We kicked off our last weekend in Phoenix with a little cactus hunting. Crested cactus hunting to be specific. These rare cacti sport a deformity in the form of a swirly, crest-shaped growth, and have been on our radar since we first spotted one last year in Tucson. We’re certainly not the only ones fascinated by this phenomenon, and like most things strange and unusual, the internet readily provides information on where you can find these funky freaks of nature. As luck would have it, turns out there are three right here in McDowell Mountain Park. Unbeknownst to us, we actually passed one without seeing it earlier in the week on the Scenic trail. We didn’t feel like repeating that same route, so it was off to the Pemberton Trail to hunt down the second one. We could have just ridden out there, looked at the cactus, and headed back to the campground. But where’s the fun in that? Instead we decided to make a big loop that would take us past the special cactus. Our route of choice from the campground was the Wagner Trail to the Granite Trail to the Delsie Trail. The Delsie is a 2.7 mile gradual uphill ride that winds its way through some really cool scenery. I especially love the section that is lined with purple tinted Cholla cactus.
At the end of the Delsie we took a left on the Pemberton Trail, biked up a short steep hill, and there it was.
As you can see, where the cactus should have kept growing straight, instead it spread out into a fan shape. There’s a debate whether this is the cause of a genetic mutation, or some sort of reaction to frost damage or a lightning strike. Whatever the cause, it only occurs in 1 out of every 250,000 cactus so spotting one can be very exciting.
After spending a few minutes walking around this crested wonder and taking pictures from all angles we continued on the trail. The Pemberton Trail is the longest, and probably the most popular, of all the trails in the park. It travels for 15.3 miles in a big loop around the park. According to the park map and trail guide the Pemberton is a black diamond, “difficult” trail. I admit this scared me at first first. But after riding a few sections of the trail we decided that while challenging because of the near constant ups and downs, along with some rocky sections, it really wasn’t any more difficult than many of the other trails in the park that were only marked as intermediate. Of course, we never did ride the trail in its entirety, so who know what horrors we might have missed out on.
After riding the Pemberton for about a little more than three miles we turned onto the Tonto Tank trail. This is the same trail we rode on our first day in the park. Except that time we rode up the trail, and this time we rode down it. Which do you think was more fun?
At the end of the Tonto we hooked back up with the Pemberton trial for almost a mile before it spit us out on the paved park road. From here it was a short uphill ride back to our site which clocked us in at 12 miles of riding for the day, and brought our weekly total up to 42 miles. Not bad at all.
Sunday brought another round of crested cactus hunting. This time we headed for the Dixie Mine trail where a crested saguaro was rumored to be living at the trial head. Sure enough, there it was right in the parking lot.
As you can see this one is some sort of overachiever in the crested cactus world.
After ohhing and ahhing a bit it was off on the hike we went. The parking lot for the Dixie Mine Trail is not in McDowell Park, but instead right outside the gate of a fancy shmancy gated community. From there you walk through the development for nearly a mile before reaching the actual trailhead. Judging by the lack of houses in the development, and the newness of the sidewalks and landscaping, I suspect that the trail was there long before the gated community came along. Lucky for us the community provides a nice parking area, with bathrooms, and sidewalks with easy to follow signs from the gate to the trailhead.
This was a fairly easy hike with a few ups and downs, and only one or two rocky sections where you had to watch your footing. The landscape around us was incredibly lush and as we hiked along we marveled at the amazing variety of cacti including Saguaros, Prickly Pear, Cholla, Hedgehogs, and Barrel all mixed in among the tall Palo Verde trees and spiky Ocotillos. We even spotted a few yellow blooming brittlebrush shrubs. While we have been loving biking lately, one of the advantages to hiking is that the slower pace allows for a closer observation of the nature that surrounds you.
That nature also includes wildlife, and on this hike we saw tons of Jack Rabbits (which I will never be fast enough to get a picture of), birds of all varieties, and a rattlesnake! That’s right, we finally saw our first rattlesnake out on the trail. Normally this is not the time of year that rattlesnakes are out and about, but due to the unusually warm weather in Arizona this winter, the snakes are out in full force right now. As we hiked along the trail three different people coming the other way warned us that they had seen a rattlesnake. So we were on alert, constantly scanning left and right, making sure that we didn’t come upon one by surprise. After a few miles we still hadn’t spotted one, and were starting to feel a bit a disappointed. It sounds strange even now for me to admit that I actually wanted to see a scary, venomous snake, but the more I’ve learned about the nature and habits of rattlesnakes, the less scared of them I am. Eventually we came across a group of four people and two dogs stopped in the middle of the trail looking at a spot about 10-feet in the distance. Yup, it was a rattlesnake. We stopped and watched as it slowly slithered into a ball, raised its head and rattled its tail. The message was clear- stay away, this is my piece of desert! After a minute of two of picture taking (these photos are zoomed in a lot, none of us ever got closer than about 10-feet) we all moved along the trial and let the rattlesnake go back to doing whatever it is snakes do.
Compared to the rattlesnake sighting, the mine itself was pretty boring. The Dixie Mine is an old copper mine that never generated much in the way of product or money. In the late 70s it, along with the surrounding property, became part of McDowell Mountain Park.
We skipped the hike over to the mine, where I read there was really nothing to see, and continued on the trial up to the top of an overlook. From there we had a sweeping view of the Superstition Mountain range in the distance, and the town of Fountain Hills, along with its very famous fountain below. The 300-foot tall fountain in the middle of town is the 5th tallest in the world and only goes off for 15 minutes every hour. We’ve seen it from afar a few times, but so far haven’t got the timing right to view it up close as we drive through town.
Sunday night we switched gears completely and went out for a night on the town. We’re really not nightlife people, but a few months ago we found out that a band we love was playing in Phoenix at same time we planned to be in town. We jumped at the chance to see them and quickly purchased tickets, even extending our stay at McDowell for one night to make it work. Before the concert we decided to have dinner out. I made the mistake of assuming that since we had such a good experience at the Wilderness Brewing Co. last week, another brewery would be a good idea. I am not saying that there are no other decent breweries in Phoenix, but the one I choose was not one of them. The Sun-Up Brewery did not live up to its online reviews and was mostly a disappointment all around. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t good. We once again got a sample tray and none of the beers blew us away. In fact, the consensus was that they all tasted like the same boring beer times 6. The food was also only okay, and the service left a little to be desired. So while it wasn’t a horrible experience, we certainly won’t return and would not recommend it to others.
Onto the show. We arrived at the Crescent Ballroom just in time to catch the opening act, The Brothers Comatose. They were okay, and we recognized a few songs, but really not who we came to see. After a few songs, and a short intermission, out came The Devil Makes Three. Yay! It’s always such a thrill the first time you hear a band live that you have been listening to in your living room nearly everyday for months. This trio plays an eclectic mix of bluegrass, folk, jazz, and a bunch of other genres. Honestly, I am not really sure how to describe their music, I just know that we like it. The show was incredible and they played for a long time with no breaks or interruptions.
So that’s is for Phoenix. It was a great three weeks and we really enjoyed the two parks where we stayed, but it’s time to move on. This week we’re back in Tucson at the Gilbert Ray park, and then we’ll be moving on to some previously unexplored places south and east. Can’t wait!