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Autumn trek to a forest oasis deep in Arizona's Sonoran Desert

The rocky trail winds through steep rugged canyons.  Even in autumn and winter, temperatures can soar.  But there are also wildflowers and birds and winding forests in the deep valley.
Brian Mann
/
NPR
The rocky trail winds through steep rugged canyons. Even in autumn and winter, temperatures can soar. But there are also wildflowers and birds and winding forests in the deep valley.

I set off half an hour before sunrise up the rocky trail. It was chilly in the predawn light, with just enough glow in the sky that I could see cactus spreading in every direction and big mesas of rock.

After months of temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it's finally cooling off in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. I decided to take advantage of the milder weather to trek into the Superstition Wilderness, a 140,000 acre expansein the mountains east of Phoenix.

An abundance of birds live among the saguaro and cactus. Often hiking in the Superstition Wilderness the birdsong is as rich as an eastern forest.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
An abundance of birds live among the saguaro and cactus. Often hiking in the Superstition Wilderness the birdsong is as rich as an eastern forest.

The first part of my hike, I startled a herd of mule deer. They scattered among the saguaro, their white tails flashing. In the dim light there were birds everywhere.

Using trekking poles, I picked my way over scree slopes and rocky trails. Minute by minute, the morning sun repainted the world.

First the vast orange cliffs above caught the light. Then bright red berries and finally big sweeps of lush buttery yellow flowers.

Splashes of color decorate the Sonoran Desert, where austere rock gives way to blossoms and berries.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Splashes of color decorate the Sonoran Desert, where austere rock gives way to blossoms and berries.

Soon I came to a stage of high rock that looked out across the dry river valley to the distant mountains, so craggy, so knife-edged, they seemed unreal.

If you saw this painting in a museum, you'd think some early painter of the Old West had let their imagination run wild.

I hiked on, dropping down steep trails into the valley where I could see a vein of bright green forest surrounded by the desert.

To avoid the worst of the heat, hikers often go early in the morning leaving the trailhead before sunrise.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
To avoid the worst of the heat, hikers often go early in the morning leaving the trailhead before sunrise.

Hour by hour, the heat rose. The climbing sun scattered the last of the shade. I pulled on my sunhat and stopped often to drink.

Finally, I reached the bottom of the valley where I hopped and scrambled over round river stones. In the midst of the desert, I found what felt like a secret forest.

So far as I could tell, I had the vast valley to myself. For a long time I just sat under a shimmering tree, no cell service, no voices, just silence.

Deep in the shadiest part of the valley, where seasonal rains and snowmelt sometimes flow, a forest offers respite from the desert heat.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Deep in the shadiest part of the valley, where seasonal rains and snowmelt sometimes flow, a forest offers respite from the desert heat.

When I finally started for home, it was hot — not the 110-degree Fahrenheit temperature of high summer, but well into the 90s F. As I climbed, the trail smelled of dust and sage and my own sweat.

By late afternoon, I made it back onto one of the high buttresses of rock that sit above the valley, where I could take in a last view of the vast emptiness and magnificent solitude.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Views from high rocks in the Superstition Wilderness are epic.  Often the scenes are like something dreamed up by a 19th century painter of the Old West.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Views from high rocks in the Superstition Wilderness are epic. Often the scenes are like something dreamed up by a 19th century painter of the Old West.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.