We've camped in some rather unusual places and this is another
one to add to that list. No, I don't mean Estrella Mountain Park
itself but rather the particular "site" they offered us:
behind the horse arena!
Our camper is the one on the right.
Unlike McDowell Mountain Park on the opposite (east) side of Phoenix,
where we've enjoyed staying a couple of times previously, Estrella
doesn't have a developed campground for the general public.
There are about ten RV sites with full hook-ups but they are
mostly occupied by park "hosts" in the winter and none were
available to us for the two-plus weeks we wanted to stay.
Galen-the-campground-host offered us something we soon decided
was better than the hosts' sites, which were very close together
-- a spacious spot a couple hundred feet away with water and
electric hook-ups and a warm, concrete-walled bathroom very
OK, so it is in a parking lot! We got over that pretty fast.
The good news is that most of the time we've had lots of privacy.
It's a BIG parking lot. We are near the trailhead for two
popular trails in the park but hikers, cyclists, and equestrians
never park close to us. Their comings and goings give us
something to watch:
We made sure before paying for the first few days that no events
would be occurring in the horse arena. That would have been
bedlam. It is fun, however, to see folks occasionally bring one
or two horses into the arena to train them or to watch as groups
of equestrians walk by between "our" trailhead and one down near
the developed campsites. I took this photo right out my desk
window one afternoon:
That was the only day on the trails that we saw more than one or
two other people. We passed two
large groups of equestrians on an 8-mile training run. There were more than a dozen large horse trailers in the
lower parking lot that morning.
So we have trails right out our door that connect to a maze of
other trails in the park,
"Our" trailhead. See the faint rainbow behind the mountain
in Rainbow Valley?
privacy most of the time, and the basic hook-ups we want.. We
are on a high spot with expansive views of mountains on
three sides and greater Phoenix down below on the other side:
have been treated to brilliant sunsets (we usually sleep in and
miss the sunrises), clear starry nights, and coyote
AT 1 AM our first night here we were awakened by a pack of
howling, singing coyotes that sounded like they were right
outside the camper. They had a fascinating vocal range, but
mostly high-pitched like a bunch of hungry, month-old puppies.
Were they warning each other about The New Dog in Town? (That
would be Cody.) Or were they warning Cody that this was their
territory? He's usually good about barking or growling to alert
us to various critters or people nearby, but he was totally
quiet when the coyotes were close. Smart dog. Just act invisible
and maybe they'll go away!
The most dramatic sunset was on December
12, when it appeared the mountains were on fire.
Other advantages of staying at Estrella: we have a shorter drive to
a YMCA, laundromat, and the stores we
like than when we stay at McDowell Park. And we are
only ten miles from Nardini Manor, so we have been able to go help the Wrubliks get ready for ATY.
We got all this for a good price, too; can't beat that.
It isn't free like it is on national forest or BLM land, but it
is $5 less per day than undeveloped sites in the
County Regional Parks. We've been here for sixteen nights now.
Jim and Cody dance through the rocks on the Toothaker Trail
(may be how the trail got its name??).
The main downside is that
the trails aren't as run-able or ride-able as those at McDowell.
Estrella has a lot of rocks. For only
$5 more a night, we really do prefer the spacious camping sites
and great trails at McDowell. So after ATY we'll probably go hang out there for
a week or two instead of returning to Estrella.
WHAT ELSE IS SPECIAL ABOUT ESTRELLA?
Here's the full blurb from the park's home
to Estrella Mountain Regional Park. These 19,840 acres of desert and
mountains became the first regional park in the Maricopa County Park
System in 1954. Located near the meeting of the Gila and Agua Fria
Rivers in the southwest Valley, the park includes a large wetland, or
riparian, area. The majority of the park remains pristine desert, very
similar in appearance to the landscape seen by the first settlers and
explorers. The Sierra Estrella range, or Star Mountains, was once within
the Mexican border, and remained so until the Gadsden Purchase in 1853."
My curiosity got the better of me after seeing a conflicting
date on the marker, above, which sits behind the bench at the Gila Trailhead.
The parks department brochures also say 1853. Just when was the Gadsden
I went to the ultimate source of information on the internet:
Just kidding. Here's a
link to what should be reliable, a US Dept. of
State web site, for those interested in more details of the treaty. It was
signed by President Franklin Pierce in 1853 but not ratified by the US Senate
and signed by Mexican President Santa Anna until 1854. Hence, the discrepancy.
