Thursday, April 7, 2016

In the Valley of the Sun

Pinnacle Peak beneath the burning sun of the Sonoran Desert.

I never entertained much interest in living in the desert, but a trip to Arizona when I was a small child created a mythical view of it in my head that has persisted. Of course I eventually landed in Flagstaff in 2015, but the climate in Flag is alpine and cool compared to the famous and somewhat notorious deserts of southern Arizona, and defies preconceived notions about the extreme heat of the state. It's actually much snowier in Flagstaff than anywhere I have lived, and I lived in north central Indiana for many years. The summers are cooler than most people could imagine, but the winters can get long after a while. Relief is achieved by a visit to the hot part of Arizona, the valley of the Salt River, containing greater Phoenix and the various suburbs, and the beautiful Sonoran Desert. The area is famously too hot for outdoor activities during about a 4 month period through the summer, but is actually very nice most of the year, and the desert greens up and blooms with wildflowers. The valley of the Salt River is also known poetically as the Valley of the Sun.

For the second winter in a row, I almost waited too long to go visit the Sonoran Desert. The first year I moved in only at the tail end of winter and got pre-occupied with the Grand Canyon and Sedona. This year I got preoccupied with winter sports, but the snow started fading by mid-March (a characteristic of snow in the desert southwest due to the low humidity and direct sunlight of the latitude), and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to visit the Valley of the Sun before temperatures soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I originally intended to hike the famous Camelback Mountain trail, but I failed to get up at the 6:00 am alarm, and the park is notorious for being closed when the parking lot fills up on weekends, so I chose one of the numerous alternative hikes in the greater Phoenix area, the Pinnacle Peak trail in Scottsdale.

A sign and golden flowers welcomed me to the park.

There is only a single trail at Pinnacle Peak, an out-and-back that ascends from the parking lot around the side of the pinnacle, then across a saddle and around a second part of the mountain with a separate summit. The vegetation is classic Sonoran Desert with saguaro cacti, palo verde trees, and an abundance of green brush, blooming with wildflowers in the spring sun. The temperature was around a relatively moderate 80 degrees when I arrived but soon I was sweating my way up the side of the mountain, which is taller than it looks from the parking lot. The temps seem to have topped out in the upper 80s.

Typical trail for the Sonoran Desert. Yep, it's sandy!

The McDowell Mountains beyond one of the outer neighborhoods of Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix.

There were numerous signs labeling the various desert plants that were present. I was pleased that the heat had not yet burned off the flowers. On previous occasions it has seemed that my photography failed to capture the color of the non-summer desert, but I got several nice shots this time, mostly with my iPhone 5S. Although desert is usually represented as a dead place, the Sonoran Desert actually brims with life and is green and colorful most of the year. It is only during the four and half months or so from May to September that it becomes brown and scorched by the extreme temperatures that climb to over 100 Fahrenheit every day. Last year points in the Salt River Valley reached as high as 119 degrees. That type of heat is lethal and it is amazing that so much life can thrive.

Strawberry hedgehog cactus, proving that the scorching heat has not yet arrived in the Sonoran Desert.
Brittlebush blooms.
Creosote bush with the McDowell Mountains in the background.

The slopes were covered with the amazing saguaro cactus, icon of the Desert Southwest. The elevation of Pinnacle Peak reaches to the upper half of the saguaro's tolerance, but they seemed perfectly healthy. I was interested to see a small juniper growing up in some rocks. There was a sign labeling it as a relic of a previous, cooler climate. It's the only juniper in the area.

An isolated pocket of classic Sonoran Desert, revealing the greenery of the desert in the spring.

Relic redberry juniper, a native to cooler climates and higher elevations, with a saguaro peaking over boulders.
Ocotillo with a view.
Close up of the ocotillo flowers.

There were too many people on the trail but as usual the crowds thin out the farther you get from the parking lot and soon I was enjoying the hike, harried only by a couple of horse flies and a few people who talked too loudly. It got pretty hot eventually but I couldn't resist following the trail all the way down to the point where it ended in a wealthy neighborhood of Scottsdale, on the far end of the second part of the mountain. This meant that I had to hike back uphill to get back over the mountain to my car. Fortunately I was well prepared with a preposterous amount of water and Mountain Dew. I stopped in a small pocket of shade to eat some protein before climbing over the second mountain of the park. I carried too much fluid and ended up packing out a few pounds of water. I needed the workout anyway.

The second part of the mountain, and unnamed peak connected by the saddle to the left. The trail can be seen winding along the near flank of the mountain, ending just beyond the end of the golf course.
The high point of the trail.
Saguaros on the reverse side of the pinnacle. The small bundles of cacti in the foreground are cholla.

By the afternoon the smog and haze had obscured much of the valley. There really are too many people in the Valley of the Sun, driving too many cars, and using too much water. Fortunately there are numerous areas that are preserved, like the Pinnacle Peak Park in Scottsdale. It's an amazing place to hike, if a little suburban, but it's like going on a safari after living for decades east of the Mississippi River and then skiing and snowboarding through a snowy winter in the high country of northern Arizona.

Photo Dump

A view from the saddle: the Phoenix Mountains and the Sierra Estrella are in the distance, including Camelback Mountain, and I think the far mountains lost in the haze and smog are the South Mountains.
A palo verde tree. The branches are green indicating that they have chlorophyl and therefore can perform photosynthesis. Palo verde means "green stick" in Spanish.
Desert vegetation on the slopes of Pinnacle Peak.

A view of the saddle with one of the near peaks of the McDowell Mountains in the background.
Serious wealth down at the base of the mountain. There were huge homes backing on the park and the golf course with artificial waterfalls and luxurious green lawns with palm trees. It's no wonder the west is facing a water crisis.

Baby saguaro on the right. I would not want to fall into that thing on the left.

Strava GPS Track