A group of hikers pauses on a scrubby bajada unfurling from the base of a craggy peak. Someone holds up her hand, signaling the others to listen.
Hoot, hoot. Hoot, hoot.
An owl, silhouetted in shiny white light, stares down from the arm of a saguaro. In the distance, several hundred feet below this quiet cleft in the trail, the lights of Mesa and Apache Junction glint among folds in the landscape.
This is a scene indicative of nighttime hiking, when the sounds of cities down on the flats dwindle, desert temperatures drop, and the world seems a little more distant.
It’s an activity readily available at East Valley mountain parks and venues throughout the state.
“People often have no idea what a totally different experience hiking at night is,” says Brennan Basler, an interpretive ranger who leads night hikes at Usery Mountain Regional Park just north of Mesa. “All of your senses are impacted differently in the desert at night.”
The difference starts, most obviously, with sight. Hikers must pick their path with care, tooling around shadows that blot out terrain and relying on moonlight to see.
“The moon is like a big natural flashlight. We tell you to bring a flashlight if you like, but you may not even use it. In fact, I’d argue that flashlights can detract from the experience,” says Basler.
That’s because the point of a night hike is to step out of our diurnal existence, to temporarily kiss goodbye the hard surfaces, brightly lit spaces and relentless noise of suburban life. Standing in the desert in the dark, by contrast, can be exhilarating, even loaded with mild apprehension.
Sounds become more acute since wind tends to die down come dark.
Cooler air tickles the skin, standing fine hairs on end. There’s a greater probability of coming across wildlife, says Basler, provided you’re quiet.
Sometimes you may spot a toad, tarantula or snake on the ground. Other times, you’ll hear the haunting howls and yips of distant coyotes.
“The desert comes alive at night,” says Mare Czinar, a Valley hiker who loves to watch the moon rise over the jagged ridgeline of the Superstition Mountains. Falling temperatures and rising humidity levels let plants “breathe” at night; many, like buckhorn cholla, saguaro and Arizona Queen of the Night, bloom only after nightfall, releasing scents not smelled during daylight.
“The best part is the stars,” says Czinar. “It’s astounding what a difference there is just a short distance outside of town. You can see such bright constellations and the Milky Way.”
NIGHT HIKING HINTS
Stick together. It’s easy to get lost in the dark.
Stay on the trail. When you veer from established paths, it’s easy to stumble on uneven terrain, get scratched by vegetation or step on a creature that isn’t expecting you.
Be quiet. “The quieter you are, the greater your chances for seeing wildlife,” says interpretive ranger Brennan Basler, night hike leader at Usery Mountain Regional Park north of Mesa.
Bring a flashlight. If you must turn it on, keep the beam pointed at the ground.
Carry water. “Just because the sun isn’t out doesn’t mean you won’t get thirsty,” cautions Mare Czinar, an avid hiker who hikes by moonlight several times per year.
Leave your dog and your stroller at home. Canines are generally not invited on guided hikes, and strollers are hard to push across sandy washes and up rocky slopes.
Consider a baby sitter. Guided hikes can be 2 to 3 miles long. Elementary-age children generally do fine, says Basler, but it can be a long walk for a toddler or a parent carrying a toddler.
Forget the camera. A blinding flash defeats the point of seeing the desert at night and irritates other hikers. Besides, unless you’re a pro, it’s hard to get a good shot in the dark anyway.
Turn off your cell phone. “When everyone’s stopped, listening for an owl, a goofy ring tone kind of ruins the moment,” says Basler.
WHERE TO HIKE AT NIGHT
Hiking isn’t off-limits when the sun goes down, but you should never go alone. These places offer guided night hikes several times per year. Each charges a per-vehicle fee or per-person admission cost; contact each venue directly for fees, schedule of hikes and hike details.
Cave Creek Regional Park: Moonlight Hike is 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Call ahead. Park is at 37019 N. Lava Lane, Cave Creek; (623) 465-0431 or www.maricopa.gov/parks.
Desert Botanical Garden: Flashlight Tours are 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, May through August. Reservations are required. Garden is at 1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix; (480) 941-3510 or www.dbg.org.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park: Night Hike is 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Full Moon Hike is 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Large groups should call ahead. Park is four miles north of Fountain Hills at 16300 McDowell Mountain Park Drive; (480) 471-0173 or www.maricopa.gov/parks/.
Red Rock State Park: Moonlight Hike is 6 p.m. Saturday. Night hikes are offered once per month through October. Park is at 4050 Red Rock Loop Road, Sedona: (928) 282-6907 or www.pr.state.az.us.
San Tan Mountain Regional Park: Hiking With the Stars Moonlight Hike is 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Large groups should call ahead. Park is at 6533 W. Phillips Road, Queen Creek; (480) 655-5554 or www.maricopa.gov/parks/.
Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area: Full Moon Hike is 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday. Area is at 44000 N. Spur Cross Road, Cave Creek; (480) 488-6601 or www.maricopa.gov/parks/.
Tumacácori National Historical Park: Full Moon Evening is 7 p.m. Saturday; includes a tour of a 1691 Spanish colonial mission and a hike to the Santa Cruz River. Call ahead. Park is 50 miles south of Tucson at Exit 29 off Interstate 19; (520) 398-2341 or www.nps.gov/tuma/index.htm.
Usery Mountain Regional Park: Full Pink Moon Hike is 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Large groups should call ahead. Park is at 3939 N. Usery Pass Road, north of Mesa; (480) 984-0032 or www.maricopa.gov/parks/.