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Monday, May 21, 2018

The Trails at Desert Mountain

The Trails at Desert Mountain
China Wall Loop 
At the risk of inciting an uproar, be warned--I’m about to write about private hiking trails.
I hear you. What? Why? Don’t tease me! 
In fact, I wrestled with this one myself, and ultimately decided that although only residents and invited guests may hike on The Trails at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, the story of their development is an inspiration.
A Sugar Sumac tree shades a trail
Many of us traipse along Arizona trails never giving a thought about how they got there or who takes care of them. 
Desperados Trail Scouts prep to lead guided hikes
Some hikers I’ve encountered believe that tax dollars and some mysterious well-funded branch of government plans, builds and hires the magic fairies who fix damage and haul out dog poop and trash.  Although some trails are within the domain of federal, state and city governments, they may also receive additional support from non-profit agencies and volunteers. Other trails exist solely by the efforts of individuals who raised funds, secured land, built the trails and made the ongoing commitment to maintain them.  If you’ve hiked anywhere in the Greater Phoenix area, you’ve likely benefited from the efforts of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, Desert Foothills Land Trust, Maricopa Trail & Parks Foundation and the Arizona Trail Association. These are just a few examples of foundations that work tirelessly to save land from development and build trails for our use. The work isn’t reserved for public lands.
The trails are surrounded with lush desert vegetation 
Private communities are stepping up to preserve precious swaths of Sonoran Desert for the protection of indigenous plant and animal species, sensitive ecosystems and responsible recreational activities. One group that champions the cause in the private sector is the Desert Mountain Community Foundation and the Desperados Trail Scouts.

Ocotillo and agave decorate a scenic highpoint 
The trails share a border with Tonto National Forest
When you stand on the 4890-foot highpoint of the Desert Mountain Trails System, you’re witnessing a miracle of sorts.
“Look to the right and you’ll see 3 million people. Look to the left and you’ll see 3 million acres,” says Troy Gillenwater, community resident and one of the founders of the private North Scottsdale trails.  “It’s a buffer zone between civilization and wilderness,” adds co-founder Bob Borsch. 

Inspired by the beauty and potential of the mountainous, 3000-acre parcel that shares five miles of border with the Tonto National Forest, Gillenwater and Borsch set out to preserve the developer/investor-owned land.
Skull Mesa on the western horizon
During exploratory hikes within the property, Gillenwater bushwhacked through pristine swaths of high desert and chaparral discovering incredible bio-diversity, washes, springs, geological features, historic artifacts and abandoned mine prospects.  
The two men decided to harness their respective skill sets and business acumen into preserving ownership of the site.
Views of McDowell Sonoran Preserve peaks to the south

In 2010, the Desert Mountain community residents raised $72 million in 72 days to purchase all community assets from the developer, including six golf courses, clubhouses and 3000 acres of pristine Sonoran Desert adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. All funds came from community members.  With ownership in the hands of the Desert Mountain community versus the developer, the land was protected from development.  Today, 2700 acres of the site are zoned as conservation/open space in perpetuity.  It will never be developed.
The award-winning trails run through pristine desert

The next step was to plan and build a sustainable trail system.  Gillenwater and Borsch rallied community residents to step up and donate all the needed funds.  Matt Woodson of internationally-acclaimed Okanogan Trail Construction was contracted to build the 15-mile stacked loop network that offers a mix of easy walks and aggressive summit climbs that top out at nearly 5000 feet.  The first trails in the system were opened in 2012 and won the 2013 American Trails International Award for Best Developer Trails.
Hikers navigate the 15-mile trail system

Of course, a trail system this good begs to be shared.
On April 15, 2018, the Desperados Trail Scouts hosted their first annual Desert Mountain Wilderness Hiking Invitational.  Several area hiking clubs were invited to participate in a day of fun, networking and hiking.  The Desperados offered several guided hikes. I participated in the China Wall-Sunset Summit Loop, a moderate-rated trip through some of the most lush desert I’ve seen in the area.  On the trail’s highpoint, views of suburban homes and golf courses lapping at the edges of surrounding mountain ranges and national forest clearly illustrate the vulnerability of our precious open spaces.

Troy Gillenwater and Bob Borsch at The Ranch trailhead
With the land protected and the core trail system in place, objectives for the site continue to evolve.  Some ideas on the table include linking with the Valley-circumnavigating Maricopa Trail and adopting nearby Tonto National Forest trails.  Although no concrete plans are in place, it’s possible that communities like Desert Mountain could follow the Arizona Trail Gateway Communities model of providing support and facilities for long distance hikers.  
Trailhead kiosk recognizes project movers & shakers

If you think these exclusive trails don’t matter because you can’t hike them, consider the following the next time you’re hiking the trails around Skull Mesa and Seven Springs. Those untouched mountain peaks and natural geological formations you see on the southern horizon instead of homes are there because a community worked to preserve your view.
The private land is not a barrier, it’s a bridge. 

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