Posted in family life, hikes

hiking with littles: mormon trail to fat man’s pass and hidden valley tunnel

January is really an exceptionally good time to hike the low desert – the sky is clear and brilliant blue, the little cool-weather ground plants are green, the breeze and the shadowed rocks are crisply cool, and the sun is cheery and invigorating. So I took advantage of some extra adult helping hands and decided to attempt a trip to Fat Man’s Pass and the Hidden Valley Tunnel on South Mountain. (Actually, I had intended to go alone with the kids, but my parents wanted to come too and I’m very glad they did!)

There are multiple ways to get to Fat Man’s Pass, but because Limerick is an avid climber I thought we’d try starting at Mormon Trailhead, where the trail climbs steeply upward for 1.3 miles before leveling off and descending to Hidden Valley. I may have underestimated just how steep it was… but the kids did really well! Aubade trekked up almost the entire first leg of the hike on her own two feet, and Limerick charged ahead and even took detours to boulder off on the side.

Limerick was so happy about climbing out this high that he actually let me take a picture of him!

One of the benefits to hiking so steeply up the side of the mountain was the view gained by such a rapid increase in elevation. We could see out to downtown Phoenix and over to the ASU Tempe campus, even while looking up towards the mountain let us see beautiful desert slopes.

It was definitely helpful to have an adult paired with each child for this trail, however. It was also helpful to carry a lot of water, despite the cool weather, and plenty of snacks for well-timed breaks. Jackets, on the other hand, while comfortable at the trailhead, quickly became just extra weight to carry – hiking in the open sun gets your body warmed up fast!

Rondel hiking with my dad 🙂 We mixed up the pairings throughout the hike but Rondel really loved getting to talk with my dad when they were together.

Towards the top of the mountain, Mormon Trail comes to an end at a junction with National Trail, and there is a turnoff to the left for Hidden Valley Tunnel. While you could turn in here and go through Hidden Valley beginning with the tunnel and ending with Fat Man’s Pass (giving yourself a longer descent back to the trailhead afterwards), we followed National Trail about a quarter of a mile longer to the turnoff for Fat Man’s Pass. After the sun and heat of the trail, the pass feels almost frigid, the eerily smooth rocks around the narrow path very cold to the touch; it is quite refreshing, and the pass itself is really fun to play in. The kids ran back and forth through it for a long time, and we ate a picnic lunch in the shadow of the overhanging rocks behind it.

From Fat Man’s Pass, the trail meanders down through flat sandy washes towards a tumble of rocks through which hikers must clamber or slide. When you approach them, it appears that the trail has reached a dead end, but don’t give up! Going to the left and through an opening in the rocks leads to a series of short slides; going to the right involves a short climb and a trail down to the bottom. I convinced the kids to come with me on the right to show my dad that it was an actual safe trail, but then they saw my mom sliding down the left side and climbed back up so they could go the “fun” way 🙂

Aubade playing in the sand at the edge of the upper half of Hidden Valley – the rocks behind her conceal the path down towards Hidden Valley Tunnel

The rock barrier between the upper and lower sections of Hidden Valley are really a fun place to climb around – I came with some friends back in college (we must have taken some other trail to get there since I don’t recall either Fat Man’s Pass or Hidden Valley Tunnel) and we spent a lot of time clambering up and down the boulders and joking about it being a great place to pose for an album cover photo. Aubade kept marching up to every tall rock she saw and doing her best to get to the top of it, giving my poor dad much anxiety while being exceedingly cute, oblivious, and self-confident.

When we reached the lower end of Hidden Valley not long after, we found the tunnel filled with other hikers so we didn’t stay long, unfortunately, and I didn’t get any good pictures. It is a really neat place, though – the rocks have made a literal tunnel leading out of the valley, long and thin (though not nearly as narrow as Fat Man’s Pass!) and cool, the rocks again polished slippery smooth.

