Exploring the Desert’s Edge

By local contributor
Annemarie Kruse

A city in the desert, Scottsdale exists in midst of the Sonoran Desert, the hottest, wettest, and most biodiverse desert in North America. It’s easy to forget how wild and unique the surrounding terrain is when you’re exploring Scottsdale’s bustling restaurant scene, hanging out poolside at a resort or relaxing at one of the many world-class spas. We often imagine the desert as a remote landscape when, in fact, the desert is closer than you think.

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve Trails

The most obvious place to consider as the border between city and desert is Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve, which is comprised of nearly thirty-five thousand acres of undeveloped land within the city limits. When hiking on these trails in Scottsdale, we cross into a world where the wild animals are the only permanent residents, and eyes peer out at you from each rock and crevice as you pass by.  The city has influenced this desert though. Even preserve land is affected by everyday human impact: building trails, snapping photos, clearing debris away after the monsoon rain. This co-mingling of city and desert is a reminder that places like the McDowell Sonoran Preserve are priceless. Protecting the natural landscape right here in our backyard creates opportunities for residents and visitors to learn about, enjoy, and share this unique place.

Neighborhood “green” space

In our neighborhoods, the desert co-mingles with homes, businesses, resorts. At one point it was common practice to flatten the desert’s natural contours, paving over drainages and canyons in the process. City planners now know that this can have devastating effects on the local ecosystem and require that new developments be created in concert with the elevation and curvature of the land. This leaves untamed swaths of desert arroyos snaking between buildings and roads. As people move in, the natural inhabitants move next door into these arroyos. Many of these natural washes offer footpaths and hiking trails where you are bound to encounter some of these neighbors, such as roadrunners, gambel’s quail or maybe even a javelina or coyote in the early morning hours!

Indian Bend Wash

The Scottsdale Greenbelt is a popular place to bike, run, roller skate, and relax. Stretching 11 miles through the center of Scottsdale, the greenbelt runs along the natural course of Indian Bend Wash. This huge flood plain has been engineered to ensure that the city could manage the rare, high-volume rainstorms that give life to the desert. Rather than a concrete channel that’s sole purpose is to control rainwater, the greenbelt was designed to also provide recreational options with grass, walking/biking paths and golf courses stretching the entire length.  During the annual monsoon season between June and September, Indian Bend Wash has been known to run like a river, occasionally reaching volumes as great as the mighty Colorado River rushing through Grand Canyon. On sunny days, take a walk, run, or pedal along the Scottsdale Greenbelt, enjoy the ponds and lush greenery, and remember that the powerful water that carved this wash is what allows for the growth and development of the beautiful oasis that Scottsdale has become.

Golf Courses

Meeting friends for a game of golf, it’s unlikely that you are thinking about heading out into the wilderness. Sculpted fairways, golf carts, and close-cropped greens don’t exactly scream desert but many of Scottsdale’s golf courses incorporate the natural surroundings into the course design. In addition, the abundance of greenery is a great food-source for many animals and the artificial ponds draw birds of all sorts. On a warm evening you could easily find 10 different animal species out enjoying your golf course as much as (or more) than you are. Common inhabitants include scorpions, coyotes, cactus wren, javelina and more. During the driest months of the year, the surrounding desert is lacking in easy food and water sources, so golf courses become a safe haven for animals. In the early, morning you may be so lucky as to see deer grazing or bobcats slinking along the grass. These exciting encounters serve as a reminder of how close we are to the surrounding desert, even in a place that has been designed and determined by humankind.

In Scottsdale, the desert permeates each piece of the city. Over time, we’ve learned to live here in peace and harmony with our surroundings, but even in the places that seem most “ours” there are constant reminders of how unique and impressive the desert ecosystem is.  We can draw our boundaries, modify, separate, try our best to protect the desert, share with native species, and create our own spaces, but at some point we have to look around and realize that it’s the desert that allows us to be here, not the other way around.