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Desert Trail in the Phoenix Area

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Life (and water) in the desert

Want to run in the desert? It's a great place to run, especially in the winter. But it's not so easy. First off, if you are in a big city like Phoenix, the desert is not so nearby as it used to be. The city and suburbs have spread out so far that many of our best, and most accessible, desert trails are now somebody's back yard. Literally. It used to be that you could run right out your door and soon be chasing jackrabbits through the cactus. But don't despair. There are still some great running trails in the central deserts of Arizona. There are lots of dirt roads and some winding single tracks out there somewhere.

But one of our favorite trail running spots is just about in the middle of the city. It's in a place called Papago Park. I used to run there twenty years ago and although the jets now pass overhead on their way to the Phoenix airport, this piece of desert has been mostly left alone since then. And for busy city runners, the things they have added are welcome: like restrooms and water fountains. There is a zoo and there are even a couple of little ponds (with desert ducks swimming around) near the parking area. If you are visiting Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, or Scottsdale, you could even take a city bus to get there.

This desert park is shared by bikers, hikers, and picnickers. But once you are out onto the trails you won't see many others. Here's how you get there. Papago Park is east of Phoenix, southwest of Scottsdale, and northwest of Tempe. It is easy to get to, between Washington street on the south and McDowell street on the north. You can drive in from either street. Park near the restrooms and picnic areas for best access to the many trails. You will be able to spot the trails because they have been well worn by the bikers. Since it is a favorite spot for mountain bikers you have to keep your eyes peeled. But there are not too many of them out there on weekdays.

From the parking area, the main trails head northwest - but there are plenty of other routes in the area. If you head northwest on one of the trails you will be heading for a large chunk of pock-marked red rock in the distance. I mean really large - like a really big hill, made entirely out of red rock. Those pockmarks are caves in the face of the rock and one of the trails goes right up to and into them. The trails cross the main road through the park (be careful, there are two separate roads) and head for those big rocks. In that area, along the western border of the park, you will probably scare up fast jackrabbits in front of you as you run. Some runners try to keep up with them but there is no real chance of catching them. A fast runner could run down a jackrabbit, if they didn't turn and go through the brush and cactus - which they always do.

Watch your footing: the park's trails are mostly smooth, but if you venture off them it gets rocky. And they say there are rattlesnakes and coyotes in there too, but few have ever seen them.

There are trails all the way around the big rocks and along the golf course that makes up the western border of the park. By the way, don't run on the golf course: for some reason the golfers REALLY don't like it. There must be some kind of natural antipathy there.

Although the desert of Papago Park is not the real desert (because it is bounded on all sides by roads and neighborhoods), it is a good-sized reminder of what the desert around Phoenix used to be like. Plenty of bikers and hikers in there, and some serious trail runners too. As you run along the winding trails it is easy to forget you are in the middle of a big metropolitan area.

By the TrailRunningUSA staff
Copyright 2000 by TrailRunningUSA

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