Rising above Phoenix

January is prime time for mountain hikes

Aerobic mountain workout

Peak experience: A runner tackles an aerobic climb.

Jason Millstein

He's hopping boulder to boulder, a two-legged mountain goat with a heart-rate monitor strapped to one arm and his ultraminimalist hiking gear ― a lone half-liter water bottle ― cached in a waist holster. His companion is behind him, working her way much more deliberately and sanely up the trail, rapidly falling behind.

"Slow down!" she shouts.

"We're not here to have fun," he retorts. "This is a workout!"

The Echo Canyon Trail on Camelback Mountain, a knuckle of granite and sedimentary rock rising right out of east central Phoenix, climbs 1,300 feet in barely more than a mile, an angle of attack that guarantees a sweat no matter what one's pace.

But this ascent within Camelback Mountain-Echo Canyon Recreation Area also yields plenty of scenic dividends: polychromatic gardens of lichens, and boulders harassed into wonderfully improbable shapes by eons of erosion ― if you're proceeding slowly enough to notice them. On this glorious January day, perfect for any form of hiking, the aerobic maniacs appear to outnumber the scenic gawkers 3 to 1. Still, the mountain will reward any approach, except careless footing.

I have prowled around Phoenix hundreds of times, but this is my first time hiking many of the dozen-odd buttes and mountain ranges that define the valley. To a Tucson partisan, Phoenix's mountains seem, well, demure. Pass Mountain, the tallest in the city's backyard, peaks at 3,312 feet, while Tucson's Mt. Lemmon rises to 9,157. In the abstract, Phoenix seems to promise more as a winter golfing destination than as a hiking mecca.

But its mountains actually offer a surprising range of hiking opportunities and desert scenery ― everything from prickly cholla forests to prehistoric Hohokam petroglyphs. There are quad-pumping workouts, but there are also secluded canyons that draw rocky curtains on the ambient roar of the metropolis; with patience, you can spot a Gila monster or a coyote trolling for food or a mate.

The desert metropolis needs these mountain refuges as reminders of its essential nature. "You can live all your life in Phoenix and never see a cactus," complained Dick Vonier, the late editor of Phoenix magazine. That was a small exaggeration, but practically from its founding in 1868, Phoenix developed as an oasis, not as a city engaged with the desert. In the last generation, Phoenicians have realized the importance of preserving substantial parts of these islands of nature in their midst, not only for recreation but also as reminders of something greater and more enduring than our probably ephemeral civilization.

CLIMBING UP CAMELBACK

Camelback Mountain and Squaw Peak Park's Piestewa Peak, both less than 10 miles northeast of downtown Phoenix, are the best places to challenge yourself. The summit trails of both are relentless ascents; Camelback offers the tougher topography. Piestewa Peak's Circumference Trail is less grueling and much less traveled than the mountain's Summit Trail, and it presents imposing views of the rock.

Pass Mountain, the largest presence in the Usery Mountain Recreation Area, offers a delightful trek to Wind Cave ― actually a natural alcove in a rampart just below the summit. In a convincing display of nature's determination to put every piece of desert real estate to use, hanging gardens of wild geraniums, nourished by a miserly seep, grow from the alcove's ceiling.

RETRACING HOHOKAM ROUTES IN SOUTH MOUNTAIN PARK

South Mountain Park offers one of the largest repertoires of urban hikes. Phoenix touts it as the country's largest municipal park, and its 16,000-acre expanse is in fact larger than Manhattan Island. Its 58 miles of trails carve through a variety of landscapes and give dramatic views of both ancient and modern civilizations.

As an enthusiast of prehistoric Arizona, I plot a 6-mile circuit along the National Trail and Mormon Loop that promises several petroglyph sites left by the Hohokam, the desert culture that abandoned the area around 1450. One site (easy to find at marker No. 4 on the Mormon Loop) is the most elaborate Hohokam panel I've ever encountered, a constellation of rhythmic abstractions and animal, human, and spirit figures.

The Hohokam didn't build villages here, but the profusion of petroglyphs suggests that they saw it as a sacred place. Todd Bostwick, Phoenix's city archaeologist, believes that the area served the Hohokam people as a vision quest. "It was a place for a spiritual experience and a retreat from the noisy, smelly villages in the valley ― remember, they were an urban society." He adds something I wouldn't have guessed: "Almost all the modern hiking trails in South Mountain Park are essentially Hohokam ― the same trails they used."

A connection clicks: We modern urbanites likewise use the mountains as a retreat from the noisy, smelly city, and a spiritual experience is there for the taking. Even an urban mountain is a self-contained world that goes about its business without regard for the frenzy clawing at its skirt, and it will abide long after the crowds have disappeared. A mountain provides a quiet respite for those who want it and a lesson in humility for those who need it.

And a workout for the compulsives who probably can't help it.

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