Then it was back up to National Trail and a short ways to the junction with Mormon Trail, and the long (for tired little kids) descent down the mountain. Every few tenths of a mile there was a trail post with a picture showing how far you were from the bottom or the top of the trail, and Limerick and Rondel took great encouragement from these as their energy wore out – it was a great way to visually confirm that the end was getting closer! Aubade did have to be carried down as she was completely exhausted, and ended up napping on my mom’s back (we had been alternating the carrier – I had it most of the way up without Aubade, and my mom got stuck with it going down. She does have better knees though…).

Limerick explaining to Rondel that this trail post meant they were at the end of the trail! All the red on his face was chapping solely caused by the time spent hiking, a combination of the wind, sun, and stimming 😦

According to the South Mountain Trail map, the total distance of the loop was about 3.4 miles; according to my mom’s Apple watch tracker, it was 5.5 miles. My guess about the discrepancy is that the trail map measures the flat distance traveled, while the Apple watch measures the actual distance traveled, including the vertical aspect – which was not insignificant on this trail! The hypotenuse of this particular triangle was quite a bit longer than the base 🙂 Either way, it was the longest trail the kids have every hiked, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it with more than one little without help (I could have hiked with Rondel and either one of the others, for instance, most likely, but definitely not all three). However, if you can do it I would encourage you to go for it! Hidden Valley is worth the trek to get there, and the Sonoran desert is beautiful this time of year.

How to get there: from the I-10, exit on Baseline Rd and drive west till 24th Street. Turn left and continue south till the road turns left and becomes Valley View Dr. The trailhead is to the right very shortly after. It does fill up quickly on weekends, but there is roadside parking available on 24th Street. There are no bathrooms or water at the trailhead, so come prepared! Mormon Trail is the only trailhead, and the path is well-marked the entire way except through Hidden Valley itself.

Posted in hikes

hiking with littles: picacho peak

Now, anyone who has made it to the top of Picacho Peak knows that it obviously isn’t a good hike for small children. The trail is steep and slippery, to the point that there are cables drilled into the rock as handholds to prevent hikers from falling – and it’s an amazing trail if you can do it, but there’s no way I’m going to recommend doing it with three kids five and under!

However, Picacho Peak is one of the most beautiful wildflower sites in the state, particularly during a magnificent spring bloom like the one we’re having this year, so we made the drive down to bask in the beauty along all the short interpretative trails around the base of the mountain.

There were so many poppies. The wild golden poppies that grow here are one of my favorite flowers – like a more glamorous version of the buttercups I loved as a child in the Northeast – and when they carpet the ground it seems to shimmer in the sunlight.

There were patches of lupine as well, their deep blues and purples providing the perfect foil to the golden poppies.

One of the shorter trails led up to a small cave overlooking the valley around the base of the peak, and the kids had a lot of fun clambering over the boulders above the cave, as well as stroking the velvet softness of the poppies and delighting in the presence of the wildflowers (as is only to be expected!).

I really couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to bask in the desert spring. I would definitely and without hesitation recommend Picacho Peak to anyone who is in the state in the month of March, especially if the preceding winter has been on the rainier side, no matter their hiking abilities – there is something for every level here, and beauty to make it worthwhile even without reaching the summit.

There is a $7.00 entrance fee since the peak is a state park, but there are also covered picnic tables, clean bathrooms, a very nice little gift store/information center (with some fun Southwest themed souvenirs and books), and even a small playground, and the trails are well-maintained – so the fees are apparently being used to good effect here 🙂 My only regret is that I have waited so long to come back since the last time I hiked the peak (with my dad, as a teenager, to the top), and I won’t be making that mistake again.

How to get there from the East Valley: There are a few ways to get started, but whether you take the US-60 or the Loop 101 or the Loop 202, you’ll want to end up on the I-10 E headed toward Tuscon. From there it’s very straightforward – you just keep driving south until exit 219, and then follow the signs into the state park. I believe you can pay the entrance fee with a card if you go into the visitor’s center, but it is simplest to bring cash and pay as you drive by.

