An Eye-Opening Adventure in the Wild Arizona Desert
The powerful animal I’m sitting on has abandoned the dusty trail for a tasty shrub he’s spotted through the saguaros. He drags me through narrow misses with sharp spines, submerging the both of us in his chosen bush to pluck the best morsels from the centre. He’s right on cue, of course. It is just about time for breakfast in Arizona.
I’ve spent the last week feeling the contours of this wild landscape by foot, wheel, hoof and paddle. My first surprise was learning how diverse a desert could be. A tour of the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix reveals the myriad ways in which indigenous populations lived off the land, harvesting plants not just for food but for fibres and materials to build shelters and clothing.
I glance down at my own clothing, wondering how my fair skin will stand up to the midday sun. The dry heat is deceptive. I have to remind myself to drink often from my water bottle as we ascend the Vista Trail on foot in Usery Mountain Regional Park. And what a view, too: from here we can observe Wind Cave Trail, marked by a distinctive stripe of compacted volcanic ash running horizontally across the mountain.
Layers of history are visible to the naked eye here, but my whole life leading up to this point is barely the length of a childhood for the ancient saguaros—the tall cacti sentries watching over the desert can live to 300 years old, adding their first arms only after the ripe old age of 75.
These wise watchmen preside over the Salt River, too, a surprise oasis to any weary, dust-covered traveller. We float lazily past the lush green riverbanks of the Lower Salt River on inflatable kayaks from Arizona Outback Adventures, barely obliged to paddle in the swift current. Urgent signposts as we drove in hint at the propensity for flooding that can submerge roads in the area during monsoon season, something I find hard to imagine as I lick my dry cracked lips.
Someone else is watching us from the bank: a bald eagle high atop a twiggy tree. He stays for the photo op, then disappears. When we spot a cow in the brush I’m sure I must have swallowed too much salt water. My naïve assumption that not much could possibly live or grow out here now appears foolish as the cow stops grazing to stare at me with contempt.
I am tricked by the shape-shifting landscape again as we travel north to Sedona in the Northern Verde Valley, watching scrubby beiges turn to reds as the road before us gives way to magnificently vibrant sandstone formations. It’s easy to see why so many people call Sedona the most beautiful place on earth.
My naïve assumption that not much could possibly live or grow out here now appears foolish as the cow stops grazing to stare at me with contempt
Our Sedona Offroad Adventures driver plunges us into the heart of the landscape. We roll and bump our way on a breathtaking route (quite literally at times) that’s aptly named Cliff Hanger, as our guide yells above the roaring engine about the “medicinal” properties of the ephedra plants we’re passing—which contain compounds similar to amphetamines. Native Americans to this day boil up the dry branches to make tea, an alleged cure for everything from asthma to syphilis.
I reflect on this wild and humbling adventure in the Sonoran desert as I sit patiently in the saddle in the middle of this bush until my large four-legged friend has had his fill of Palo Verde, which happens to be Arizona’s state tree. Exploring on horseback with Fort McDowell Adventures I’ve come to know the landscape as the horses do.
But as much as I’ve learned on this trip, I can’t claim to be a proper cowgirl after just a morning in the saddle and a week in the desert. As I watch the wise, craggy-faced cowboy leading our pack, decked out in spurred boots, tasselled leather chaps and a Stetson, I can see in his eyes there is a lifetime of wonders to witness here. I’ve just barely scratched the dusty surface.
If You Go
Map of all adventures mentioned in this article:
On this trip: Hiking, kayaking and horseback riding were supplied by Visit Mesa, Arizona Outback Adventures and Fort McDowell Adventures.