Eat, pray, love.
Nice sentiment, but I prefer to eat, hike, nap. Better yet: Hike, eat, nap — and you can do all three with little effort in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Although a city of modest size (population 230,000), Scottsdale sits in the heart of the Phoenix Metro megopolis (population 4.5 million), so you’d expect to cover a few miles in order to find enough open space to provide decent hiking trails.
Not so; Scottsdale residents have decided to spend their resources buying and annexing huge chunks of “green desert” that is open to all.
The city has designated these 30,000-plus acres the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, and within its boundaries is a priceless portion of the Sonoran Desert.
The Sonoran covers a substantial portion of Arizona, northwestern Mexico and Baja California, and a bit of California,
Scottsdale’s green acres make up one-third of the city’s total acreage and is the largest city-owned preserve in the country. Thanks to sales-tax monies and the nonprofit McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, this land is forever safe from development and available to hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers.
Though it sounds oxymoronic, “the Sonoran Desert is the greenest desert in the world,” explains Arizona Outback Adventure trail guide Steve Sproviero. The New Jersey transplant and retired business owner has led outdoor adventures with the company for six years and his knowledge and love for the Sonoran Desert is obvious. He turns our hike on the preserve’s Gateway Trail (rated moderately difficult) into a nature lesson. Sproviero points out that the variety of cactuses here is greater than anywhere else on Earth. The reason: twice-a-year rain storms (winter and summer).
Taking center stage in the preserve is the saguaro, unique to the Sonoran Desert. Because of recent rains, these saguaros are plump and green and surrounded by thousands of beavertail, barrels, prickly pear, fishhook, hedgehog and cholla. Taking in the preserve’s panorama from the Gateway Saddle at 2,375 feet, the landscape appears deeply verdant, and I’m envious that visitors who visit in March and April will see a spectacular bloom. Visit mcdowellsonoran.org.
For those wanting a less strenuous hike with plenty of vegetational variety, there is the preserve’s Bajada Nature Trail (.4 miles). Flat and accessible to wheelchairs and strollers, the trail features interactive exhibits that educate visitors about the Sonoran ecosystem.
For a guaranteed look at every bloomin’ thing the desert has to offer, we head to the Desert Botanical Garden on the southwestern border of Scottsdale.
We spend the afternoon strolling through its 50,000 acres (divided into five themed areas), and enjoy a superb lunch at Gertrude’s, named after the garden’s founder. (The blackened scallops are to-die-for. Gertrudesrestaurant.net.) We are too early for the Big Bloom, but we see species we’d never see otherwise. The garden also offers multiple creative and artistic ideas for drought-tolerant landscaping. Visit dbg.org.
All of this walking and hiking justifies an evening of dining at FnB (fnbwww.fnbrestaurant.com), an acclaimed bistro in downtown Scottsdale.
“We are a true-blue American restaurant,” says owner/manager Pavle Milic. “We are seasonal to a fault. You will never see peach cobbler on the menu in December, or a kiwi (anytime). We are a lens into what is going on in agriculture in Arizona — both food and wine.”
Milic reminds us that there are 110 federally bonded and licensed wineries in three wine-growing regions in the state.
As for the food, chef Charleen Badman’s specialty is doing wondrous things with vegetables, making them exciting and palatable for even those who eschew green and yellow food.
“Charleen loves to give ugly duckling vegetables a nice treatment,” Milic explains.
Take the Gilfeather rutabaga, for instance (fascinating story; Google it). Badman prepares the oddball tuber by steaming and smashing, then dressing it with tangy crème fraiche and chives.
It is a heavenly meal in itself, but the crockery bowl filled with emergo beans, roasted tomato, goat cheese and toasted crumbs (guaranteed gluten-free) also is too delicious to refuse.
For the less daring, there are always fish and meat dishes, prepared just as creatively. Milic prints a new menu each day, usually changing out two or three items.
On another evening we are hosted at Sushi Roku at the W Scottsdale (wscottsdalehotel.com), a sophisticated restaurant where sushi platters are as beautiful as they are tasty.
Manager Daniel Carr gives us a fascinating class in the brewing, grading and drinking of sake.
We learn that the best sake comes from rice that has been milled to 50 percent of its original size and is best savored by sipping.
For more about Scottsdale, including the 15th annual Nature Trails festival (through March 30; free) which celebrates the Native American cultures of the Southwest through song and dance, visit experiencescottsdale.com/
For more photos, go to facebook.com/elouise.ondash.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at firstname.lastname@example.org