Posted in hikes

hiking with littles: superstition mountains – treasure loop trail

Now that our very wet winter has come to an end, the desert has burst into life with a wild spring bloom, and I’ve been trying to take the kids out to see the mountains turned green with wildflowers decorating the slopes. My mood always tends to improve as the colder and grayer season ends (can’t imagine what I’d be like if I lived elsewhere), so I’ve had the energy and motivation to hike again – and the prospect of flowers definitely adds to that motivation!

The day we chose to hike the Treasure Loop trail in the Superstition Mountains was unfortunately cloudy and rainy, so many of the flowers stayed hidden away, but it was still a beautiful hike.

Treasure Loop trail is almost 2.5 miles long and moderately difficult – the trail is broad and well-marked, but it can be steep and slippery in places. We took a few hours doing it… in out defense, we stopped to smell the flowers a time or two (and count their petals, in Limerick’s case):

We also took time to climb up some boulders near the path and pretend to be mountain lions:

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And of course we took breaks for snuggles and snacks (the bench at the overlook was really timed perfectly for the kids’ hunger):

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The cold and wind did make the hike considerably more challenging, as Aubade really dislikes being cold and getting wind in her face (we’ve had this issue on other hikes). Because the trail ended up being a lot colder than our home just 30 minutes away, Aubade wore my jacket for most of the hike, which helped and was adorable but left me rather cold as a result 🙂 I guess it’s just a reminder to check the weather at the actual trailhead before deciding what to wear!

For others considering Treasure Loop, I’d say it would take much less time with just slightly older kids – we were mostly slowed down by Aubade (and our spirit of exploration!). Good footwear is important though as the trail can get quite slippery once you start coming back down the slope. This is a fairly popular trail from what I could tell, based on the number of other hikers we saw on a weekday, but it wasn’t overly crowded. It can be accessed from free parking spots by the First Water trailhead, or through the Lost Dutchman state park for a $7.00 entrance fee (as well as a shorter hike and good bathrooms, both of which were needed with my little hikers). We enjoyed it and I’m sure we’ll be back next spring 🙂

How to get there from the East Valley: take the 60 to Apache Junction and exit on Idaho Road; turn right onto Apache Trail and continue until you reach the entrance to the Lost Dutchman State Park. The entrance fee is $7.00 and the ranger will give you a map of the trails and state park roads/parking lots.

Posted in family life

the rainy remnants of rosa

The Phoenix area was hit by the remnants of Hurricane Rosa, a category 4 hurricane, this week. My dad, who is from Miami, was going around humorously asking everyone if they were ready for the hurricane, but of course by the time it got to us it was just a big rainstorm. Still! A big rainstorm in October isn’t common, and this storm actually gave us the rainiest October day in Arizona recorded history (which goes back, in terms of weather records, to 1895). Even crazier, of the top ten wettest days in Arizona, this was number eight and was the only one that my kids have been alive for (except for Rondel, who was just over one year old when we had the wettest recorded day in Arizona history).

 

So what do you do when there is more rain coming down than you have ever seen in one day in your entire life?

You drop everything else and immerse yourself in it, of course!

My two adventurers were out in their pajamas by 7am (I mean, why get dressed only to get immediately soaked and need to change?), and must have stayed out for at least an hour before they decided they needed to eat breakfast. And after breakfast they were right back out in it, with Limerick this time (but in their underwear, so no publicly shareable pictures unfortunately). Limerick found the big hole in the yard that was completely submerged and hidden, pulled the toy car out of it, and measured how deep it was on his legs (almost to his knees); Rondel pushed Aubade around the yard in the rescued car until it got stuck in the mud.

