A good day for a hike in Arizona
Scottsdale, Ariz. - Let's get this out of the way.
Yes, it's hot in Arizona. Abysmally hot. Wickedly hot.
Which is a good thing for a dozen people who have nothing better to do in mid-June than embark on a desert hike. The heat doesn't faze them.
Animals, on the other hand, respect the heat. As the day wears on, rattlesnakes recoil from it. Wild boar, known as javelins in these parts, dare not roam in it. Coyotes and road runners? At that time of year, you'd have a better chance of catching them on daytime TV in cartoon form than spying them in tis furnace otherwise known as the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
But the desert visitors refuse to defer to the heat and, to the surprise of many in the group, so do at least two other creatures. Not too far from the trailhead, a wild mare stands stoically as a foal suckles beneath her. The hikers watch in silence - reverently and nearly as motionless as the mare - until someone shifts and broke the spell. And at that moment, everyone knows it's time to hike.
Mountains and Valleys
The Sonoran Desert spreads over 100,000 square miles of Arizona, California and northern Mexico and is one of four major deserts in North America. This landscape consists of broad, low-elevation valleys rimmed by long, narrow, parallel mountain ranges (such as the McDowell Mountains) that vary from 700 to 3,000 feet in height. In this wilderness area, rainfall averages 3 to 15 inches a year. The rains - infrequent and undependable - are most likely to fall in December and January
and July through early September, but their presence is decidedly short-lived thanks to the extreme acidity of the desert.
The high rate of evaporation that typifies an arid climate causes almost all traces of precipitation to swiftly vanish.
Temperatures in the Sonoran can vary 30 to 50 degrees between sunup and sundown. By 7 a.m. in mid-June, as those 12 hikers can attest, it's already well into the 80s. In 12 hours, the high that day reaches 110. The humidity level? It never surpasses 10 percent.
Hauling Butt Up the Mountain
Tom's Thumb "Trail" is a misnomer. The passageway that hikers follow up to the rock formation called Tom's Thumb is really an access path for rock climbers. There are no markings, no signs, just a slim ribbon of finely ground granite to follow until it dead-ends at a boulder. This happens often, and when it does, it's time for each hiker to morph into a climber and haul his or her body over the rock by any means necessary. On this part of the journey, a hiker's hands - and a decent degree of upper body strength, agility and fitness - are assets. It becomes apparent about halfway up the mountain that the outing is not, as our professional guide puts it, a "stroller hike." But the challenge is worth it because the views of the city on one side, and the wilderness on the other, are stunning.
A Treacherous 'Teddy Bear'
For the group of hikers (all city dwellers) sharing the trail in mid-June, the wilderness offers a respite from their urban pursuits. Along their 1,000-foot climb, they eye such desert plants as agave, barrel cactus and the signature plant of the Sonoran Desert, the saguaro.
The lanky saguaro is the cactus with the highest profile, but its diminutive counterpart, the cholla, garners the most respect. From a distance, it looks soft, fuzzy and benign (hence its "Teddy Bear" nickname). But hikers - especially the unlucky ones
- quickly understand its other moniker, "The Jumping Cholla." It stems from this inanimate plant's seeming ability to move and attach itself to anything that gets near it, including some of the hikers who encountered it in mid-June. Ouch.
Even in this beautiful barren area, however, the hikers can't escape one ubiquitous symbol of urban life: graffiti. Inside a cave, some previous desert visitors had left their mark on the otherwise pristine surroundings. Go figure.
Perfect Place for Baby Steps
Ninety minutes after departing from the trailhead, the hikers reach Tom's Thumb a formation so named by early hikers after
the famous character in the fairy tale. After a peaceful, brief sojourn at the summit, the hikers begin their descent. If the journey up the mountain had seemed daunting at times, the ascent offers its own challenges. The hikers adapt a baby-steps gait to descend the mountain. The granite beneath their feet has the consistency of kitty litter, so those determined to maintain a normal gait soon find themselves splattered along the trail.
Yet, despite these and other missteps, the infamous Arizona heat and an assortment of scars some hikers acquire, the three hour journey was worth it.