Estrella Mountain – On a Cold Day for a Hike

Goodyear, AZ

Estrella Mountain Regional Park is the nearest park from our winter home in Buckeye, Arizona. Last year we hiked on several of its many trails only three times. The park is not the most visually appealing. It isn’t a gorgeous desert like Sedona or Monument Valley. It isn’t a beautiful desert like the Superstition Mountains. It isn’t even a pretty desert like the White Tank Mountain Park, Estrella is simply a desert. The park’s primary natural attribute is that there are some very old giant saguaro (sa·hua·ro) cacti in the park. Estrella Mountain Park is similar to what I imagined Arizona to be like before we started our visits in 2009.

Estrella Mountain Quail Trail

The park has regular programs and activities that we enjoy. There are interpretive hikes, bird walks, kid’s programs and many more programs by the park rangers and guest presenters. And, of course, miles of hiking trails to be explored.

Last January my wife, Lynn, and I endured a cold snap in the Phoenix area. A 25-year temperature record was broken with 20s for lows and mid-50s for highs (-6 to 10 degrees C). Not wanting to skip our twice-weekly regular hike on one cool Saturday, we waited until late afternoon to hike instead of our usual morning departure. As we were scheduled to meet some friends at a wine bar near Estrella Park for the evening, it made sense to revisit the park since it’s only a couple of miles from what would be our final destination for the evening.

View of the White Tanks from Quail Trail

After exploring, a site we check often to pre-plan our hikes, we found we’d already traversed several of the recommended trails. Looking at the park’s online trail map, however, I noticed a trail we hadn’t hiked before. Quail Trail is short, dusty, and only one-mile (1.6 km) in length; however it intersects one of the prettier trails in the park, Rainbow Valley Trail.

At a minimum we like to hike at least three miles (about 5 km), so we decided to take Quail to Rainbow Valley Trail, walk the valley trail for a distance and then retrace our steps back to the car. The two trails wind around the northwest edge of the park providing a beautiful view of a nearby golf course, the city of Goodyear and most impressively, the White Tank Mountains. Off to the west is our town, Buckeye.

Usually on a Saturday, the trails are full of people. Apparently the cold weather prevailed as we saw only a few other hikers. As we prepared to enter the trailhead, three young adults, lightly dressed with shorts and light jackets were leaving the trail. Along the trail, we passed one couple hiking with their dogs. The hiker’s faces were covered with heavy scarves and warm jackets that I thought would be suitable for a snowy winter’s day in Fargo, North Dakota. The only other group we passed was a family of four on their mountain bikes. They had just come from the west on Rainbow Valley Trail. I know from experience in walking that part of the trail that they were challenged coming up the hill on the northwest side of the mountain.

An old saguaro

The trails meander by several large, very old saguaros. The saguaro cactus is a fascinating desert plant. It is found only one place in the world, the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and northern Mexico. The saguaro is a long-lived plant, often taking more than 75 years to grow its very first “arms”. From afar, they look like an apt subject of an Ansel Adams photograph, but looking close up, it’s easy to see that age, woodpeckers and other nesting birds and animals take their toll.

Lynn is dwarfed by two giant saguaros

Though we prefer a loop trail where the view is different from beginning to end, an in-and-out trail has its advantages. You can walk as far as you’d like away from the car, and you get to decide when you are ready to return. If it was a hard climb up, your half-way point can be a little further as it will be downhill going back. After only about a mile and a half (2.4 km), we decided it was time to head back. We weren’t getting tired, but the wind was coming up and wearing only sweatshirts and lacking gloves, we started feeling the cold. The desert gets cold very quickly once the sun gets close to setting.

The walk back would be mostly downhill, and we would meet our goal of at least a minimum three-mile (4.8 km) hike. The shadows were getting longer as we quietly and quickly walked back to the trailhead. Sometime, when it’s a bit warmer, we need to make this hike again. I know just where I want to be at sunset. I will have the camera set up, and I expect the photo to be magical.

John Steiner

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