I learned that one of my children likes to get extremely muddy, one likes to get extremely wet and can handle the mud along with it, and the third somehow manages to stay almost clean even in a mud puddle and prefers to remain at least somewhat dry.

Aubade is, obviously, my mudlover… she is completely in her element when she is outside getting dirty, and I hope she never loses that. Limerick gets cold so easily that he preferred to sit just inside the house or under the patio overhang, learning how to multiply two-digit numbers with my mom while I hung out with the mud babies 😛 But we all loved it – and there is rain in the forecast again next week so maybe we will get a repeat!

Is rain a normal occurrence or a special event where you live? Do you love it or tolerate it?

 

Posted in hikes

gilbert riparian preserve

With all the sicknesses going around the family, we haven’t made it out for a hike in a few weeks, but we were able to visit the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert for a new experience and a bit of a respite from the city.

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The preserve is only about 15 minutes from our house, but it feels like we’re in a completely different environment once we’re there. There are several large basins, with trails weaving between and around them, and a myriad of native plant life. There were butterflies everywhere, and rabbits scurrying around under the mesquite trees with their little white tails bobbing. Ducks, turtles, and fish live in the water, and we even saw a large goose strutting down the path! Unfortunately, because the basins are filled with reclaimed water, they aren’t safe for swimming or wading in, which was disappointing for the kids, but they still appreciated the beauty of it.

On the parking lot edge of the preserve are some activity areas, including a dinosaur dig sandpit, a collection of Arizona animal footprints, and a lot of walls for climbing on. We honestly ended up staying around the climbing walls for the majority of our time at the preserve, and the kids seemed to really enjoy them.

Another nice aspect of the preserve is that it is directly adjacent to the Gilbert Public Library; a little boardwalk bridge connected our play area to the library lot, and the walk wasn’t far at all.

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We went over around 11, when the heat became a bit too much for us, to cool off, refill our water bottles, and spend some time reading. This particular library has a huge children’s section, with the picture books arranged by topic on sparsely filled shelves, enabling children to easily browse on their own for books that look appealing. I can imagine it would be difficult to locate a specific book of interest, but it is ideal for finding new books to try out, which is what we did.

I will note that our morning at the preserve and library so exhausted Aubade that she napped for a solid 3 hours that afternoon, and the boys flopped onto the couches and watched a movie. Everyone was worn out, mostly from the heat but also from the climbing.

We will definitely be going back, and hopefully we will get to explore the trails around the basins more thoroughly in the future! As the weather gets cooler I expect it to be an even nicer experience, but even in the heat I highly recommend it since the library is there to provide some relief afterwards.

For more information about the Riparian Preserve, including its location, visit the City of Gilbert site here!

Posted in family life

an oasis in the desert

I took my children to the lake last Thursday.

Yes, even here in the desert we have lakes! They are mostly manmade and act as water reservoirs… but they also serve as beautiful oases, especially when temperatures start rising.

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My sister-in-law joined us for a couple hours with her four kids, which was especially good when Limerick got in too deep and started panicking and needed me – that extra pair of adult eyes and hands makes a big difference sometimes. It was also fun for us just to spend time with them! But we stayed after they needed to leave and it was equally wonderful in different ways.

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I mentioned our day trip to someone and they instantly reacted with the words, “what a chore!”

I still haven’t been able to figure it out.

It isn’t a chore to spend time outside, in the natural unbuilt environment, enjoying the beauty of creation. In fact, it’s something I’m constantly striving to do more often! I want my children to love and respect the natural world, to feel connected to it and desire to protect and preserve it; they won’t if they are never exposed to it. And we were so lucky on this particular day to be visited by a herd of wild horses. I mean, how often do you get to see large wild animals like that? We were all in awe – even Aubade kept pointing and exclaiming in wonder as they moved through the water.

