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The Phoenix Sonoran Preserve is a little slice of wilderness surrounded by city.

Nestled in northern reaches of the endless suburban sprawl of the Phoenix metro area, the Sonoran Preserve is often busy with hikers and mountain bikers.

Beyond the confines of the park, views look out upon suburb neighborhoods, freeways, and strip malls. However, it is possible to escape the city and pretend you are out in the middle of nowhere.

Choose the correct trail, climb up over a ridge, and descend into a gorgeous valley surrounded by hills, man’s constructions hidden from view. The complexities of civilization will all but melt away (until a soccer mom runs by listening to Pandora radio on speaker-phone).

Come in March after a wet winter and the hills will be alive with wildflowers. This is my favorite time to come. While other photographers are clamoring out to Peridot Mesa, Picacho Peak, or Lost Dutchman, this little city preserve not 15 minutes from my home has just as spectacular a wildflower show.

In fact, this is exactly what makes the Sonoran Preserve a favorite of mine. It’s close to home. And yet, I can find magic here.


Photo: Jake Case

Finding Space

Valle Verde is Spanish for Green Valley. A name bestowed on my favorite trail in the preserve, the valley it traverses is an oasis of open space. I love arriving at sunrise.

Descending the hillside, the sun slowly illuminates the eastern sky over the distant McDowell Mountains. The lights of the city of Cave Creek are visible in the distance but soon disappear below the horizon when reaching the valley floor.

While this space is open, it is not empty. Rich with Sonoran Desert vegetation, the rolling slopes are filled with brittlebush, bursage, saguaro, and cholla. After the winter rains replenish the earth with lifeblood, the shrubs change from dormant grays and browns to vibrant greens and yellows.

The only disruptions from the world of man beyond the trail traffic is the occasional airplane flying overhead. Otherwise, it may as well be a remote location a million miles from anywhere.

Of course, sometimes an aircraft overhead is a welcome sight: hot air balloons. A local company operates their balloons nearby, on a near-daily basis, so a morning or evening visit often includes these floating majesties as part of the experience.

Sometimes they even fly in low while catching a gust of wind. These low altitude fly-bys make for incredible photo opportunities.


Photo: Jake Case

Wildflower Wonderland

It isn’t every year that the wildflowers go crazy, but after a few abnormally wet winter rains, the Preserve will burst with blooming color. The most spectacular are the famed carpets of Mexican Gold Poppies that spring from the west-facing hillsides.

And they are just as spectacular as the ones at all the more famous places. Not as photogenic, but just as jaw-dropping to witness with your own eyes are the fields of blue scorpionweed. Also known as wild heliotrope, it has a bittersweet smell that can be both alluring or repugnant, often at same time.

Sprinkled in are others, like the lupines and their tall blue pinnacles – a suiting compliment to the poppies. Or with a bit of luck, one may encounter an evening primrose, with petals still open in the morning light. These must be spotted early in the morning as they bloom at night and then close their petals when the sun shines upon them.

Even the cactus put on a wildflower performance, with shades of red, purple, yellow, and tangerine. Come through in May or June when the temperatures start to skyrocket, and the giant saguaros may even bloom. Hike up a hillside to get the higher perspective as these flowers are perched atop the saguaro’s arms, twenty or thirty feet off the ground.


Photo: Jake Case

Back to the Bustle

Inevitably, a jaunt into the Sonoran Preserve will come to an end, and then it’s back to the grind. But also part of the beauty of it. Get your nature fix, decompress, and then head off to work or back home.

It’s not a full on wilderness experience, but a quick and easy place to grab a little respite from 21st century life. The Sonoran Preserve won’t replace a trip to the real backcountry, but it will keep you sane until your next big trip out of town.

Jake Case

Jake is a naturalist, writer, and landscape photographer from Arizona. A geographer by education, he’s worked as a park ranger with the National Park Service, a tour guide at the Grand Canyon South Rim, and a docent at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. Jake has seriously practiced landscape photography since 2009. You can learn more about Jake on the About page.

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