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Chad Turner of Stellar Adventures takes newbies and experienced riders on guided ATV tours of the Arizona desert.

Hikers along Tom's Thumb Trail in Scottsdale, Ariz., stop to take in the view. (Amy Bertrand/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

Chad Turner of Stellar Adventures takes newbies and experienced riders on guided ATV tours of the Arizona desert.

Hikers along Tom's Thumb Trail in Scottsdale, Ariz., stop to take in the view. (Amy Bertrand/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — What’s one thing Arizona has that many places do not have this time of year? Sun. And warm weather and cacti and mountains. In short, a desert climate.

The Sonoran Desert covers much of the southwestern part of the United States and into Mexico. It’s known for a variety of vegetation including the majestic saguaro (it’s the only place in the world it grows in the wild), prickly pear and organ pipe cactus.

In Scottsdale, a favorite vacation destination known for its golf courses and spas, I set out to explore the desert.

Apparently, exploring the desert is a popular vacation activity. According to the City of Scottsdale Tourism Department’s October 2019 visitor statistics, exploring state parks and hiking were among the top 10 activities for visitors.

The cheapest, easiest and most up-close-and-personal way to experience the desert is to walk through it.

The McDowell Sonoran Desert Preserve has more than 200 miles of trails on which to do that across 31,000 acres.

It is the largest urban preserve in North America, making it 36 times the size of New York’s Central Park.

The preserve is open from sunrise to sunset, and there is no charge for parking or access at any of the seven major trailheads. You can hike, bike and even ride a horse across the trails.

I hiked both the Gateway and the Tom’s Thumb trails. The Gateway Loop, at 3.6 miles, is a great way to take in a variety of cacti and even a few scurrying animals here and there. The trail rose fairly easily, a 625-foot change, along the towering mountains.

The Tom’s Thumb trail, a 5-mile loop with some pretty steep climbs (a 1,363-foot change in elevation), is much more difficult. The loose gravel amid giant boulders makes coming down in sneakers tough — OK — a dumb idea.

I highly recommend hiking boots. In addition, the docents at the trailhead told me that you start at an elevation higher than the famously difficult Camelback Mountain hike, also in Scottsdale. I’m convinced that made it even harder.

It’s been many years since I’ve been on an ATV, and I don’t remember ever driving one. Yet, here I was not only getting ready to hop on an all-terrain vehicle in the middle of the desert, but I was going to let my 15-year-old son do it as well. One of the main reasons: Our guide, Chad Turner, made me feel like I could do anything. He listened to my questions and worries and looked at my son and said, “Does she worry like this about everything?” My son nodded. Turner looked at me and assured me that I would be fine, and so would my son. Just listen to him, follow the rules and have fun. I did all three.

With Turner in the lead, we hopped on our automatic four-wheel ATVs to explore the desert in the Tonto National Forest, which extends over nearly 3 million acres. We went up and down hills and around water and over ruts and through sand washes (through which you have to go really fast) right next to cacti as Turner pointed out features of the area, all with gorgeous mountains around us and sunny skies above.

With 900 miles of trails, it’s a good idea to have a guide; all those cacti look a lot alike after a while.

Turner told us some families do the tour, which can differ based on skill level and interest, at the beginning of their vacation and come back more than once because it really is that much fun.

I believed him. I’m not sure I’ve smiled that much in a long time, and moms don’t get that many opportunities for great quality time with their teenage sons.

Kayaking isn’t the first thing I thought of when folks at ExperienceScottsdale.com suggested it as a way to see the desert. But seeing the mountains, the wildlife and an Indian reservation from an inflatable, “self-bailing” river kayak with my son made for a unique perspective on the desert.

We started near a few class 1 rapids, which made me a bit nervous, but after that it was smooth sailing. Except when I got stuck on the river bottom, which happened a few times. We’d just scoot, push with our oars and ask our tour guide for help.

For a desert, even in December, the riverbanks were surprisingly verdant, standing out even more amazingly among the towering red cliffs. We spotted a bald eagle and several herons but, alas, no wild horses known to run along that stretch of river. Rates start at $116 and include transportation.

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