I enjoyed reading the history of the event (but still wonder why I didn't see
June 30th specifically in the account).
NOT IN VIRGINIA ANY MORE
web site continues, "Today, many
amenities are available to visitors, including the only grass picnic area in
the Maricopa County Park System."
Now that last sentence gave me pause. After living in the
very-wet-and-very-green eastern US for most of my life, it just
reinforces the fact that the desert Southwest is in a whole 'nother
Zip Code, so to speak. The only grass picnic area in the large
metro Phoenix park system? Wow.
View of very green golf course
adjacent to Estrella Park, as seen from the Rainbow Trail.
I don't know why that surprises me, though. "Going green" takes
on new meaning in the desert. It takes a lot of dedication -- and
irrigation -- to have a grassy yard or golf course around here.
That's not exactly "going green" in the sense of political or
ecological correctness, but we understand the urge to walk on
soft grass versus the sand and rocks that are so pervasive here. In our high-desert suburban Billings,
we went to great effort and expense to build an irrigation
system, lay sod, and maintain a little patch of green grass. In
retrospect, and on several levels, we later wished we had just
placed rock "mulch" out there; it would have
been so much simpler.
Fighting Mother Nature is usually a losing proposition.
Right now, however, in late December you can find grassy picnic areas,
campground sites, and hillsides along the trails at all eleven of the
regional parks in Maricopa County and probably everywhere else in the Valley of
the Sun -- without artificial irrigation.
We've observed an interesting transformation of the desert floor
at Estrella the last two weeks from brown to green:
Before: brown desert and mountain view from
the Butterfield Trail
Thin or thick, the bright green blades of grass and other
grass-like ground covers are
suddenly one or two inches high in some places. They aren't confined just to
shady areas under palo verde trees; they are everywhere.
After: new green grass along another section of the Butterfield
Trail on December 23
The park isn't lush like east of the Mississippi is lush, but
it's lush by Sonoran Desert standards. And it's nice to have
some green in December.
What happened? Has spring sprung in the desert?
Since our arrival on December 10 the area has been doused
at least four times with copious amounts of rain, relatively
amounting to three or four inches in some parts of the Valley.
That is nearly half the
annual average rainfall of 7 to 8 inches. December is
wettest month here. One local government site indicates the average
December rainfall at the airport is one inch.
ONE INCH, and
that's the wettest month. If you live near either coast
or in the Midwest, you're probably shaking your head and
wondering how on earth anything grows out here. You'd be
surprised how many
animals have adapted to this
harsh, arid environment and grow quite well, thank you. If
you're interested in reading more about this remarkable
ecosystem, I wrote two entries about local desert flora and
fauna back in January (both dated the 20th, at the links above).
Another storm coming in
I joked to Jim
that if any more rain falls, they're gonna have to start
mowing the desert! Those thirsty little blades of grass pop up
from out of nowhere and grow very quickly when offered a long
drink. I love watching the transformation. The rain also brings
out the pungent odor of the creosote shrubs across the parking
lot; it's not unpleasant, just very different than any
I'll write more in a pre-race ATY entry about the problems the
rain is causing on the track at Nardini Manor. Sometimes more
isn't necessarily better.
A WHITE CHRISTMAS IN PHOENIX??
While I'm on the subject of weather . .
The storms that dumped all that rain in the Valley recently have
also dumped equally-copious amounts of snow in the high country,
to the delight of skiers and other snow-lovers. I'm not talking
only about the mountains ranging up to 12,000 feet in the
Flagstaff-Grand Canyon area north of Phoenix, I'm talking about
elevations as low as 3,000 feet -- the height of many mountain
tops surrounding the Valley -- and even northern Phoenix 'burbs
lower than that, like Cave Creek and Carefree.
View of part of the Sierra Estrella Range
from the Toothaker Trail.
With elevations to 4,354 feet, some snow is
likely during the winter.
