It looked like a cross between a wasp and a hummingbird, and it stopped us in our tracks.
It rose from the rocks like a small drone and hovered in front of us, blocking our off-trail path through a canyon in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains.
“What is that?” my wife said, a note of terror in her voice.
Immensely inexperienced with desert hiking, I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.
“Don’t make eye contact.”
“What are you talking about?” Kristen said, her concern turning to laughter.
Seemingly uninterested in us, the creature turned and flew off. Later, we’d learn we’d come face to face with a tarantula hawk, a giant (2 inches) tarantula-hunting wasp with one of the most painful stings on earth. Justin Schmidt, an Arizona entomologist who created a sting pain index, once told NPR it feels like “a running hair dryer … dropped into your bubble bath.”
Odd is it may seem, we considered this encounter, coupled with having Boulder Canyon nearly to ourselves, among the highlights of our recent trip to the Arizona wilderness on the outskirts of the Phoenix area.
“It’s still the wild west out here,” said Mark Bowman, one of six people who live in nearby Tortilla Flat. “You’re 30 minutes from town (the outskirts of Mesa), but you feel like you’re 1,000 miles away.”
This proximity of adventure so different (and warmer) than that of the Northwest this time of year is one of the things that can really spice up a spring-training trip to Valley of the Sun. The Seattle Mariners, one of 15 Cactus League teams, start five weeks of exhibition games Feb. 25.
“We have almost 200 golf courses, so I think the big draw is to do that in the morning before going to a game,” said Doug MacKenzie, spokesman for Visit Phoenix. “But there are a lot of hiking trails and other outdoor activities too.”
THE BEATEN PATH
The most famous of the Phoenix hiking opportunities is Camelback Mountain, a steep but perpetually crowded trail with 360-degree views of the valley. Piestewa Peak is nearby. It’s crowded, too, but has a larger variety of trails.
We hiked them both on our way from the airport to the house we rented, and my thighs seemed to be telling me that we needed to pace ourselves if we were going to make it through our week of hiking.
We’d set aside a day to make the two-hour drive north to Sedona, where the contrast of red rock against the azure sky left us in awe.
We took five short hikes. All stunning, all on the must-do list for any Sedona visitor, and some busy enough it sometimes seemed like a line at Disneyland.
Maybe the crowds make the setting seem less rugged, but it was hardly enough to keep us from feeling reinvigorated just being in this place. We promised to return when we had time to properly explore the area.
For a secluded hike, we turned Tonto National Forest east of Phoenix.
“It’s easy to get here, but once you’re here, it’s extremely rugged,” Tortilla Flat resident Bowman said. “Everything can eat everything, and every plant has thorns. You don’t want to be out here in flip-flops and shorts.”
Our first stop was at the Usery Mountain Recreation Area on the edge of the forest. We were told the Wind Cave Trail was an excellent place to wander among giant saguaro cacti. This trail isn’t a secret, either.
It’s among the most popular in the region, and we were lucky to find parking near the trailhead. The trail was busy as we made our way up to a notch — cave is a generous description — in the side of Pass Mountain.
It was at the notch, the destination for most hikers, that we finally found a dose of solitude. We continued across the face of the mountain, scrambled up a steep slope, then crossed the rocky ridge to south summit.
There we dined on a lunch of oranges and enjoyed the view. And the silence.
The next morning, we pulled into Tortilla Flat and asked the man behind the counter at the Country Store to recommend a hike. He suggested Boulder Canyon as a good way to experience the Superstitions.
Starting from the Canyon Lake marina, we hiked over bare hills as strong winds tried to beat us back. We enjoyed the view of rocky peaks, such as Geronimo Head and Weavers Needle.
We stopped for lunch on a low ridge below Battleship Mountain and decided to spend a few hours off-trail exploring the dry beds of the creeks that cut deep into the landscape.
It was here we had our most memorable encounters with Arizona’s insects and plants.
A small tarantula blended so well into the terrain, we wondered how many more we might have unknowingly passed. There was our face-to-face with the tarantula hawk. And then, as we took a short cut out of the canyon, the desert provided one more memory.
I was walking about 30 feet ahead of Kristen when I felt the sensation of needles going into to my right leg. With visions of spiders and monster wasps fresh in my head, I slapped at whatever it was before I looked down.
It was a teddy bear cholla cactus and now I had a branch attached to my leg and more barbed spines stuck in my fingers.
This is one of the reasons you aren’t supposed to wear shorts on the trail, despite the pleasant weather. I felt like one of those unprepared tourists the locals talk about.
“You see somebody posing for a selfie with a rattlesnake and the next thing you know, they’re heading to the hospital,” Bowman said.
Bloodied and a bit swollen, I managed to avoid more trouble as we made our way out of the canyon.
Bowman says stories of cactus pokes, rattlesnakes, bats, giant wasps and furry spiders sometimes scare visitors from exploring the trails. Don’t let them.
“Just be prepared and be aware,” Bowman said. “You might be skittish when you hear about these things, but don’t be. Thousands of people come here every year, and you hardly ever have scary experiences.
“Just think of it as an adventure, because it is.”
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