Hiking in the American Southwest
This March 2014 photo shows contoured patterns in the endless white sand dunes at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The park offers other-worldly scenery, bringing to mind a blizzard or a beach when in fact it is a desert. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
This March 2014 photo shows a visitor kneeling in Rock Hound State Park in New Mexico. The park allows visitors to collect up to 15 pounds of rocks, including salmon-pink jasper and translucent quartz. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
This March 2014 photo shows spring wildflowers blooming amid the red rocks of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Ariz. The 2,704-foot-high mountain offers 360-degree views of distant mountain ranges and closer views of golf courses and pools. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
This March 2014 photo shows visitors on a ranger-led hike in White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. A yucca plant and footprints punctuate the endless white sand desert. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
This March 2014 photo shows hikers in Sabino Canyon Recreation Area just north of Tucson, Ariz. It's one of a number of parks in the region that offer sunshine, scenery and peaceful hiking trails. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
This 2014 picture shows cactuses and spring flowers on the Norris Trail of Saguaro National Park in Arizona. The park, divided into two districts with the city of Tucson in between them, offers hikers sunny, peaceful trails. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
This March 2014 photo shows visitors descending a steep portion of the Camelback Mountain trail in Phoenix, Ariz. The 2,704-foot-high mountain offers 360-degree views of distant mountain ranges and closer views of golf courses and pools, all framed by tall saguaros and blooming wildflowers. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
‘Excuse me, coming through, sorry, thank you!” I kept repeating loudly and urgently as I hiked up Picacho Peak, which rises like a Western saddle from the endless desert just off Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.
With not a soul in sight among the saguaro cactuses and splashes of yellow desert marigolds, this was my improvised technique to keep rattlesnakes away. A snake phobia had mostly confined me to the car, or on horseback, in dozens of trips to the Southwest. But the combination of a winter spent in Minnesota’s polar vortex and life events that made being afraid of invertebrates a quaint concern, pushed me onto the trails on a two-week trip this spring.
In seven parks from Phoenix to near El Paso, I wandered barefoot across blindingly white sand dunes, climbed on all fours over red boulders, trekked to waterfalls deep in a canyon and played rockhound for a day. Some highlights:
Two-story-high saguaros, ocotillo bushes tipped with scarlet blooms and blossoming palo verde trees border the steeply rising switchbacks on the first mile of the Hugh Norris Trail in the western district of Saguaro National Park.
Although Tucson bisects the park’s two districts, silence on the trail is unbroken. I even stopped clapping my hands, a snake-chasing technique suggested by hikers startled by my monologue.
Deep inside Bear Canyon, seven waterfalls gurgled amid rocky walls studded with cactus and spring flowers. This 8-mile round-trip hike in Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, just north of Tucson, is a parade of Southwest wilderness bests: saguaro stands silhouetted against mountain peaks, a cottonwood-lined river gorge and chilly rock pools, perfect for dipping battered feet.
Rocks all around
Follow I-10 east more than 100 miles from Tucson. Then head toward the border to either Rock Hound State Park, in Deming, N.M., or Chiricahua National Monument, Ariz.
On the last 13 miles of the trip, from I-10 to Rock Hound, only three moving objects crossed my road: a Border Patrol truck, a longhorn steer and a tumbleweed nearly as large as the other two.
The park allows visitors to collect up to 15 pounds of rocks, and I filled my pockets with salmon-pink jasper and translucent quartz. I also picked up a weird, pimpled round rock, about 4 inches across. The nearby Red Roof Rock Shop sawed it in two to reveal gorgeous sparkling blue agate nestled against pale violet rhyolite, a type of rock known as a thunderegg. Take that, snakes.
Strolling from bright marker to marker across white dunes, as the wind obliterated my footprints, I could have been in a blizzard or on a beach.
But a few tall, spiky yucca plants sprouting from the gypsum sand signaled that this was desert, part of 275 square miles of constantly shifting dunes at White Sands National Monument. The remote area sits in the middle of a missile range in southern New Mexico.
Crawling up Camelback
One of the most iconic Southwest hikes is smack in the middle of metro Phoenix.
The experience of clambering up the 2,704-foot Camelback Mountain starts with fighting for a parking spot and ends with the rush of bagging a genuine peak. Hikers use metal handrails in spots to pull themselves up the red rocks.
I took in 360-degree views of distant mountain ranges and closer golf courses and pools, framed by tall saguaros, blooming and fragrant creosote, and orange poppy buds.