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Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert is one of the most vibrant and unique deserts in the world. Learn about things to do in the desert in Greater Phoenix, including sites, views, hikes and more. 

Some say deserts are nothing but sand and wind, but the Sonoran Desert disagrees. This vast landscape holds whispered puzzles, with clues hidden in the coyote’s howl, the cactus wren’s chatter, the rustle of mesquite branches. Let your first glance linger, and you’ll find abundant life and beauty. Shadows flirt with red rocks. Palo verde trees sway. Sandstone buttes transform into red-ochre poetry.

Petroglyph Hikes

Petroglyphs—rock carvings left behind by ancient civilizations—can still be seen on these local…

This desert’s secrets begin with water. By definition, there shouldn’t be any —the absence of water is what signifies a desert. But not in the Sonoran, where torrents can pour furiously from the sky. Even in August, monsoon rains may inundate canyons. Water quickly evaporates above ground, but below the surface it nourishes the world’s lushest desert, where 2,000 plant species thrive. Year-round, the succulents win our attention — towering saguaros, chubby barrel cactuses, branching chollas. But in spring, delicate wildflowers compete for the limelight, painting the desert floor in a fleeting, phantasmagoric show of golden poppies, blue-purple lupine, yellow brittlebush and red-flowered chuparosa.

In the Sonoran Desert, paradoxes abound. Ocotillos appear as lifeless branches most of the year, but after a few hours of rain, their limbs sprout hundreds of green leaves and flaming red tubular flowers. The ironwood’s delicate branches float in the air like ballerinas, but its trunk is one of the world’s heaviest hardwoods. Teddy bear chollas look cuddly, but a careless brush with one leads to tedious hours with tweezers. Greater roadrunner, master of contradictions, may act as calmly as a family pet around people. But a pair will team up like trained assassins to dispense with a diamondback rattlesnake.

Saguaros, reaching their green limbs to the afternoon sky, hold their own mysteries. Their long appendages make them look strangely human, but they’re actually prickly sentinels with sharp protective spines that discourage interlopers. All except the Gila woodpecker and the gilded flicker, who carve boot-shape holes in the saguaro’s trunk and lay their eggs, or the occasional Harris’s hawk who nests in a saguaro’s cradling arms.

 

Sometimes the desert’s secrets take the form of deception. The cactus wren plays a shell game, building multiple nests in a tall chain-fruit cholla but depositing eggs in only one. From the ground, a hungry coyote or fox can only guess where the precious treasure lies. Gentle chuckwalla, a lizard who lives on grasses and plants, survives by deploying a magic trick: When chased, it wedges into a rock crevice and puffs up its air sacs, making it impossible for a predator to extract it.

Sunsets and Scenic Views

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But the desert’s most lavish trickery happens almost every evening, when sunset comes as a revelation. Columns of clouds build to a crescendo. Shafts of sunlight poke through the firmament, then disappear. Horizontal flames of maroon and vermilion ignite the sky. Science can explain the desert’s extravagant sunsets: Dry air sharpens the light; high-elevation clouds decrease wavelengths and reflect colors. But science goes only so far. The spot where the golden orb dips below the horizon grabs our attention, but it’s just a sliver of the action. Sunset magic occurs in the desert’s full spectrum of sky. Ranges to the north, south and east glow lavender in the cooling light as alpenglow floods the sky. Topography pencils in the lines — endless muted folds of mountains, deep-shadow buttes and horizons far enough to inspire dreams.

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