Saturday is National Trails Day, a time designated by the nonprofit American Hiking Society for the past 18 years to get Americans outdoors and into the natural spaces that spur adventure for some, soul-soothing tranquility for others.
The idea sounds appealing, unless you live here, where triple-digit temperatures make even a short outing on an exposed desert path a hard sell.
But Desert Botanical Garden, the 50-acre plant oasis nestled amid the holey red buttes of Papago Park, has a solution for desert dwellers: Flashlight Tours. The annual summertime walks allow people to get outdoors at night, right in the heart of the city.
"It's not a hard hike. You're walking on maintained trails, yet you're getting to experience everything the desert has to offer in a safe way," says Nancy White, the garden's assistant director of education.
And the desert, she says, has a lot going for it after sundown.
Not only do temperatures drop, but fragrant smells grow stronger, thanks to night-blooming plants, and animals become more active.
"We can't guarantee that you'll see wild animals, but there's a good chance," says White. "We have a couple of garden king snakes that have been making a show of their own on night hikes; they're not afraid of people here. Nighthawks come out. They're birds that do all their hunting at sunrise and sunset. We've had owls come out, too - a couple of great horned owls and screech owls."
Tortoises and geckos have also been spotted on the trails, and the garden's pond is home to amphibious wildlife, some of it noisy.
"We have a toad out here that screams, the Woodhouse's toad. It literally screams, and it's fun to hear. You get that going with all the bull frogs and cicadas and other nighttime noises, and it's surprisingly loud," she says.
Tours start in the garden's amphitheater, where visitors are sent out in different directions, so the trails don't become too crowded. Along the way, visitors encounter 10 activity stations, where interpretive rangers share information on the nighttime behavior of plants and animals and, in some cases, display live creatures in terrariums.
"You really take your own pace and spend as much time as you want at each station, ask questions. It's really informal," says White. "At the Palo Verde station they learn about how a pocket mouse comes out at night to steal Palo Verde seeds and hide them, which helps grow more Palo Verdes. At the mesquite station, we talk about how we can paint with mesquite pitch, and (visitors) get to paint with a yucca brush. Depending on how excited people get, they don't always get through all 10 stations."
There are also tarantula, scorpion and king snake stations, and areas where children can make bat masks and other crafts to take home.
White says a flashlight isn't absolutely necessary, but it does make the outing more fun when you use the light to illuminate scurrying insects or stunning, saucer-sized flowers you'd never catch sight of in the daytime.
"It's amazing how many of us living right here don't realize what the desert is like at night. The plants and the animals have figured it out. Everyone should experience it from their point of view at least once," says White.
What: A sensory adventure through the desert at night, with 10 activity stations along the way. Bring a flashlight and water to drink.
When: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays through Aug. 28
Where: Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix
Cost: $15 adults, $13.50 seniors 60 and older, $7.50 students 13-18, $5 children 3-12; free for members
Information: (480) 941-1225 or www.dbg.org
More night hikes
Maricopa County Parks routinely offer moonlight hikes at some of their 10 metro-fringing mountain preserves, including two nearest the East Valley: Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa and San Tan Mountain Regional Park in Queen Creek. The hikes are typically included with the $6-per-vehicle park entry fee. For a calendar of upcoming hikes and activities, go to www.maricopa.gov/parks, or call Usery at (480) 984-0032 or San Tan at (480) 655-5554.
National Trails Day
Saturday is National Trails Day, the 18th annual day designated by the American Hiking Society to celebrate, experience and appreciate America's trail system. More than 1,500 events will take place around the country, including trail maintenance projects, mountain bike rides, horseback trips, bird-watching hikes and trail runs. To find activities in and around the Valley, go to www.americanhiking.org.