By Jeff Ficker
January 26, 2015
Gunter Marx / Alamy

If the word “desert” conjures up images of sand dunes and parched, monochromatic landscapes, then get ready for a revelation. Scottsdale is located in the northeastern corner of the Sonoran Desert, the most ecologically diverse desert region on the planet. The beauty really is in the details: green-barked palo verde trees, scurrying lizards, desert quail leading a school of newborn chicks, and the sound of gravel beneath your feet on well-tread hiking trails. And nothing dispels the misperception of a lifeless, beige landscape in the Sonoran Desert like wildflower season in the spring, when a flood of psychedelic colors washes across the desert floor. (Some of the best spots for Arizona wildflower watching are in north Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains and Cave Creek.) The experiences below are meant to immerse you into this tough, but fragile ecosystem, allowing you to interact with desert and have a better appreciation for its rugged beauty.

Tour the Desert Botanical Garden

Any delusions that the Sonoran Desert is a lifeless dustbowl will be swept away by this 50,000-plus collection of colorful plants, from hundreds of cacti, including the iconic saguaro and edible prickly pear, to a menagerie of trees, wildflowers and bushes, such as the waxy creosote, which produces a unique, herbal scent after a rainstorm. 

Hike Camelback Mountain

This Phoenix-Scottsdale landmark is one of Arizona’s great natural wonders. From a distance you can clearly make out Camelback’s sandstone head and granite hump. Hikers who make the difficult climb up one of two trails are rewarded with a mountaintop views in the city and up-close encounters with native plants and animals, like cottontail rabbits and antelope squirrels.

Horseback ride at Spur Cross Stables

Imagine what life used to be like traveling through the desert before cars. This Cave Creek ranch, located on the site of an 1870s gold mine, offers spectacular rides through the desert and mountain passes of Tonto National Forest. Guides lead riders past ancient Native American ruins and petroglyphs, through small creeks and hill terrain.

Explore the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

This 30,000-square-foot preserve protects some of Sonoran Desert’s most beautiful and pristine landscapes, including the McDowell Mountains. Hike or bike its 130 miles of trails to see impressive rock formations and quintessential desert animals, like mule deer, javelina, roadrunners and coyotes. You’ll be awed by the panoramic views. 

Kayak the Salt River

Yes, kayaking in the desert. Paddle along the banks of the lower Salt River, where you’ll spot a surprising mix of wildlife, including sunning lizards, wild mustangs, and active bald-eagle nesting areas. Rent equipment or sign up for a guided tour with Arizona Outdoor Adventures.   

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