I realize it's winter now; the solstice was just three
days ago. But snow in the Phoenix area?? We haven't seen any snow at Estrella
Park in the far southwest metro area
but we saw it on the local TV news reports (therefore it must be
true, right?). Not only have the
mountainous regions north and east of here gotten repeatedly slammed with snowstorm after snowstorm
this month, bitter cold air and a few flakes of snow briefly
touched the north side of Phoenix just in time for the holiday
Local temperatures are now predicted to dip below 30 degrees for a
couple nights. Brrr. Other southern cities like Houston and New
Orleans even got rare snow a couple weeks ago. It's been an
Just as in Texas, we've run into more below-normal
than above-normal temperatures here in the Phoenix area. So much for avoiding the
"ravages of winter" in Virginia! We really haven't paid much
attention to what's going on there since we left.
Arizona banks on its sunshine to draw
visitors and residents.
We aren't complaining,
though. I'm guessing it's still sunnier and warmer in Phoenix
than Roanoke. Our water sources (outdoor faucets) and camper pipes
haven't frozen, so our supply of water has been uninterrupted. We have plenty of electric and/or propane heat to stay warm
on chilly desert nights.
The temperatures here during the days that are sunny (which are the
majority of the time) are very pleasant, in the 55-65°
F. range. The average high for this time of year is about 67°
We can't complain. Life is good, even when it rains.
EXPLORING ESTRELLA'S TRAILS
Since we're tapering for our big goal race of the year, we
haven't been logging monster miles on Estrella's extensive
system of trails. (OK, OK we haven't been logging monster miles
at any time this entire year, but we're running and
walking even less in the two weeks prior to ATY.)
Nor have we been cross-training here on Jim's mountain bike. We
aren't skilled enough (nor do we have enough body padding) to
enjoy the bumpy ride on either the trails or competitive track
(which is also single-track trail). I did ride a few miles one day down to
the new nature center and back on paved roads, but it would have
been reckless of me to try riding on the single-track trails
around here right before an important race.
Jim and Cody on the Toothaker Trail
So in that regard, it's good that Estrella's trails are fairly
rough. If we'd been at McDowell Park the last two weeks, we
probably would have run and ridden too much on its dandy trails
and gotten all worn out for ATY. Better to savor those trails
after the race.
Still, I managed to take dozens of photos of most of the 40+
miles of trails at Estrella. Since there are so many interesting
views, I'll put a selected group of them on our
Picasa photo-sharing site and only a few here.
Below is a condensed map of the park; you can see the trails
better in the pdf file at this
We have explored most of the trails in the network in the upper
left quadrant. There are numerous options here, with varying
distances depending on how you combine the loops or do
out-and-back runs, walks, or rides. None are flat; they all
involve hills, again to varying degrees. All have great views of
the mountains and/or valleys.
Trail surfaces range from well-groomed (the short Gila Loop,
where we practiced our run-walk strategies for ATY once) to
gnarly (ridges of the Rainbow Trail. e.g.).
Cody surveys Rainbow Valley from one of
the ridges on the rocky Rainbow Trail
Most of the trails are single-track. A mile of the Coldwater
Trail is a service road with soft gravel that's difficult to
run or ride. We were surprised to find a mile or more of the Gadsden
Trail goes through soft sand and rocks through a wash; that's
not a section we ever want to try to run again and I can't
imagine negotiating through so much deep, soft sand on a bike.
Jim negotiates a rocky section of wash on
the Gadsden Trail; other parts have deep sand.
Most of the trails are shared use for hiking, cycling, and horse
riding. Only about three miles of about thirty in this network
are restricted to foot traffic only. In two weeks we've seen
more equestrians than runners or hikers using the trails. We
haven't run into any cyclists, even on the competitive track.
That may well be because of all the rocks! That's the main
reason neither of us has ridden trails here.
Equestrians on a smoother portion of the Gadsden Trail
You can access other detailed park maps
such as for the separate network of trails at the competitive
track (located adjacent to the very popular Phoenix
International Raceway, if the massive parking lots are any
indication of how many car racing fans attend events there). As
at McDowell Park, the competitive track is for "high speeds,
challenging one's skills, and racing." As the park maps say,
"Use trails elsewhere in the park for leisurely traveling."
We had all 13.3 miles at the competitive track to
ourselves on a cloudy Monday afternoon so we didn't worry about
going fast. We couldn't. There were too many rocks and steep
washes to negotiate. Besides, we had a race coming up and we
didn't want to sprain our ankles.
