Desert air contrasts the East Coast mountains I’m used to. Dry, hot and stale—like breathing in old, lifeless dust never washed clean, but there’s a desolate beauty in it, too. The vast space is filled with so much life. I never get used to seeing the mountains around the valley from parking lots, highways, and windows. Sometimes they look dreamlike in the distance, like their opacity is turned down. Sometimes they glow purple, blue, red, or orange, but they are always striking.
From a science-backed perspective, spending time in nature improves cognition and connection, and decreases mental stress and sickness. From a more subjective perspective, the feeling of discovery and fresh air makes you feel free and giddy.
Waiting was a project I did about five years ago inspired by Alastair Humphrey’s Microadventures, or things that you can do from 5-9, after a traditional workday. Here, I’d like to show you a week’s worth of Microadventures within 30 minutes of Phoenix, which offer various views and ways to experience nature.
Monday- Dobbins Lookout
The drive to Dobbins is an adventure in itself. You will pass through Scorpion Gulch to enter the winding roadway bordered by golden grass to the top of South Mountain. I recommend walking to the left rather than right of the parking lot for a more intimate experience and views of the entire valley and mountain layers.
Tuesday- Sonoran Desert
Phoenix has the most flyable days per year of anywhere in the country for hot air ballooning. Rides take off at sunrise across the Sonoran desert. About 30 minutes north of Phoenix, you can see over 50 balloons sent up most mornings, which is beautiful whether you are watching from the ground or air.
Wednesday- Dreamy Draw
I was pulled to Dreamy Draw from the highway. The north side of Piestewa peak and surrounding foothills form a graduated crescent, which feels cozy, but looks majestic. At sunset, the mountain glows orange, and the green brush says soft.
Thursday- Salt River
A welcome respite from the dusty desert, the cold Salt River and sandy walkway feel far away from more traditional landscapes. Wild horses are likely to be found in the river at sunrise and sunset and are fascinating to watch. If you see them, please respect their space by staying 10 feet away.
Friday- Papago Park
Papago is one of the most recognized landmarks in Phoenix, known for its dramatic Red Rocks. If you want to visit Hole-in-the-Rock, I recommend sunrise for a more intimate experience. However, the park is expansive, and there are so many other trails to explore and rocks to scramble that bring the same wow factor.
Saturday- Superstition Mountains
The 45-minute drive to the iconic Superstitions takes you back in time. The cacti species there include buckhorn cholla, barrel cactus, hedgehog, prickly pear, ocotillo (not technically a cactus), and Saguaro. You can stay around Lost Dutchman State Park ($7 weekdays, $10 weekends), hike to the flat irons via Siphon Draw, or continue on the 40-mile scenic highway, Apache Trail.
Sunday- Phoenix Mountains Preserve
Phoenix Mountain Preserve is one of the quietest on the list, making it perfect for a Sunday reset. At dusk, the McDowell mountains in the distance glow purple and reveal contours. Trails lead to areas completely surrounded by mountains, and there is over 50 miles of trails to explore here. Look out for rabbits, snakes, coyotes, and birds.
Bratman, G. N., Anderson, C. B., Berman, M. G., Cochran, B., De Vries, S., Flanders, J., … & Daily, G. C. (2019). Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Science advances, 5(7), eaax0903.
Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., … & Jonides, J. (2012). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of affective disorders, 140(3), 300-305.
McEwan, K., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., Ferguson, F. J., & Brindley, P. (2019). A smartphone app for improving mental health through connecting with urban nature. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(18), 3373.
Moran, Dominique, et al. “Nature contact in the carceral workplace: greenspace and staff sickness absence in prisons in England and Wales.” Environment and Behavior 54.2 (2022): 276-299.