The pride was palpable amongst the speakers at the grand opening of the Gateway on May 2, 2009. The crowds pressed together to hear local politicians, environmental activists, and the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy volunteers declare the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve officially open to the public. The history behind this day begins around 1990 when Scottsdale citizens initiated the preservation of the McDowell Mountains and surrounding desert.*1 Voters approved sales tax increases in 1995 and 2004 to purchase lands for a preserve, and the goal of preserving 36,400 acres (equivalent to 1/3 of Scottsdale's total land area) is close to completion. *2
The Bajada Nature Trail was officially opened at the Gateway in September of 2009 as a way to educate the public about the fragile land area and serve as a starting point for 45 miles of hiking trails. The goals*3 of the nature trail are to: create the sense of being immersed in the desert environment, to see plants and animals in their natural setting, ensure there are no physical barriers to the experience and address comfort, to coax visitors into investigating the setting rather than the exhibits, and to put biodiversity into a context that is intelligible to the layperson.
The trail itself is made from a combination of on-site dirt and concrete in a smooth, wide surface with minimal incline and is about 1/2 mile long. It is wheelchair and stroller accessible with several resting spots along the way. There are 15 interactive stations with photographic panels, games, and information about the bajada (area between steep mountain slopes and the valley floor). There is one station with a game called "Six Degrees of Separation in the Bajada", and the most notable panel is a 14-foot picture of the McDowell range taken by photographer Ed Mertz. The photograph was taken with a large format view camera and a Better Light 144-megapixel digital scanning back with a panoramic stage. The camera was mounted on a ten-foot high platform and rotated through 200 degrees to produce the image with a 3 minute exposure. It is breathtaking!
The Bajada nature trail is a great introduction to the Sonoran Desert for out of town guests or could be a nice wind down walk after a popular hike in the area (Gateway Loop trail, Windgate-Bell Loop, Tom's Thumb). If you are not up for any big hikes, you could combine the Bajada nature trail with the short Saguaro Loop (0.3 miles RT), and enjoy lunch near the 3-D topo display of the McDowell Mountain range at the Gateway access area. There are bathrooms and water and even a dog water fountain! Check out the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy's website calendar of events for the lecture series in the nearby amphitheater, outreach projects, and guided hikes.
Topics of trail panels: (1) trailhead, (2) The Bajada, (3) Cacti of the Bajada, (4) Desert Wash, (5) Diversity of Life on the Bajada, (6) People's Use of Plants, (7) Trees of the Bajada, (8) Packrats and History, (9) The McDowell Mountains, (10) Animals of the Bajada, (11) Desert Time, (12) Scottsdale's Conservation Efforts, (13) Sonoran Seasons, (14) The Future of the Bajada, (15) You Matter.
Some interesting facts about the Gateway: *1
Project cost was $5.9 million and the annual carbon footprint is zero! Solar panels produce 29,000 kWh per year or 105% of projected annual energy demand. Rainfall is collected on a roof catchment system and can store 20,000 gallons of water annually in an underground cistern which provides 100% of landscape irrigation water. The walls are constructed of rammed earth with 95% site salvaged soil and 5% cement. The building contains 30% recycled materials and 47% regionally produced materials. After construction, 1500 cacti were revegetated on the Gateway site by volunteers.
*1. Case Study: The Gateway accessed on April 7, 2010 from www.scottsdaleaz.gov
*2. McDowell Sonoran Conservancy History accessed on April 7, 2010 from www. mcdowellsonoran.org
*3. The Bajada Nature Trail Project accessed on April 7, 2010 from www.mcdowellsonoran.org
To Gateway Trailhead Take the 101 to the Princess Drive/Pima Road exit. Go north on Pima Road to Union Hills Drive. Turn right (east) on Union Hills Drive to Thompson Peak Parkway. Turn right on Thompson Peak Parkway and head south about 1/2 mile to the Gateway Visitor Center on the left. There's plenty of parking and nice facilities here.
Take 101 to Bell Road exit (by way of either FLW Blvd exit 39 arriving from the south or Pima/Princess exit 36 arriving from the north). Go East on Bell road 1.7 miles and turn left onto Thompson Peak Parkway. The Gateway is 0.7 miles on the right. (18333 N. Thompson Peak Parkway)
From PHX (I-10 & AZ-51) - 28.4 mi, 36 mins From TUC (Jct 1-10 & Grant) - 126 mi, 2 hours 6 mins From FLG (Jct I-17 & I-40) - 141 mi, 2 hours 33 mins
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.