Writer Jenn Smith Nelson heads to the sanctuary of the Sonoran Desert in search of connection, adventure and R&R.


“Excuse me,” I say to my Uber driver, “do you know if birds nest in those holes?” I’m referring to the many cool cacti I spot roadside during my 25-minute ride from Phoenix to Scottsdale.

“Yep, those are Saguaro cacti. I’m pretty sure other animals use them too.”

Though I'm an avid birder, I haven’t come to Scottsdale for the birds; instead, it’s a yearning to ease back into travel and find a balance of adventure and relaxation that I’m seeking, and I have a feeling I’m in the right place.

Hailing from Saskatchewan, I feel a bit like I’m the last to know about Scottsdale even though the area has long been a magnet for snowbirds, particularly prairie dwellers. According to the city’s tourism bureau, Canada is the city's most important international market and Scottsdale's sixth largest market.


City Connection

After checking into the uber-chic Senna House, the city’s first new hotel in Old Town Scottsdale's Entertainment District since 2008, I catch up with writer pals visiting for the same reason. From this point, we will enjoy the trip as a unit, kicking it off at Merkin Vineyards, a tasting room that’s only a 15-minute walk from the hotel.

Rock music blares while we sip playfully named wines like Caduceus dos Ladrones and Merkin Shinola Rosado. “This isn’t your parents' tasting room. It’s owned by a rock star,” says general manager Jim Cunningham, which explains the edgy vibes this place is giving. Based out of Jerome, AZ, Maynard James Keenan, frontman of rock band Tool, is both head winemaker and owner with a penchant for experimentation and introducing Arizona wine to people who don’t generally care about wine. Cunningham says the niche group are often “first-time wine drinkers who nine times out 10 ends up loving it.” The Chupacabra Red, with fruit sourced from the southeastern Wilcox valley, one of three wine growing regions in Arizona, wins my heart.

Across the way at LDV Winery, we taste a few more traditional wines before heading to Cala, Senna House’s Mediterranean offering where a spicy Lumace A La Vodka from Chef Beau McMillan, a former iron chef and past executive chef to Wayne Gretzky, seriously impresses, as does the restaurant’s vibrant atmosphere.


Adventure Time

Yellow brittle bushes and saguaro cacti litter the landscape en route to Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch as we depart the next morning. It’s surreal arriving at Saguaro Lake where marsh and lake emerge to meet desert vista. After getting outfitted with kayaks, we spend a few hours paddling the lake’s calm waters via a quiet corridor bordered by 1,000-foot sheer cliffs and cacti-filled hills. Paddle splashes thankfully provide brief reprieve from an already sweltering sun.

Next, it’s time to partake in another outdoor activity: horseback riding. 

While waiting to be paired with my horse, I spy an iconic desert symbol—a roadrunner with a lizard in his mouth skirting through a pen filled with horses. “Oh, his name is Alan,” cowgirl Maggie Kwiatkowski casually shares.

As I mount Thor, a flash of red catches my eye. This time it's a brilliant Vermillion Flycatcher on a tree in front of me; a sign of good luck according to Navajo legend, says Kwiatkowski.

Today’s hour-long ride will take us by the Goldfield Mountains, situated south of Saguaro Lake and the Salt River in the Tonto National Forest. Trotting order has me behind Kwiatkowski who stops frequently to explain the area’s flora and fauna. I’m enthralled with the Saguaro cactus which everything in Scottsdale seems to be named after. “They are desert hotels for cactus wrens and owls,” she shares, confirming my Uber driver’s answer. The holes I learn are made by Gila Woodpeckers.

“Prickly pear right here is edible,” says Kwiatkowski who also points out Teddy Bear Cholla, with light-coloured needles resembling teddy bear arms. We pass under a patch of wispy salt cedar trees and spot tupa rosa, little edible red flowers and creosote bushes, a yellow flowering shrub that when rubbed, smells like the desert after the rain.

Sleep comes easy after a full day in the sun which is good news given the 3:30 a.m. wake up call for the next day’s hot air balloon adventure.

Run by sisters and co-owners Stephanie and Amanda Long, Hot Air Expeditions has been in operation since 1981, and is currently the only female-owned hot air balloon company operating in the area. “85 per cent of our riders are also female,” says driver Gary Davlos. “You are the risk takers,” he says smiling. This statement holds true as all but one in our group are women.

Arriving in the middle of what seems to be nowhere, we meet pilot Tommy Brown and learn about our balloon, an Ultra Magic 300 manufactured in Barcelona, Spain that holds 300,000 cubic feet of air and stands over nine stories tall. We watch as he and Galvos inflate the massive aircraft before crawling into a basket quadrant and being tipped upright to take flight.

Rising with the sun, the view is vast with dots of coloured balloons filling the skyline. It’s serene, the only noise coming from the draw of propane and fire filling the balloon; coils sizzling every so often.

When asked how long he’s been piloting, Brown responds, “It’s my third day!” ensuing laughter from the group. “It’s been over 18 years,” he corrects. “I’ve got a great job. It’s got its ups and downs,” he jokes again.

Descending from 3,500 feet at nine knots, I marvel at their landing system. “They follow me,'' says Brown, “I can’t steer these things,” he proclaims. “Gary, you copy? You ready? I’ll be there in a couple minutes,” he relays to his ground crew. Galvos is indeed ready and helps slow the balloon down Fred Flintstone style by hanging onto the basket’s edge, his feet acting as brakes as we bop up and down on the reddish-brown desert floor. After the hour-long ride, we are treated to a lovely breakfast, celebratory champagne and chatter between the newly giddy riders. 


Getting to Know the Locals

It’s time for a change of scenery and pace. We head away from the city and check into the posh Four Seasons Scottsdale located in the foothills of Pinnacle Peak in the high Sonoran Desert.

After being welcomed with a refreshing prickly pear cactus lemonade and settling into gorgeous hillside casitas, we visit the Desert Botanical Gardens taking in over 50,000 species of arid-land plants featuring local and international fauna. The bird enthusiast in me is in heaven as trills of flower-seeking birds fill the air. Wandering gorgeous pathways, I morph into plant paparazzi. Quirky quails dash in and out of the brush, a mourning dove nests atop a broken arm of a Saguaro cactus and I see so many hummingbirds I lose count.

And I learn even more about the king of cacti. Saguaro, the largest cactus species in the USA, can grow more than 40 feet tall, weigh up to a ton and are a keystone species providing food and shelter to birds, reptiles and mammals.

Unwinding in the Desert

Back at the hotel, dinner at Talavera is relished on a spacious deck overlooking the property’s 36 acres; the smell of mesquite chimeneas throughout the property filling the air. Before bed, we enjoy stargazing via an astronomy lesson; one of the many activities offered onsite.

It’s all about decompression and pampering the next morning starting with Soul & Sound Yoga; a combination of sound bathing and yoga with instructor Christina Noble, followed by a personalized aromatherapy blending lesson. Relaxation continues with a luxurious gold Repair Facial at the spa that leaves my face feeling ultra-silky, then total bliss soaking up the sun poolside.

My last morning in Scottsdale connects me to nature with a visit to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a protected area of 30,500 contiguous acres that make up a third of the city’s land mass. A seven-kilometre hike is invigorating with landscape shifting from gravelly desert into stacked massive boulders leading up to the Tom’s Thumb trail point. 

As the trip draws to an end, I feel rejuvenated having more than satisfied my long-awaited need for travel, connection, adventure and relaxation. 

I wave a fond farewell to the largest saguaro I’ve set eyes on thus far, knowing I’ll be back again one day.


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