Best Hike to See the Sonoran Desert (2011)

Spring Valley Trail, Hells Canyon Wilderness

Despite the hellacious name of this wilderness area just north of Lake Pleasant, the Spring Valley Trail is a kid-friendly hike, according to some Internet guides. We found it well defined and maintained, but it's not all that cushy, thanks to the climbs into and out of the many arroyos, or desert washes. From Lake Pleasant Drive or Highway 74, take Castle Hot Springs Road north a short way to the trailhead parking lot. Most people end their hike in one of the washes about 2.5 miles from the start, though would-be explorers can bushwhack down the wash or elsewhere. Even if you go in only a mile or so, you'll have a quintessential desert experience that pulls you into a pristine wonderland of healthy-looking saguaros, cholla, palo verdes, wildflowers (in February), and other desert flora. The place was a regular Serengeti on our outing: We encountered several wild burros, range cattle, and — best of all — a fully grown desert tortoise nestled in a shady cubbyhole of dried mud. We left him alone, as you should do if you find him or his siblings. No doubt, other Sonoran creatures — like rattlesnakes — can be found in this still-wild spot, so keep your finger on the shutter button. And get ready to run like hell.


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