Scottsdale, Phoenix's neighbouring city, is synonymous with the snowbird, the swanky and the suit. So much so that you could easily skip Arizona’s massive swath of wilderness, the Sonoran Desert, which swaddles the southern edges of this state.
But at some point on your holiday, you may crave trying something different. So ditch Scottsdale’s glam, veer off its sun-blasted blacktop and head to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
This outback is home to 350 bird species, 60 different mammals and more snakes than you can swing a club at.
To boot, behind every saguaro cactus, there’s a sun-stroked weirdo (the right kind of weirdo—the one at the heart of every great travel tale) just waiting to take your hand and show you his land.
Into the Wild
From most of Scottsdale’s ritzy hotels, you can hoof it to the top of the town “hump,” Camelback Mountain.
Join the pack of locals at the crack of dawn—the same locals who served you the guac and mojitos just a few hours earlier—on a two-kilometre scramble up Echo Canyon Trail for a bubble-gum-pink sunrise over the valley.
Four Seasons Resort at Troon North
If you have the dough (winter rates start at US$349 per night), the five-diamond Four Seasons Resort at Troon North makes a great base camp.
Tucked into 40 acres of cooling foothills, the luxury resort appears to sprout out of a rockslide. Swivel around the patio of your adobe casita suite and you’ll see a jumble of giant boulders and blooming cacti as far as this topsy-turvy landscape allows.
Skip the resort’s famous golf course and follow the trail to Pinnacle Peak for your own hinterland escapade.
If you aren’t desert-savvy, beware of dehydration, poisonous and prickly plants (teddy bear cholla, the “jumping cactus,” is out to get you), and losing your bearings. Every saguaro looks like the next: a giant barbed Gumby toy.
If you prefer to play it safe, the Four Seasons makes it easy with its posh version of roughing it in the wild: “glamping” (yep, that's glamorous camping).
Dried chili mango slices fuel you en route; gourmet lunches magically appear at lookout points.
And then, at the end of the day, tuckered-out adventurers are treated to a “healing hiker massage” and “dinner with the stars” (guided stargazing with an astronomer).
The best bit is the resort’s partnership with Arizona Outback Adventures (AOA), the region’s top ecological outfitters, making it on the 2010 National Geographic Traveler’s 50 Tours of a Lifetime/Best of Guided Adventure list.
These guys provide the adrenaline and the education.
When I visited, I saw this first-hand. Not 10 minutes out of the van, Seth Heald, the P.E.I.-born owner who did his thesis on desert rattlesnakes, pulled a snake and an elegant earless lizard out of thin air like some kind of wilderness magician. Wild!
Mountain Biking on Tom's Thumb Traverse
For a vigorous half-day guided hike, try Tom’s Thumb Traverse through the northwestern shoulders of the McDowell Mountains (the trailhead is 10 minutes from the Four Seasons).
Rather than wrecking your knees doing the downhill quickstep, go for a real rush: a downhill dash on a high-performance bike that weighs less than your shorts. From sand patches to cactus-lined singletrack, you’ll ride a high that’ll be hard to come down from.
Floating in Nature
For a little less zest, the lazy two-hour float down the Salt River by kayak dishes up cliffs, soaring wildlife, cool dips and “rare animal excrement.” On a river rock, our AOA guides “discovered” a mushy mass of dung.
“Some kind of non-native raccoon?” these nature nuts mused as they smelled it, then tasted it—for identification purposes only!
Turned out we fell for the old guide gag: it was nothing but a mashed-up energy bar. The fact we were duped is testament to the guides’ persuasive approach to desert exploration.
But there comes a time when, if you’re like me, you just have to leave wily mountain men and their poo pranks for some serious Wild West business.
That’s when you must head to the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. Whether it’s the hour-long or half-day horseback ride, wild horse and eagle encounters are routine along these ancient trails.
Where the Weirdos Are
Try the “perfectly uncivilized” old west town of Cave Creek (pop. 4,500). Hang with cowboys (in 2009, a town council election tie was decided by a game of chance), bikers, artists and a posse of well-disguised rich and famous sorts.
You’ll find them all in a dusty parking lot the first Saturday of the month at Thieves Flea Market, where local Creekers hawk “everything you want, but nothing you need.”
For eats, locals will send you back to the desert and to Greasewood Flat. They’ll tell you it’s for the 1/2-pound bacon chili cheeseburger (US$8.25), but don’t fall for that.
The minute you pull into this sprawling outdoor cowboy cookout housed in a 120-year-old bunkhouse (the original stagecoach stop for the Pinnacle Peak pass) you know exactly why you’re there.
It’s the cowboys doing a two-step to the honky-tonk house band, and the mountain men who can light a bonfire with a snap of their fingers.
Nowhere else in the Valley of the Sun will you find such great people-watching. The bad-ass biker is really a millionaire CEO from Scottsdale. The women who look 20 from afar, look 60 close up.
“We call it the rhytidectomy rodeo,” whispered the local guy next to me (referring to all the facelifts) as we ironically toasted Mother Nature’s hardscrabble paradise.
We shared a laugh, marvelled at the desert’s indigo sky then toasted a wild night out in Scottsdale’s “badlands.”