PICACHO PEAK STATE PARK, Ariz. –
“Excuse me, coming through, sorry, thank you!” I kept repeating loudly and urgently as I hiked up Picacho Peak, which rises like a Western saddle from the endless desert just off Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona.
With not a soul in sight among the saguaro cactuses and splashes of yellow desert marigolds, this was my improvised technique to keep rattlesnakes away.
A snake phobia had mostly confined me to the car, or on horseback, in dozens of trips to the Southwest. But the combination of a winter spent in Minnesota’s polar vortex and life events that made being afraid of invertebrates a quaint concern pushed me onto the trails on a two-week trip this spring.
In seven parks from Phoenix to near El Paso, Texas, I wandered barefoot across blindingly white sand dunes, climbed on all fours over red boulders, trekked to waterfalls deep inside a canyon, and played rockhound for a day – all while basking in uninterrupted sunshine and without spotting a single rattler. Here are some highlights.
Two-story-high saguaros, ocotillo bushes tipped with scarlet blooms and blossoming palo verde trees border the steeply rising switchbacks on the first mile of the Hugh Norris Trail in the western district of Saguaro National Park.
At the ridge top, falcons soared as dusk settled onto one of the densest concentrations of saguaros in the Sonoran desert, many more than a century old. In the distance stood Signal Hill, where the Hohokam people carved petroglyphs hundreds of years ago.
Although Tucson bisects the park’s two districts, silence on the trail is unbroken. I even stopped clapping my hands, a snake-chasing technique suggested by hikers startled by my monologue.
Deep inside Bear Canyon, seven waterfalls gurgled amid rocky walls studded with cactus and spring flowers. This 8-mile round-trip hike in Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, just north of Tucson, is a parade of Southwest wilderness bests: saguaro stands silhouetted against mountain peaks, a cottonwood-lined river gorge, and chilly rock pools, perfect for dipping battered feet.
Rocks all around
Follow I-10 east more than 100 miles from Tucson, across desert so wide that the mountains look like they’re hanging off a round horizon, like a child’s drawing of the Earth. Then head toward the border to either Rock Hound State Park, in Deming, New Mexico, or Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona.
On the last 13 miles of the trip, from I-10 to Rock Hound, only three moving objects crossed my road: a Border Patrol truck, a longhorn steer and a tumbleweed nearly as large as the other two.
A life-sized photo of a rearing rattler in the park nearly destroyed my plan of poking through rocky ravines hunting for minerals. But a geologist from Michigan – armed with a sturdy stick and pickaxe – agreed to take me along the Jasper Trail.
The park allows visitors to collect up to 15 pounds of rocks, and I filled my pockets with salmon-pink jasper and translucent quartz. I also picked up a weird, pimpled round rock, about 4 inches across. The nearby Red Roof Rock Shop sawed it in two – $3 for a half-hour of work – to reveal gorgeous sparkling blue agate nestled against pale violet rhyolite, a type of rock known as a thunderegg. Take that, snakes.
At Chiricahua, a “sky island” mountain range emerged from the emptiness, its dense formations of millions-year-old, eroded volcanic ash spires like turrets on a sand castle.
Starting from Massai Point, 6,870 feet high above the desert, I hiked down to Echo Canyon Grotto, amid pines and improbably perched rocks that seem ready for a Wile E. Coyote’s push.
Strolling from bright marker to marker across white dunes, as the wind obliterated my footprints, I could have been in a blizzard or on a beach.
But a few tall, spiky yucca plants sprouting from the gypsum sand signaled that this was desert, part of 275 square miles of constantly shifting dunes at White Sands National Monument.
The remote area sits in the middle of a missile range in southern New Mexico. Call before driving the 54 miles from Las Cruces to make sure a test hasn’t closed the road.
Crawling up Camelback
One of the most iconic Southwest hikes is smack in the middle of metro Phoenix.
The experience of clambering up the 2,704-foot Camelback Mountain starts with fighting for a parking spot and ends with the rush of bagging a genuine peak. Hikers use metal handrails in spots to pull themselves up the red rocks, which resemble the face and hump of a camel.
When I wasn’t climbing on all fours, or letting crowds pass me, I took in 360-degree views of distant mountain ranges and closer golf courses and pools, framed by tall saguaros, blooming and fragrant creosote and orange poppy buds.
“Watch out, it’s poisonous,” I calmly informed a kid who was getting too close to a Gila monster, a large, venomous spotted lizard.
Then I smiled – I sure had come a long way.