Sonoran Desert National Monument outing
This past December through February was one of the wettest winters we’ve had in the Phoenix area in more than 10 years. Longtime desert residents know that January showers bring March flowers, and I’d been looking forward to a March desert hike since the rains started in December.
There are tons of potential places to go to see springtime desert blooms, but I’m picky. I wanted somewhere that would be a bit of a drive (that is, remote), and wouldn’t be overrun with other flower-gawkers.
I had first picked Ironwood Forest National Monument, just north of Tucson. But, my stepdad (“Grandpa Joe”) was going with us, and he didn’t really want to drive that far. Plus, I had called the ranger in charge of the monument, since there wasn’t that much information about trails on the Bureau of Land Management site, online. He gave me directions to a great hiking/flower viewing area (literally, “Off of the Marana-Trico Road, past the private houses, stay to the right, take a right at the El Paso gasline right-of-way, go through the first gate — close it behind you — take your first right after that… It’s a hilly area, and any of the numerous washes make a natural trail.”), but he told me that the main thing that is halting development of the Monument as a “tourist” area is that it is a major illegal immigrant traffic corridor, and they need to get a handle on that problem before they develop and promote hiking trails. He said I was unlikely to see fellow-hikers, but very likely to see illegal immigrants. Hm. Still, I was willing to try it out. Grandpa Joe was not.
So, I perused my map a bit more, and decided that for our trip (on Friday, March 21st) we’d try the Sonoran Desert National Monument. It was only about 100 miles from my house, mostly rural/desert driving, and the online info was much better. I figured that, even if we had to make a stop, we’d make it there in two hours, easy.
There were two possible routes I could have chosen, and I decided to try the one that would take us there from the west, through Buckeye, via the AZ85. However, we didn’t count on road construction. Loads of road construction. Everywhere we went, road construction. Delays, backups, detours. Ugh. THREE HOURS LATER, we pulled into our destination.
But, lemme back up a bit.
The BLM site does have quite a bit of detailed information, but when we got out there, we found that the map was very confusing. On the map (both the one in my Arizona atlas, and in the one provided via a PDF file by the BLM), the main road was marked as Vekol Road, or Vekol Valley Road. But, in real life, there was no indication of that name. There were places where the road unexpectedly veered, or we came to an unmarked Y-intersection; it was hard to follow at times. Also, the map indicated that we needed to turn east at the “corral.” There was a corral, but there were also about five roads branching off from it, with extremely unclear indications about which was the right one.
For anyone who actually decides to do this hike, please note that the Vekol Road is actually road #8007. Follow that, until you get to the corral. Take the road right before the corral, which is road #8024 — however, the sign just says “24.”
Another note: I thought that this hiking area would pretty much be devoid of humans, which is just the way I like it. Why? Because I like my children (boys ages 10, 8, and 6 — and my almost-2yo daughter) to be able to whoop and holler and run and throw rocks, and just be loud, out-of-doors. But, my first clue to the unlikelihood of our privacy was found on road #8007. It was scattered with 5 or 7 RVs, each parked near the road, apparently taking advantage of the BLM’s free camping-with-permit policy. Still, we didn’t see any other vehicles or people on the 15.3 mile dirt road until we got to the Table Top Trailhead. The trailhead also serves as a small campground, picnic area, and has the area’s only toilets (which are fairly well-maintained pit toilets). It was also the temporary home to about seven or eight other vehicles, each carrying hikers. Bummer.
We had a picnic lunch at first picnic table, which was well-shaded and simply lovely. The pics don’t do it justice. Actually, this pic makes it appear that there was no shade at all, but in actuality, ironwoods and palo verdes crowded the table for a lush, Sonoran Desert feel.
After lunch, we backtracked a little less than a mile to the Lava Flow Trailhead. I had chosen this trail, because I knew that with all the littles, we just wouldn’t be able to do justice to the 3.6 mile, steep Tabletop Trail, even though it was enticing, with its promise of an unusual desert meadow at the top. I figured with the relatively flat Lava Flow trail, we could just hike in, and when we got tired, turn around and hike out, which is just what we did.
The only rough part of the trail was directly at the trailhead. For only a couple of hundred feet, the trail drops down with a bit of incline, over rocky terrain. (Here it is, viewed coming back up the trail:)
Most of the trail — at least, the part we visited — was flat, and easy to hike.
We had purposefully planned this hike to view wildflowers. However, there weren’t very many — at least, not the ones I was expecting: the “classic” Sonoran Desert beauties like owl clover, Mexican gold poppies, bladderpod mustard, desert lupine, and others. We mostly saw two varieties of flower, which I identified as scorpionweed (in abundance) and white tackstem.
White Tackstem (which didn’t photograph too well — they look rather like large, white dandelions):
I also got a nice pic of an ocotillo bloom:
We also saw a few Parry’s penstemon and owl clover… but no real fields of flowers, for which I was hoping.
But, the website did deliver on its promise of pristine Sonoran Desert beauty. The trail — which took us into the Tabletop Wilderness — was spotless, and once we were on it (and once we were passed by the German couple with whom we temporarily shared the trail), we felt like the only people in the world. Sweeping vistas of far-off mountain ranges, closer saguaro “forest” and cholla cactus “forest,” densly vegitated with brittlebush and creosote. It was really classic Sonoran Desert flora, in all its prickly glory.
The day was warm — over 80*F — and little feet tire easily. We only hiked for two hours — one hour in, and one out. Looking at the topo map I’d printed from the web, it looks like we only traversed two miles in, and the return two miles out. But… when you hike with small children, you must be able to enjoy the trip, and expect a slow hike, stopping to ID the flowers and listen to the birds chirp. I’ve found that if I have a steady supply of varied snacks and drinks, I have happy hikers.
Here’s one of Audrey, who, at the end of the trail, still had a smile on her face:
And, a self-portrait of Wesley:
On the way back, we chose to take the route to the east, through the town of Maricopa, and across Riggs Road, through the Gila Indian Reservation. Ugh. Double ugh. There were even MORE delays, once we reached Laveen. Every route was closed to cross the Salt River (which had recently flooded), except for 51st Avenue. And there, on 51st Avenue, in front of our eyes, an accident happened, and the police whipped out the traffic cones, shutting down traffic both north and south. At that point, we laughed incredulous, defeated chuckles. It seemed like a conspiracy to keep us from getting home. Three hours and fifteen minutes total travel time, though, we did.
I can’t say I’d be eager to make such a long trek again, but I’m glad we went; it was worthwhile.