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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Desert beaches and a “hang five” saguaro

San Tan Mountain Regional Park, Queen Creek
Rock Peak and the Malpais Hills

the "hang five" crested saguaro
Part of the fun of visiting this desert park on the southeastern fringe of Maricopa County is the drive down Ellsworth Road through Queen Creek.  It’s a 13-mile stretch of cow pastures, cotton farms and horse corrals tossed together with acres of stucco and strip malls.  At the base of this suburban-rural interface is San Tan Mountain Regional Park—10,200 acres of pristine Sonoran Desert with 20 miles of shared-used trails ranging in difficulty from easy to strenuous. All of the park's nine trails are well-signed and laid out so users can easily cobble custom treks, but when the park ranger told me there was a rare crested saguaro and a petroglyph site on the San Tan Trail (SA) , choosing a route was a no-brainer for me.  Using the park map available for free at the visitor center, I planned my hike around those two features.  Except for a few places where the trail follows sandy washes---which is similar to strolling on a beach---the route is a walk in the park.  One short, minor climb leads to the crest of a ridge with astonishing views the park's signature geological features---Rock Peak and the Malpais Hills.  From this breezy vantage point, you can do a visual walk through of the return leg of the hike.  The petroglyph site is located a quarter-mile downhill from the crest.  Look for a jumble of granite on the left.  The rock art here appears to be quite ancient and only one incised design stands out. To see the crested saguaro, continue past the Rock Peak Wash junction, turn right to stay on SA and hike a few yards to where the trail makes a sharp left swerve and heads up an embankment.  From here, you can catch a first glimpse the plant’s famous “hang five” (or "I Love You" in American Sign Language)  gesture about 0.1-mile down the path.   To complete the loop, continue hiking north and take any of these connector trails: Hedgehog, Moonlight or Goldmine-Littleleaf.
Sonoran Desert "beach"

LENGTH:  7.4-mile loop (6.4 on San Tan, 0.4 on Goldmine, 0.6 mile on Littleleaf)
RATING:  moderate-difficult
ELEVATION:  1,160’ – 1,800’
FEE: $6 daily fee per vehicle
FACILITIES: restrooms, water, visitor center, wildlife exhibit, tortoise habitat, ranger-led activities
HOURS: open 365 days a year, Sunday-Thursday: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
PETS: leashed pets are allowed
From Phoenix, travel east on US60 to Ellsworth Road exit 191.  Follow Ellsworth 13.6 miles south (Ellsworth turns into Hunt Highway after about 12 miles) to Thompson Road (traffic signal), turn south (right) and go 2.1 miles to Phillips Road, turn right again and continue 1 mile to the park entrance.
INFO: Maricopa County Parks & Recreation, 480-655-5554

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