McDowell Mountain Preserve

McDowell Mountain Preserve Hike

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve, about 20 miles north east of Phoenix, is the largest urban preserve in the United States. It contains roughly 30,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert and the majority of the McDowell Mountains. The Preserve has lots of trails with varying degrees of difficulty. This morning I hiked the Gateway Loop, a 4.5 mile trail considered moderately difficult with an elevation gain of 650 feet.

barrel cactus in bloom
The weather was spectacular – perfect for a morning hike. The ocotillo and hedgehog cacti were in bloom, along with other native plants. I only saw one barrel cactus in bloom, and the picture from my trusty cell phone is negligibly good enough to post. The barrel cactus typically bloom in April, so maybe I’ll go back next month and try again.

McDowell Mountain Preserve

The signature Southwest saguaro gets its name from the Mayo Uto-Aztecan language. This saguaro at the beginning of the trail is hundreds of years old. Saguaro, if they grow a side arm, don’t do so until they are 75 to 100 years old.

The saguaro flower is Arizona’s state flower (they bloom in May), and the saguaro are protected by law. If you want to destroy or move a saguaro in Arizona, a special permit is required. Lots of saguaros have round holes in them created by birds, such as purple martins and Gila woodpeckers that create nests in them. Abandoned saguaro homes are often re-used by owls and wrens.



hedgehogs blooming



The hedgehog cacti were plentiful and in beautiful full bloom. The flowers will yield fruit that desert rodents feed on.





buckhorn cholla


The buckhorn cholla is widespread across the Southwest. Native Americans ate buckhorn cholla buds, which are said to taste like asparagus. Buckhorn cholla buds were an important part of their scarce early spring diet.





McDowell Mountain Quartzite

The McDowell Mountains are primarily made of quartzite, shale, and granite. This is an outcrop of quartzite, a metamorphic rock that began as quartz sandstone. This outcrop is relatively new as the iron in it has not yet oxidized, making it look red like much of the surrounding rock. The sedimentary rock that once raised the McDowell Mountains almost 1,000 feet higher has eroded and fill the surrounding valleys, including Phoenix.


The vigorous hike in the McDowell Mountain Preserve was the perfect way to start a Saturday morning! I’ll have to do it again soon.

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