Lilia Menconi worries about out-of-town hikers.
“They stay at resorts where someone tells them, ‘Everybody hikes Camelback Mountain!’” says Menconi, a champion hiker and author of several books on the subject, including last year’s Take a Hike Phoenix, which covers 82 different local trails. “And so they head out, unprepared, and they get sick.”
Even for seasoned hikers, hiking the desert can be dangerous and full of unknown obstacles they wouldn’t find along the more temperate Pacific Coast Trail or the Appalachian Trail in the east, Menconi says.
She has hard-and-fast rules about hiking when it’s hot out — like trying to keep hikes under four miles during summer months. “And remember that a hike you start at sunrise is going to get progressively hotter and more dangerous.”
She favors nighttime hikes for that reason, though hiking at dusk also has its dangers. “You’re racing against the sunset, and you don’t want to get stuck on a trail in the dark.”
Knowing when the trail opens and closes isn’t a bad idea. “Do the math. A two-mile hike that starts at 5 p.m. means you’re getting off the trail at 7 or 8. Is the temperature miserable at that time? I always tell people to work it out in advance and plan to be off the trail a half-hour after sunset.”
Wearing a headlamp or carrying a flashlight is imperative for nighttime hikes and sticking to familiar trails during high-risk times of year is probably wise. “And please tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back,” Menconi implores.
There is no rule more important, in Menconi’s book, than the one about water. “For every two miles, bring a liter bottle of water,” she cautions. “Remember that those water bottles add weight and affect your effort.”
Wetting her hair and her shirt is something Menconi does to stay cool on a hike. She carries a squirt bottle for misting and sometimes wraps a plastic bag of ice cubes in a bandana and lets it melt as she hikes.
When half of your drinking water is gone, Menconi says, it’s time to turn around and head for home. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve made it to the top or not. It’s better to be alive than to say you made your goal for the day.”
If you take along your dog, make sure you pack extra bottles of water, too. Better yet, don’t take your dog for a daytime hike in the summertime, at all. (You may not even have the option; for example, hikers are not allowed to bring dogs on trails within the city of Phoenix once the temperature hits 100 degrees.)
“I have that rule for people, too,” Menconi says. “In the summertime in the desert, dusk or dawn are your only healthy choices. And any time of year, the point of hiking is to enjoy yourself, get some good exercise, and come home safely.”
Here are a few of Menconi's favorite easy-to-moderate hikes for the summer months:
Quartz Ridge Trail at 32nd Street and Lincoln Drive is a little more than two miles long with an elevation gain of 500 feet.
“I like to keep my hikes short and shady in the summer, and this one follows a wash between two mountains, so you get shade almost the entire time. There’s a nice mellow start, then one or two baby hills. At the end of the bigger climb you wind up at a bench where you can see mountains to the north and the city to the south. And for some reason, I always meet the nicest people on that trail.”
An easier hike can be had along Cat’s Peaks Loop via the Blevins Trail. Located in the east Valley's Usery Mountain Regional Park, this one is about three miles long. “But there’s no climbing, just walking,” Menconi promises. “The elevation gain is maybe 300 feet, and it’s a flat, fine-dirt trail. It’s not very rocky, and you get beautiful views of the Usery range and the Superstition Mountains, and you don’t have to climb way up to see them.”
Cat’s Peaks Loop is busy with wildlife — mostly birds and lizards — as well as lots of pretty cholla and desert vegetation. “For a stretch of desert, it’s very lush,” Menconi says. “It’s peaceful and quiet and not very crowded, especially at dusk.”
There’s a greater elevation gain — nearly 1,300 feet — along the Black Mountain Trail out near Cave Creek. This one’s for more seasoned hikers, Menconi cautions. “It’s in a very small preserve, and there’s not much of a parking lot. The hike itself is a straight shot up and a really hard workout. The summit is at 3,400 feet and gives you a pretty unobstructed view of the whole valley. If you make it all the way there, you’re really in shape.”