McDowell Sonoran Preserve – Arizona, U.S.A.

Hit the dusty trail between majestic saguaro cactuses as you explore the archetypal desert of the American West

Like the wagon trails that once traversed this desert, the sun is heading west. As the light moves, the shape of the huge boulder known as Cathedral Rock seems also to warp and mutate as shadows pass across its face. In the foreground, giant saguaro cactuses stand proud and tall. Instantly familiar from their appearance in many hundreds of Westerns, they are also ancient markers. The saguaro grow an average of a foot per decade, so those towering 20 or 30 feet will have stood on that spot for around 250 years. They are the constant watchmen in the ever-changing landscape, yet adventure guide Phil Richards has a more immediate concern.

The ground is scattered with balls of jumping cholla, a cactus that looks so cuddly it has earned the nickname “teddy bear cactus”. Phil has just lightly placed one of these balls onto his arm to demonstrate their strength and he’s already struggling to prise it free from his flesh with a length of wood.

“They may look soft, but if they get onto you they won’t let go,” he explains, pointing out the strong barbs that cover the plants. They’re known as “jumping” because they latch on so hard even when brushed past that cyclists and hikers will swear they jumped out at them. Their real purpose is to hook themselves onto passing rodents and when the poor creatures try to burrow down, they’ll find themselves stuck to the cactus and inadvertently doing the job of planting it. Invariably, the animal is killed in the process. “This gives rise to their other name, says Phil darkly ‘The “skeleton cactus”.”

Cycling past saguaro cactuses in the McDowell Somoran Preserve

For a desert, the Sonoran has a relatively lush terrain and is covered in plant life that blooms in spring. However, that doesn’t make it an easy place to survive. Phil takes issue with John Ford’s 1948 western 3 Godfathers, in which John Wayne finds himself stranded in this very desert. In need of water, he hacks the top off a barrelhead cactus and squeezes the pulp into his flask.

Sadly, this sort of thing only works in the movies. In truth, the moisture in a barrelhead is so filled with acids that it will most likely give you diarrhea — not useful if you’re already dehydrated and stranded in a desert.

“This is a unique desert,” says Phil. “We’ve got about 3,500 varieties of plant out here, including a number of cactuses found nowhere else, and that’s because of the climate. We don’t get a hard freeze.”

The desert, ranging from Sonora in Mexico to the south of California, covers a swathe of Arizona. Here in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, there are 30,200 acres of protected land: nothing can be built and no motorised vehicles may travel its 146 miles of trails.

“It’s very peaceful here,” says Phil, whose transport of choice is the mountain bike. “The only things you hear are your gears shifting and your wheels on the gravel.” His quiet progress provides many opportunities to spot desert wildlife —he points out Gila monsters (venomous lizards), tusked, pig-like javelinas and grazing mule deer.

He says that it’s the beauty of the land itself, though, that keeps him coming back day after day, whether he’s guiding a group or not. “You can never get enough of the desert,” he says, “so the best way to get more is just to ride out to a different spot.”

With that, he’s off again, dashing along a sandy trail, but still mindful enough to keep clear of the jumping cholla.


The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale
  • In the foothills of Pinnacle Peak, amid the saguaro cactuses, the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale is a sprawling mass of adobe casitas with sandy-hued rooms and a couple of good restaurants – Talavera steakhouse and Proof
  • Arizona Outback Adventures offer mountain-bike rental or a half-day biking tour of the McDowell Sonoran. Preserve with guides including Phil Richards. They can also organise longer tours.

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