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McDowell Sonoran Preserve

April 14-17, 2013

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Photo of tall cactus with three arms

Sajuaro cactus

Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve will be highlighted at American Trails International Trails Symposium

By Scott Hamilton, Preserve Planner, City of Scottsdale Preservation Division

The Sonoran Desert is like no other place on earth. With an average rainfall of seven inches per year and maximum summer temperatures that can exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit, you would expect an environment that is lifeless and desolate.

Your mind may conjure images of scrawny coyotes and roadrunners engaged in cartoon antics, with a backdrop of isolated, withering vegetation dotting a lifeless landscape of bare rock.

If you come and visit, you will find the exact opposite. The Sonoran Desert is teeming with diverse plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. Many have developed unique adaptations that allow them to not only survive the extreme climate conditions, but to thrive.

The Phoenix Metropolitan Area, also referred to as the Valley of the Sun, or the Valley for short, lies within the northern region of the 120,000-square mile Sonoran Desert. The Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the site chosen for the 2013 International Trails Symposium, is located in the northeastern corner of the Valley. Nearby communities include the Town of Fountain Hills, and the Cities of Scottsdale and Mesa.

photo of building in desert

Gateway Trailhead for the McDowell Sonoran Preserve
(photo by bill timmerman)

The Tonto National Forest, totaling almost 3 million acres, lies to the east, and the 20,000-acre McDowell Mountain Regional Park, managed by Maricopa County, is located to the north. West of the County Park lies the City of Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Combined, these areas are refuges for the unique plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert, and provide residents and visitors to the Valley unsurpassed recreational opportunities, including countless miles of trails, lakes, rivers, campgrounds, and more.

If you have not visited this area before, the 2013 International Trails Symposium will be a superb opportunity to experience all that it has to offer. If you have visited our area in the past, the Symposium is a terrific occasion to reacquaint yourself with the wonders of the Sonoran Desert, and to visit the many natural areas and recreational opportunities that have sprung up since you were last here.

Photo of flowers on cactus

Blooming hedgehog cactus with Staghorn cholla
(photo by scott hamilton)

One opportunity that has recently arisen is the City of Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The Preserve, as it is known for short, is located approximately twelve miles northeast of downtown Scottsdale and eight miles west of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. The Preserve contains the McDowell Mountains and surrounding foothills, and thousands of acres of undeveloped Sonoran Desert habitat.

The vision for the Preserve began in the early 1990s, spurred by the Scottsdale citizens through the non-profit McDowell Sonoran Land Trust (now the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy). In the 1980s, residential development began creeping into the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, alarming many people who felt a personal ownership of the mountains and surrounding desert.

These were areas they had frequently visited and explored on foot, bike, and horseback, many beginning when they were young children. The common sentiment was that they did not want to see private development spread into these areas that were so important to them.

In 1995, the vision for the Preserve was galvanized when the Scottsdale voters approved a 0.20% increase to the City’s sales tax for the purpose of purchasing land for permanent preservation. The planning boundary at that time contained the McDowell Mountains and surrounding foothills.

Photo of tall cactus and seating area

Amphitheater at Gateway (photo by chris brown)

In 1998, the Preserve boundary was expanded to the north, encompassing a large area of Sonoran Desert studded by smaller mountain peaks including Cholla, Granite, Brown’s, and Fraesfield Mountains. In 2004, the Scottsdale voters approved an additional 0.15% increase to the sales tax to purchase the lands within the expanded boundary. When complete, the Preserve will encompass 34,000 acres, equal to one-third of the City of Scottsdale’s land area.

To date, the City of Scottsdale has permanently protected 17,000 acres of the McDowell Mountains and surrounding Sonoran Desert. The mountains, named for Civil War General Irvin McDowell, are comprised of a series of mountain peaks topping out at just over 4,000 feet above sea level.

Since 2005, the City has constructed 60 miles of multiple-use (non-motorized) trails, and eight trailheads ranging in size from parking lots with 15 spaces and limited amenities, to the largest trailhead, known as the Gateway Trailhead.

Photo of solar panels on roof

PV panels on gateway maintenance building (photo by bill timmerman)

The Gateway is centrally located to the Preserve and includes 300 passenger vehicle parking spaces, 12 horse trailer parking spaces, hitching rails, a water trough, restrooms, shade ramadas, drinking fountains, a small amphitheater for educational sessions, staff offices, and a maintenance facility. The Gateway is also home to the Bajada Nature Trail, a half-mile, barrier-free interpretive trail.

The Gateway Trailhead was awarded LEED Platinum certification by the United States Green Building Council, one of only a handful of facilities in Arizona to achieve this highest level of certification. The Gateway excels in water and energy efficiency, and was constructed with a significant quantity of recycled materials, dramatically reducing the facility’s impact on the natural environment.

Building materials, window placement, and high efficiency HVAC equipment combine to create a building that is 65% more efficient than typical structures. Dual flush toilets and efficient fixtures save roughly 250,000 gallons of water annually compared to traditional systems. Approximately 50,000 gallons of rainwater are collected each year, providing 100% of the water that is used for landscape irrigation.

Photo of cactus and hikers

Hikers on the Gateway Loop Trail
(photo by Stuart Macdonald)

Building walls are comprised of rammed earth constructed with 95% site-salvaged soil and 5% Portland cement. The roof of the building is covered with site-salvaged native desert rock cobble, which allows it to disappear into the desert landscape when viewed from the mountains above. The building contains more than 30% recycled materials and 47% regionally produced materials. A photovoltaic power system produces 29,000 kWh per year, meeting 100% of the electrical power needs of the facility.

Most important to the visitors of the Gateway is the opportunity to access the many miles of trails within the McDowell Mountains. These trails range in length and difficulty, from the quarter-mile, barrier-free Bajada Nature Trail with little elevation change, to the ten-mile loop created by the Windgate Pass and Bell Pass Trails with a total elevation gain of 2,000 vertical feet.

The most popular trail accessed from the Gateway Trailhead is the Gateway Loop Trail. The route from the Gateway Trailhead, around the Gateway Loop Trail and back, totals 4.5 miles with an elevation change of 650 vertical feet. The trail circles one of the lower peaks of the McDowell Mountains and crosses over a scenic pass known as Gateway Saddle.

Some sections of the trail give users the feeling of being isolated within the Sonoran Desert environment, while other portions provide fantastic views of the Phoenix Metro Area. Overall, the Gateway Trailhead at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve offers something for everyone. Come and experience it for yourself!

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve and the Gateway Trailhead are a short drive from the site of the American Trails International Trails Symposium. We hope to see you in 2013!


Scott Hamilton can be reached at or
(480) 312-7722.

For more information on Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve, go to

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