Waterfall Trail
White Tank Mountain Regional Park
Maricopa County, Arizona
Neil Wiley

What would possess an otherwise sane man to hike on a brutally hot (97 degrees F.) afternoon in the Arizona desert? It could be an urge to explore, the need for a hiking article, or the insistence of an athletic daughter who is always looking for a challenge. Let’s say it was all three.

The White Tank Regional Park looked promising. On the west side of Phoenix and Peoria, it is the largest regional park in Maricopa County with about 33 miles of shared-use and hiking-only trails through 30,000 acres. It has ridges and canyons with peaks at over 4,000 feet. Flash floods, rare but torrential, have created chutes, ledges, and a series of depressions called tanks in the white granite rock.

These tanks provided a water source for Hohokam Indian tribes that date back to A.D. 500. Evidence of these people can be seen in rock shelters, pottery shards, and petroglyphs. Hundreds of figures and symbols on the rock faces may date back even longer—perhaps 10,000 years.

The largest group of these rock-art panels is along the two-mile out-and-back Waterfall Trail at Petroglyph Plaza. These rock drawings have withstood sun, rain, and vandals. We don’t know exactly what they mean, but experts say that they aren’t casual graffiti but are serious records of ideas, observations, and events. Of course, they are not as old as the rocks of the White Tanks. They date back to the pre-Cambrian period, over 1.7 billion years.

Although conditions are harsh, our desert trail passed through many plants. We saw many Saguaro cacti, some as tall as forty feet. We learned that the number of their arms does not tell their age.

We learned a lot about cacti. You can’t pet a Teddy Bear Cholla, frighten a Staghorn Cholla, or drink water from a Compass Barrel. In fact, we learned that you can’t consume water directly from any cactus. Not that we were tempted.

Other plant life has also adapted to the harsh desert environment. We saw creosote bushes that exude oil to resist water loss, and drain water down to the roots. We could touch the tiny leaves and chlorophyll-loaded bark of the Palo Verde trees that make good use of the sun. The multi-layers of leaves shade the inner leaves of Ironwood trees, but provided no shade for us.

We also saw where the waterfall would be if it had recently rained, but it hadn’t, so all we saw was a stagnant pool. It made us thirsty, so we retreated to a local fast-foodery for shakes and smoothies.

If you are in the Phoenix area and are interested in walking through a real desert, I recommend the Waterfall Trail in the White Tank Mountain Regional Park. Be sure to come on a cool morning, and bring water, a hat, and sunblock.

The park is located at the west end of Olive Avenue about 15 miles west of Highway 101. To get there, find your way to Highway 303. From the north, exit Highway south at Peoria Avenue. From the south, take Highway 303 north to Northern Avenue. From either direction, turn west on Cotton to Olive Avenue.

More information and maps are available at Maricopacountyparks.net and at the park entrance. Entry fee is $6 per car. Stay cool.