This August is going to mark my sixth year living in Phoenix/Tempe. When I moved, I was a Long Island transplant, not really sure how long I’d spend here. With a beautiful wife now at my side and lifelong liberation from raking leaves/shoveling snow, it’s looking like forever I’ll stay. In this article, I’ll share with you the one location that captured my soul and kept me living here.
Recently, as I was getting ready for a camping/fishing trip up to Bartlett Lake (80 minutes from Phoenix), I was stopped by an out-of-towner. He was here for the NCAA Final Championship, taking place in our great city. His question was simple: where should I go?
I dropped my kayak in the truck bed and thought about this for a moment. What defines the Arizona experience? What can’t you miss if you come here only one time?
The obvious answer is the Grand Canyon. But if you’re limited to just the Phoenix area, there’s one destination not known to many tourists. Even people who live here take it for granted. It’s not some hip Mexican restaurant. It’s not the Musical Instrument Museum (even though that’s cool as s#*t). It’s the grandest and most pleasant sight you can find within the 50-mile radius.
The McDowell Mountain Regional Park
Local Phoenicians may disagree with this. Don’t listen to them. The McDowell Mountain range was the experience that made me fall in love with this area. Though technically located in Scottsdale, it’s considered part of the greater Phoenix area. It’s home to a wealth of various hiking trails and networks. If you like crowded and cramped trails, you’re better off heading to Camelback mountain. But if you want to experience beauty and freedom, head to the McDowells.
The Hohokam gathered here over 500 years ago. Now the surrounding area is a magnet for the wealthy and affluent. The trails vary from easy to wheezingly difficult. When at a high elevation, you have your choice of two sublime views. Look to the west, and you can see the entirety of Phoenix, bustling and buzzing like a giant electric circuit. Look to the east, and you witness the vast empty stretches of desert that extends for miles and miles. Look in either of these directions, and you might undergo a mystical transformation that I myself have been through.
…every time I took a drive, I was drawn into the scene of the setting sun illuminating eastward mountains. I later learned that these were the McDowell Mountains.
I was never much of a hiker back in NY. How could I be? I lived on the south shore, where the most strenuous walks were on the sands of the beaches. But in general, I wasn’t even that physically active. I had a few gym stints, took one fitness class, and probably kept up a routine for eight weeks at best. It didn’t look like this would change in Arizona, where one of my first destinations was In-N-Out Burger. But every time I took a drive, I was drawn into the scene of the setting sun illuminating eastward mountains. I later learned that these were the McDowell Mountains. I did some research, grabbed a backpack, and drove out to roads I had never seen before. It was 5 a.m. and the world was quiet. I stepped out of my car, and had no idea where I was going. I took a wrong turn and my hike seemed to be done after .4 miles. Determined to reach greater heights, I turned around and ventured deeper into territory unknown to my cognizance. I spent the next few hours in awe, my body numb to the agony I was putting it through. Fast forward, and I spent the next few years going from trail to trail, park to park, mountain to mountain. I got to be immersed in the glory of love with my wife in Havasupai. I spent countless hours in solitude bonding with my dog on slabs of rock. My life was transformed, and it started with the majestic McDowell Mountains. I know this all sounds like subjective biased nostalgia. Maybe it is, but you’d have to find out for yourself.
For your convenience, I’ve narrowed down three trails with varying characteristics…
For popularity and interactive exhibits, check out GATEWAY TRAIL
For silent contemplation surrounded by beauty, check out LOST DOG WASH/QUARTZ TRAIL
For challenging your hiking fitness and endurance, check out TOM’S THUMB TRAIL
Hopefully that college basketball fan was able to go out and find these trails. Maybe he got too drunk at the game and went back to Ohio in regret. I’ll never know, but at least the Tar Heels came out on top. In any case, if you find yourself in Phoenix, make it out there for your own sake. Your heart and your mind will thank you.
…here it is, the gorgeous behemoth herself…