desert. They decided to start purchasing land including the McDowell Mountains with funding from a personal property tax. They also had a few large ranch land donations.
The preserve now consists of 30,000 acres. It’s 1/3 of Scottsdale’s land mass and includes over 200 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horse riding. In addition, there’s plenty of other adventures to have there including climbing, kayaking, and ATV or Jeep rides.
My desert adventures were quite diverse – just the way I like them. I was able to try some new things, some old favorites, go to great heights, and find some surprising culture all in 30,000 acres of the Preserve!
Hot Air Balloon Ride Over the Sonoran Desert
Every good adventure starts with a waiver – right? We signed our waivers and turned them into our pilot Bill. I zipped up my coat; it was chilly in the desert before the sun comes up. I panicked for a moment wondering if I had enough layers to stay warm in the balloon. But then the sun started rising, warming up the desert, and creating long cactus shadows across the ground.
But the biggest cactus was not on the desert floor, it was currently being inflated by the Hot Air Expeditions balloon crew. The rainbow-colored balloon had a giant cactus on it – a fitting nod to our environment we’d be floating over.
One of my favorite parts of a balloon ride is watching how the balloon is blown up, but it’s even better when the sun is coming up at the same time.
That first moment of lift off is always the most exciting – you feel weightless and disoriented for a second. It’s hard to even detect that you are moving at first. But we were indeed moving, following the rising sun, we rose above the desert and let the wind take us wherever it wanted.
The Sonora Desert looked so vast spread out below us. We all snapped pictures manically as I watched our balloon shadow move across the desert floor. I’ve been ballooning a handful of times, and love it. There’s something freeing about floating.
Bill brought us down lower to the ground and pointed out desert trees, cacti, rabbits, and hawks. As you get closer to the ground you realize just how fast you are moving! But the most fascinating stuff was listening to Bill about how he navigates, figures out the layers of wind, and how he picks an area to land amidst all of the uncertainty and inability to steer.
I asked him where the weirdest place he had to land in his years of piloting. He laughed and answered, “I’ve landed everywhere in 43 years; off ramps, between highway lanes, wineries – but a pea field in France was the most expensive. There’s a part of the waiver you signed about getting arrested,” he said with a grin.
I should really start reading those waivers closer!
Luckily, he landed our cactus balloon right where he intended and no police were involved…nor were any cacti harmed!
We finished off this adventure with a delicious breakfast with a little table and real napkins set up in the middle of the desert! As the crew packed up the balloon, we ate scones and drank champagne in the desert among coyote tracks.
Desert Mountain Biking
I decided to try something a little different on this Scottsdale trip – instead of doing a big desert hike, I decided to do a little mountain biking. Yes – more waivers to sign. Mountain biking something that I’ve been wanting to explore, but it’s also a sport that intimidates me!
REI Co-op offers half day mountain biking tours in the Preserve for beginners – so this seemed like the perfect time to try to improve my mountain biking skills.
Our guide picked us up with a trailer of bikes and all the gear we needed. There are over 200 miles of trails in the Sonoran preserve and plenty of ones that are great for beginners. It started a little chilly in the morning, but as soon as the sun came up the landscape turned golden and warm.
Beware of the Jumping Cactus!
Our guide started by getting us acquainted with our bikes and the desert dangers around us – like Jumping Cactus. They look harmless…and even a bit soft and fluffy (they are also called Teddy Bear Cactus) – but they are none of the above! Sections of the cactus fall off easily- with just a little vibration (as you walk or ride by), a section/spine will fall off onto the ground, or onto your pants, or arm. The barbs are so sharp, they hook tenaciously on to your skin!
Ok…mental note…don’t get close to these cute looking cacti!
After our Jumping cactus lesson, we got back on our bikes and suddenly I was aware of the jumping cacti everywhere and hoped that I could maintain my balance on the bike on this winding trail! Nothing like little cactus hurdles to have to think about as you try to get more comfortable with mountain biking!
We not only learned about the desert landscape, we also learned how to mountain bike. You might think it’s just like riding a bike – but there are techniques to how to handles turns, sand, water, and inclines/declines that are different. Our guide was great at stopping at a section and walking us through how to approach a challenging turn or terrain. Then we’d get to try it ourselves!
Overall – it was a great morning of biking, incredible views, and I became more and more comfortable on the bike and trails. Pretty soon I was zipping by all of the desert cactus with no fears of collision or wipe-outs!
Saguaro Cactus Spotting
Remember when you were a kid and you laid on the ground and watched the clouds pass by overhead. You’d see different shapes and objects in the clouds and call them out to your friends. In the Sonoran Preserve, you can do that with the many Saguaro Cacti!
The Jumping Cactus is a bit intimidating, but the Saguaro Cactus is really fascinating. You’ll be in awe of these giants of the cactus world all over the Sonoran Desert. In fact, it is native to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. The saguaro blossom is also the state wildflower of Arizona.
Not only are they big, but they are old. They can live from 150 to 200 years and are very slow growing.
They can grow as many as 40+ arms on a plant! They are often referred to as organ pipes due to the resemblance to a big pipe organ. After the saguaro dies its woody ribs are so strong they can be used to build roofs, fences, and furniture.
They are very similar to the Cardone cactus I found in Northern Argentina. However, the Cardone cactus are even bigger!
The arms tend to grow in so many weird ways that the cactus often takes on different shapes or images – hence, my cloud guessing game! Each one looks different and seems to have a personality.