It isn’t a chore to take my children out on an excursion – at least not this type of outing. Rondel and I both struggle in crowded indoor environments, or in highly structured populated activities, because of the constant sensory bombardment and social expectations. Limerick and Aubade are both still noisy constantly-moving little people (as they should be!). So when we’re outside, away from the artificial stimuli and the obscure social norms of the city, free to make the sounds we want to make and move our bodies in comfortable ways without bothering anyone, it is incredibly relaxing and refreshing.

It isn’t a chore to be with my children, to let go of my own pursuits and just focus on them for an afternoon, enjoying the small details of life with them. They remind me how exciting a lake bed scattered with shells can be; they delight my heart with their surprised laughter at things that are now old and familiar to me. After you’ve been to the beach a few times, you anticipate the way the waves knock into you; when you’re only 1 or 3 or 4, each new wave comes as a surprise and a gift.

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And it certainly wasn’t a chore to watch Rondel and Limerick playing together for hours, intent on their exploration of this new world, sharing it with each other as best friends do. On the contrary, it was a gift for me as a parent to see my children growing and deepening in their relationship with each other in such a natural and unforced way.

I know these days are fleeting. For only these few years will I have such a strong influence on their lives, and such a deep connection; I don’t want them to stay little forever, but I do want to live these years with intentionality. Of course it takes a bit of planning and organization to take three small children to the lake for the afternoon. But the riches all of us reap as a result far more than outweigh that work of preparation. For us, places like this are more than just real and physical oases in the desert: they are also oases of renewal for our souls.

Posted in family life, links, musings

spending time outdoors, and trying to avoid the built environment in an urban setting

I read a rather depressing article in The Guardian this week about the amount of time kids spend outside – apparently, about 3/4 of kids in the UK spend less than an hour outside on an average day, which is less than the amount of outdoors time the UN recommends for prisoners. I don’t imagine it’s that much better in the US, particularly in urban environments.

There’s been a combination of factors leading up to this, I think. We have the increased attraction of indoor activities, to start – a proliferation of games, toys, and technologies that didn’t exist a few generations ago. We have an increased sense of parental fear and anxiety, which I think stems from the globalization of our news and the breakdown of neighborhood communities. And in general we have a cultural tendency toward comfort and convenience, and being outdoors in all weathers isn’t the most comfortable or convenient thing, especially when parental supervision is required!

But it is undeniable that outdoors, active play and exploration is one of the best possible things a young child can be doing.

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So, in sort of the same spirit as my efforts to make sure my kids eat a variety of healthy foods, I’ve decided to be very intentional about getting them out of the house every day for an hour or two at a time (Limerick doesn’t usually last longer than that without needing some sort of rest or snack). I wish I had more wild and natural places for them to play easily, but at least I can get them outdoors with their hands in the dirt and rocks and grass!

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And in the mud! Irrigation at the botanical garden makes for a great play place for a toddler.

Our city does offer a variety of parks, and we live in a walkable area, so that helps a lot. Just this weekend, actually, we discovered a new park that has a small desert botanical garden, some walking trails, and some Native American ruins in addition to the playground area! I’m anticipating a lot more exploration there…

Rondel and I stood under this palo verde, by the flower-crowned organ pipe cacti, and held very still so we could listen to the buzzing drone of all the bees over our heads. The branches were probably a good two feet above my head and we could still hear the hum loud and clear.

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Limerick learned the hard way that even the flower buds on cacti have prickles!

In a similar vein, I learned today about the concept of an urban farm preschool, where very young children who don’t live in a rural environment can still have daily exposure to the natural environment – to experience firsthand the ever-changing beauty and wildness of nature, to see how plants grow and bear fruit and die, to taste and touch and feel living things every day, to grow comfortable around dirt and animals and the unsanitized processes of the natural world. There’s another idea added to my catalog of small businesses I’d be interested in starting some day!

What are some of your favorite ways to encourage your children to play outdoors, especially those of you who live in more urban settings? How do you think our society as a whole might do a better job of enabling outdoor time for both children and adults?