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Storied Sonoran desert

Scottsdale’s growth spurt in the 70s and 80s prompted a citizen-initiated preservation effort that resulted in a plan to protect nearly one-third of the city as the natural Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Today, this preserve plays host to hikers, horseback riders and outdoor enthusiasts who delight in the region’s ancient Indian artifacts and wildlife, such as coyotes, Gila monsters, desert tortoises, chuckwallas, javelinas, deer and mountain lions. The rise in citizen activism, led by the nonprofit McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, has helped build support for the preservation effort.

Currently, 30,200 acres of the planned 36,400-acre preserve are protected. The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is working with Scottsdale city officials to facilitate the purchase of the remaining
6,200 acres of state trust land, making it the largest city-owned preserve in the United States. The preserve is home to 146 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and horseback riding. It’s an area that embodies the region’s Western heritage with a wide range of plants and animals only seen in Arizona.

Making the preserve more accessible for outdoor explorers is the $4 million Gateway Trailhead, which opened in May 2009. Designed as more of a destination than a trailhead, Gateway is home to a state-of-the-art amphitheater, breathtaking vistas of pristine desert and unbeatable views of every peak in the McDowell Mountain Range. The facility boasts restrooms, shade ramadas, a dog comfort station, hitching rails and more. Of particular interest is the award-winning Bajada Nature Trail, the only barrier-free trail in Scottsdale allowing anyone, from the visually impaired to those in motorized wheelchairs, to enjoy the preserve. Situated on the preserve’s northern slope, Tom’s Thumb Trailhead gives a firsthand look at the indigenous flora and fauna. It is joined by Brown's Ranch Trailhead, offering hikers, bikers and horseback riders a look into the history of the area through exhibits that feature local ranchers.

Outdoor enthusiasts can join one of the conservancy’s stewards on private guided interpretive hikes throughout the year. Try the three-hour Geology Story hike to examine the area’s geological history, from the mountains’ bedrock to the scenic skyline. Or embark on the three-hour, 4-mile Nature’s Pharmacy hike to gain insight into how American Indians used plants for food, shelter, rituals and medicines. During these guided hikes, the stewards give visitors a new perspective of the Sonoran Desert environment.

In addition to connecting visitors more easily with Scottsdale’s environment, the Gateway Trailhead is also architecturally significant because its onsite administrative building has been certified as meeting the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum standards. Not only were rock and soil excavated from the area used to build the walls of the administrative building, but workers on the construction project also recycled about 90 percent of the waste from the development. Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve is also expected to house the future Desert Discovery Center, envisioned to provide opportunities for residents and visitors to connect with the story of the Sonoran Desert through interactive exhibits and environmental experiences.

The Scottsdale Resident-initiated preservation program is only one chapter in the City’s efforts to preserve the spectacular Sonoran Desert scenery and engage in eco-friendly practices. Experience Scottsdale and local tourism businesses are taking the necessary steps to ensure that Scottsdale is engaging in sustainable tourism. A number of Scottsdale hotels and resorts are involved with sustainable practices by using energy efficient lights, purchasing organic fruits and vegetables, providing optional laundry services for guest linens and towels, using reclaimed water for golf courses and landscaping and more. Other efforts by the Scottsdale tourism community include conserving natural resources through solid waste management, water conservation and energy management.