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Scottsdale: A Sonoran Desert Playground Awaits

Scottsdale sits amid one of the most scenic and bewitching playgrounds on Earth. Renowned for a remarkable collection of elite resorts, exquisite shops and galleries, sumptuous restaurants and uber-hip nightclubs, Scottsdale is also the beating heart of the Sonoran Desert – the lushest, most biologically diverse of North America’s deserts.

That’s the secret side of this city that local residents cherish. For decades, everything in Scottsdale has been prioritized around quality of life. That means an abundance of open space, uninterrupted vistas, almost instant access to wild country and boundless recreational opportunities. For outdoor enthusiasts -- and the kid inside all of us – this is a sunny slice of paradise.


When development began to gnaw at the flanks of the mighty McDowell Mountains in North Scottsdale, a group of passionate volunteers swooped into action. Not content to simply establish a few isolated parks, they rescued virtually the entire desert.

Established in 1995, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve encompasses 30,200 acres, making it the largest urban preserve in the U.S., and it continues to expand. Thanks to concentrated efforts of the community, a full one-third of Scottsdale remains pristine, public open space. Welcome to Adventure Central.
Visitors to the preserve will discover a land of soaring mountains, boulder-crowned mesas, storm-carved arroyos and cactuses as tall as office buildings. Nearly 200 miles of shared-use trails, departing from 10 trailheads, delve into the outback, exposing the scenic wonders of a rugged frontier.

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve connects with the 21,000-acre McDowell Mountain Regional Park, creating an expansive corridor for backcountry exploration. With more than 50 miles of trails and three campgrounds, this is the perfect place to sample the nighttime desert. When you see the horizon ablaze with a lavish fiery sunset, feel the cooling temperatures and velvet soft twilight that follows, and witness the explosion of stars like so many glittery diamond chips piercing the darkness, you’ll understand the seductive power of the desert.

Elsewhere in Scottsdale, carefully preserved open space surrounds notable landmarks, such as the distinctive needle-like thrust of Pinnacle Peak. A city park was created to protect the stony summit and a wide smooth path rambles through the surrounding boulder fields. Nestled in the shadow of this cloud-spearing formation, Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North offers complimentary hiking excursions on the looping, swooping Pinnacle Peak Trail.


For those venturing into the desert for the first time, the experts at Arizona Outback Adventures conduct guided hikes and mountain bike rides. Take advantage of their knowledge and enthusiasm as they lead you on a personalized outing into this remarkable and haunting terrain. Or check out one of the desert programs at McDowell Sonoran Preserve, which feature guided hikes that incorporate lessons in area geology, wildflowers, wildlife and more.

Guided hikes are offered at Pinnacle Peak Park, just steps away from Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North. Enjoy a complimentary hiking excursions on the looping, swooping Pinnacle Peak Trail or opt for an adventure that’s more than just boots on the ground. The enticing verticality of Pinnacle Peak is one of dozens of summits and cliff faces attracting climbers to Scottsdale. If you’re not an experienced rock jock, the pros at 360 Adventures can plan guided outings that will have you scrambling to high lonely perches and reveling in once-in-a-lifetime views.

And if it’s views you crave, then the skyline-defining Camelback Mountain will prove irresistible. Resembling a sleeping camel, this great humped spine of granite and sandstone rises above the Valley of the Sun and affords anyone who makes the ascent staggering, head-spinning panoramas. Two trails, Echo and Cholla, access the summit. In addition, guests of The Phoenician, Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain and Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia can sign up for guided hikes to the top of this 2,700-foot landmark. Bonus: you’ll have plush accommodations waiting for you at the bottom.
Some resorts contain their own swath of desert. The Boulders Resort & Spa, spreads across 1,300 acres of rugged Sonoran Desert, offers guests a wide range of adrenaline-fueled activities. Take climbing lessons on its namesake granite clusters. Guided hikes, guided mountain biking and even nighttime rides are on the menu. There’s even a chance to do a waterfall rappel. Although it sounds like Navy Seal training, even novices can make a safe descent down the rock faces surrounding the frothy cascade near the Main Lodge when aided by expert instructors.


Don’t be surprised by water in the desert. In an arid land, every drop of moisture is cause for celebration, and Scottsdale is truly blessed. Two snowmelt-fed rivers and a ring of sparkling lakes border the community, and they all make cherished destinations. Guides from Arizona Outback Adventures, 360 Adventures and Fort McDowell Adventures give visitors a chance to experience the magic of water and desert combined. Kayak or raft the lush riparian corridors of the Salt and Verde rivers, draped with leafy canopies of cottonwood and willow trees. Or dip your paddle in lakes cradled by canyon walls with stately saguaros marching down to the shore. 

Located on the 25,000-acre Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation northeast of Scottsdale, Fort McDowell Adventures also offers a range of Western and Native American-themed activities, including guided two-hour cattle drives and more casual trail rides. If you’re looking for a more modern outing, you can glide into the desert atop a Segway or pilot the wickedly fun Tomcar, an off-road military vehicle. 

You can also explore the Yavapai Nation via Pink Adventure Tours. Rumble into the rocky hills dotted with cactuses and slashed by high-walled canyons aboard a Jeep Wrangler. Enjoy off-roading thrills and sweeping vistas as you learn about the history and culture of the tribe, as well as the plants and animals that populate this harshly beautiful land. Three different tours are offered, including one that ends with a narrated cruise on Saguaro Lake.