It’s worth it to take some time and enjoy a little creativity with these prickly giants! Granted – cactus spotting may not necessitate a waiver, but it will be an adventure in creativity!
Hiking in the Sonoran Desert
Hiking is my normal go-to adventure, so I was able to find a little time to hit the trails in the desert too! The Civana Spa and Resort offers morning hikes with a guide and I took advantage of it on my last day in Scottsdale. We drove to the Metate trail head and did a short morning hike.
A metate is a flat or slightly oblong stone where grain was ground using a smaller stone.
And yes, you will actually see metate’s on this trail! You will also see plenty of Saguaro Cacti too!
This 2 mile out-and-back trail was perfect to get a quick taste of hiking in the region. You can see all of the trail options in the preserve here.
Unleash Your Inner Cowboy
The small town of Cave Creek is a desert community with a whole lot of adventurous people! It has a long history of mining and ranching. It’s the type of small desert town that if your neighbor has too many lights on, you call them. They take a lot of pride in having a dark-sky town with no streetlights and light pollution!
I was even told that you can find horses in town any time, and I did see my share of horses. They were all at the Buffalo Chip Saloon in their rodeo ring!
As we walked around town and had dinner, people kept asking us if we were going to go bull riding. I was a bit perplexed, but I assumed it was some mechanical bull at a bar. As I entered the Buffalo Chip Saloon, I did see a mechanical bull out back…right next to the real bulls.
That’s right – this famous honky-tonk saloon has real bull riding on Wednesday and Friday nights. I had never been at a bar with a complete bull ring, bleachers, and rowdy fans – needless to say – I was intrigued. Then I learned that it wasn’t necessarily professional cowboys doing the bull riding – ANYONE could try their hand at bull riding!
Now I was more than intrigued, I was obsessed. I talked to the manager, and the bull handler to make sure that I understood this correctly. They confirmed that as long as the person hadn’t been drinking, they could try riding a real bull in a bull ring – complete with announcer, and rodeo clown.
“Do you want to try it?” they asked.
As much as I wanted to give it a go, I instead opted to going and ‘petting’ the bull in the pen who the lucky people with no experience would be riding! Bullfrog the bull (yes, that was his name) was a bit older and slower than your normal bull riding bull. But he was just as big! I was tickled to get behind the scenes and talk to some of the people who were signing up and the bull handlers. And I was happy to find out that they did use bulls close to retirement for the newbie riders.
At 9PM ACDC started blaring over the loudspeakers, and the crowd in the bleachers started to cheer. It was time to watch these amateurs take a ride! You too can come watch (or ride) at the Buffalo Chip Saloon every Wednesday and Friday night at 7ish and 9ish. And if you ride, be ready to sign a LOT of waivers!
Where to Eat Near the McDowell Sonoran Preserve
After all of these adventures you will want a hearty meal. Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbeque is the perfect cowboy meal for your adventure filled appetite.
It’s a casual family restaurant that’s been around Cave Creek for 10 years; and it has some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had! Bryan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and worked for years as a chef at Fairmont resort in Scottsdale, before he chased his real dream and opened up his own BBQ joint. I loved hearing his story of him achieving his dream, you could tell he put a lot of sweat and love into this restaurant.
After plates of brisket, ribs, pulled pork, habanero chicken, corn bread, cowboy beans, Oyster po’ boy and slaw were put in front of us – I realized that his ‘child’ was an over-achiever! The tangy sauces were incredible the meat perfectly smoked, and the cornbread was delectable. And just in case you are still hungry – try the homemade ice cream sandwich for dessert.
Now that is how you eat in the desert!
Where to Stay near the Sonoran Preserve
With all of these heart pumping adventures, you’ll want a little pampering for those achy muscles. In the town of Carefree (how appropriate for a spa town!) that borders the Sonoran preserve you can take it down a few notches and experience one of the things Scottsdale is really known for…spas.
We stayed at the newly renovated CIVANA Wellness Resort and Spa whose goal is to make spa travel accessible to everyone. There are lots of high-end spa resorts around Carefree and Scottsdale, but they are often only for the luxury travelers. CIVANA felt more like spa for everyone offering a variety of wellness activities, spa treatments, and an overall feeling of relaxation.
The moment you walk in the sleek resort you’ll feel a calm come over you. It didn’t hurt that we arrived right at sunset when the dessert skies were lit up with as if they were on fire. The resort was nestled among the desert mountains making it feel like a little oasis of relaxation in the middle of the desert.
The rooms were stylish and minimal with white walls and decor, and a ‘floating bed’ that looked out on the patio and pool. There was fresh fruit, magazines, and a packet of Dream Dust by my bed. You were engulfed in a healthier, slower pace the moment you walked in. This was a great place to ‘run out of gas’ and recover from all of those desert adventures.
What I loved about the resort is that many of the activities and the use of the spa and fitness room was open to any guest at no extra charge. They had over 10 different fitness and wellness classes a day offered from morning meditation to yoga to core fusion to circuit training. And they even had culinary and cocktail demonstrations at their delicious restaurant Terras.
The spa centered around the hydrotherapy thermal circuit of hot and cold pools that all guests could use. Then if you wanted further spa treatments you could make appointments for those. I went with the Marine Oxygen Facial. I walked out feeling younger (be gone wrinkles!) and refreshed!
Read Reviews of CIVANA Wellness Resort and Spa on Trip Advisor
You can get a little of everything in the Sonoran Desert – from adventures to wellness to cowboys. And that is why it’s a perfect adventure playground for your time in Scottsdale!