The western side of the
competitive track crosses several deep washes.
Like the other parks in the regional system, Estrella has a full schedule
of ranger-led programs and activities for the whole family.
There were several activities I considered but we ended up being too busy with other things.
We'll have to catch an organized full-moon hike another time; it was too
cloudy to entice us out the door the evening the ranger led that hike.
Ironically, it cleared up by the time the group returned to our trailhead.
OTHER NEARBY REGIONAL PARKS
One Sunday we decided to drive to two of the other regional parks in western
Maricopa County to check out their camping facilities and get maps of their
1. WHITE TANK MOUNTAIN is the next closest regional park with
campsites to Nardini Manor. It is the largest regional park of the eleven in
the Maricopa County system and has some of the most rugged mountains within its
boundaries. Peaks rise over 4,000 feet from their base. "Tanks" are formed when
flash floodwaters pour off the cliffs into the canyons, scouring our
depressions in the white granite rock.
Dramatic clouds form over the White Tank Range in the
We didn't traipse much of the 27 miles of shared-use trails or the 9.3 miles
of competitive track on this trip, just half a mile of the track after hearing
a foot race is held here each year. I want to go back there to explore trails
that lead to some of the eleven Hohokum Indian sites, occupied from about
500-1100 A.D., and more recent Yavapai Indian settlements. Ancient tribes left
hundreds of figures and symbols on the rock faces of the White Tank Mountains;
some od the petroglyphs are estimated to be 10,000 years old.
Competitive track, near the main trailhead; Teddy Bear
Cholla in foreground
Trails range from an easy half-mile barrier-free trail to steep, rugged
backcountry trails where bikes and horses are discouraged (but not prohibited)
and hikers are urged to use extreme caution. Rodger Wrublik does some of his
Hardrock training here, so I'm guessing there's plenty of elevation gain and
loss. I don't know how technical the trails are. Maybe we'll find out next
Typical Cody-the-Lab pose, with a stick
in his mouth. He's waiting for one of us to throw it again.
We'd considering camping here a while before an ATY race if we couldn't get
our arena site at Estrella. However, all family camping at White Tank is
"undeveloped." For the same price we're paying at Estrella for water and
electric hookups, we'd get NO hookups at White Tank but have a "real" camp site
space with a table, grill, and water spigot somewhere down the road.
2. Next we drove quite a ways north to LAKE PLEASANT REGIONAL
PARK, a very scenic water recreation area with several developed campsite
areas. Many of the sites overlook the large lake, which is formed behind
Waddell Dam. Some sites are full-service, some have just water and electric.
All are packed in closer than the sites at McDowell Mountain Park. You can even
camp in a tent or RV down by the lakeshore if you want more room
and like to dry camp ("boondock").
Road Runner Campground at Lake Pleasant
The downsides for us to staying at Lake Pleasant are the lack of trails and
the distance to stores, a laundry, a YMCA, etc. It's quite beautiful, however,
and the prime camp sites don't sit empty very long. This is a pleasant destination
if you're more into water sports than running, hiking, or cycling.
Today we're moving over to Nardini Manor's parking area so we
can help Rodger for three more days before the Across the Years race begins.
The next several entries will be about the race.
I'm faced again with what I call the date dilemma, writing this
and the next several journal entries days and weeks after they
occurred. Do I date entries when they occur, when I start
writing them, or when I upload them to the internet? In most
cases since we created this web site in 2005, I've used the date
closest to the actual occurrence of the topic.
Another magnificent sunset right outside
our camper door
In this case, we got very busy helping with ATY preparations and
other things before Christmas. Then we were busy running and
recovering from the race. Then we moved twice, got caught up on
things we neglected, resumed running and walking the beautiful
trails at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, started reading the
book Marley and Me -- you can see where this is going! I
simply put the journal on the back burner, working on it as
priorities allowed. It's more important to live life than
to write about it!
I started writing this entry on January 7 and uploaded it on January
10, 2009. I should be writing in a new 2009 journal by now! At
least we are still in Arizona . . .
Next task: uploading photos of the trails at Estrella to our
Next journal entry: preparing for ATY, not as runners but
more from a race director's perspective
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
Tater (in spirit)
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil