The Emerald of Central Arizona
Central Arizona is a dry place. Stay here long enough and you will start to see water as the precious resource that it is. Due to this, green places are very special. The Hassayampa River Preserve is one of these green gems, and its right in Phoenix’s backyard. Furthermore, thanks to the hard work of the Nature Conservancy and Maricopa County Parks and Recreation, a stretch of the habitat offered by this unique river is protected for all to enjoy.
What is the Hassayampa
The Hassayampa River was given its name due the unique way in which it tends to flow underground along most of its length. While the river bed is apparent in the desert, it often appears to be dry. This is because the water is below the surface until there is sufficient rain and runoff. In the Hassayampa River Preserve, the river surfaces due to changes in the depth of the stone layers that the water flows over. This makes the area of the preserve into an oasis in the desert, which has drawn people and wildlife for hundreds of years.
History of the Preserve
The land that is now the Hassayampa River Preserve has long been of interest to people because of it’s year-round water supply. When Europeans found the area, it immediately became a point of interest for travelers, initially as a stagecoach stop in the 1860s and a guest ranch in 1913. There was also a train depot that opened in the area at this time, allowing people to access the ranch, and you can still see the ruins of this building today.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) protected this land in 1987, and as recently as 2016, a collaboration between the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department and TNC was started. As of now, the river preserve is part of a large preserve system that protects a variety of ecosystems throughout the county.
What You Need to Know Before You Go
There is a $5.00 per person entrance fee to the park, and you can pay this fee with cash or credit card at the visitor center.
The Hassyampa River Preserve is open for different hours during the winter and summer. In the summer, the park is open Wed-Sun from 7am-4pm, with the trails closing at 3:30p. In the winter, the park is also closed Mon-Tues and is open from 8am-5pm (trails close at 4:30pm).
While some might balk at the entrance fee, Hassayampa River Preserve is currently run by the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation department, and most of their funding comes from these modest ticket prices. They do a lot of amazing work trying to protect the wild spaces of central Arizona, and when you pay to hike in their lands, you are supporting that work.
Getting to the Hassayampa River Preserve
The Preserve is on the west side of the US-60 just south of a small town called Wickenburg. If you are coming from Phoenix, it will be about a 1 hour long drive from the center of the city to the preserve. I usually take the I-17 to the 74, which passes Lake Pleasant before connecting with the US-60. You can also take the 60 right out of town.
If you are coming from the north you may take the 93 down towards Wickenburg or the I-17, depending on what part of the state that you are in.
The Hassayampa River Preserve is right off of the US-60, and there isn’t a lot of official signage on the road for it. If you are heading north, keep your eyes peeled for a binocular sign before you hit Wickenburg; there will be a ranch-style sign and gate for the Preserve on the left-hand side of the road directly after this. You may need to make a u-turn if you miss it.
If you are driving south, look out for the little binocular sign and the same ranch-style sign and gate on the right.
Once you see the gate, drive down a narrow road to a small parking lot. The visitor center is a beautiful little white house. You will pay inside.
Hiking the Upside Down River
In my opinion, there are four different ecological experiences that you can get on the trails in Hassayampa River Preserve. One of the coolest things about the park is that you can see the whole thing in a half day or less depending on your hiking ability.
Palm Lake Loop
The Palm Lake Loop (0.61 mi) will take you around the Palm Lake, which is rightfully named (as are most of the trails in the park). The small lake is surrounded by palms and reeds, and it is a great place for birding, particularly in the case of water fowl.
Mesquite Meander Trail
The Mesquite Meander Trail (0.89 mi) can be linked with Palm Lake to make a larger loop. This trail takes you through a drier section of the park (relatively speaking). Here you will get to experience a mesquite bosque. While mesquites may look unassuming to visitors, these beautiful trees were and still are very special to people living in the Sonoran Desert. For the Native Americans, mesquite beans could be used to produce very healthy flour. You can still find this in some places and use it make very delicious, bready pastries.
River Ramble and Lion Trail
The River Ramble (0.74 mi) and the Lion Trail (0.54 mi) will take you down by the river. These are the best trails to really enjoy the riparian forest. In particular, if you want to get really close to the water, give the Lion Trail a try, as it will take you across the river twice if you follow the whole loop.
Finally, the most difficult trail in the Hassayampa River Preserve will take you up to Lyke’s Lookout. This trail gives off a more typical Sonoran Desert vibe, complete with cacti. It’s quite steep, and can be slippery in the places due to sand and loose stones. While difficult, it does offer some unique and beautiful views of the riverbed. If you have good shoes and are up to the incline, it is definitely worth the climb.
Other Great Activities at the Preserve
Besides hiking, Hassayampa is an amazing place to go birding, and wildlife watching. There are plenty of benches and nice places to sit and just watch the natural world as it goes about its business.
Maricopa County Parks also provides a whole load of programs at the preserve, which include guided bird and wildlife walks. They also have guided night walks, hiking challenge events, and classes about the history of the park, among other things. You can check out the full calendar on their events page to see what’s going on when you are visiting.
Check Out Wickenburg
While you are up (or down) at the Hassayampa River Preserve, give Wickenburg a peek. I always love to grab some food when I am in town, and there are also some nice little areas to walk around in if you enjoy exploring small towns.
If you are looking for some grub, skip the fast food chains. El Ranchero is a really adorable Mexican, sit-down where you can get some hometown US-Mexican food. I’ve gone there several times and I’ve never been disappointed. If you have a hankering for some burgers, and don’t have a lot of time, check out Screamers. They are a delicious drive-in where you can get your American fast food fix while supporting a local business.
Leave No Trace
It’s important to be responsible when you visit nature. A great place to start are the 7 principles of Leave No Trace.
(1) Plan Ahead and Prepare- Never go hiking unprepared. Rescue teams are needed for real emergencies not bad planning.
(2) Travel on Durable Surfaces- For Hassayampa, always stay on the trails.
(3) Dispose of Waste Properly- There are trashcans at the visitor center at Hassayampa, and you can always pack out your trash as well.
(4) Leave What You Find- Don’t take anything that you find on the trail home with you. Leave it where you found it.
(5) Minimize Campfire Impacts- No fires are allowed in Hassayampa.
(6) Respect Wildlife- Keep your distance, and be quiet when you are observing wildlife. Never feed any wild animal, and alert rangers or park volunteers if you see wildlife in distress.
(7) Be Considerate of Other Visitors- Hike on the right side of the trail, and don’t block the paths. If you want to listen to music, use headphones.
Safety at the Hassayampa River Preserve
As always, hiking can be a dangerous sport, and although Hassayampa is not a backcounty situation, there are things that visitors should be careful about.
(1) Watch yourself and your children around the water.
This is a river preserve, so there will be flowing water close at hand. Whether or not the water is deep, there is always some risk of drowning, particularly for small children. While the preserve is a wonderful place to visit with family, always keep an eye on your kids. Even for adults, is it best to respect the water. A good general rule of thumb is not try and walk through the river if it is more than ankle deep. There are typically wooden walkways crossing the water at Hassayampa River Preserve so just stay on the trail as you always would.
(2) Stay away from wild animals
Water is a precious resource in the desert, and the many denizens of Arizona are drawn to it whereever it can be found. Due to this, Hassayampa is a great place to see wildlife. But this does have its dangers, if people aren’t smart. Whatever animals you see when you are visiting, give them their space. We are just visitors in their home and they deserve our respect, no matter how excited we are to see them. Even more so, animals can really hurt people that get too close, so it’s best for both of us to keep our distance.
(3) Watch the weather
Flash floods are a danger in Arizona, and the Hassayampa can and does flood when there is enough rain upstream. Maricopa won’t let people into the park when these conditions are present, and don’t try to enter the park if its closed under any circumstances. Rivers are extremely dangerous when flooded.
(4) Go prepared
Wear good shoes. Bring water. And ask the local volunteers and rangers any questions that you have about the trail when you are visiting. The Hassayampa River Preserve is relatively safe, but your safety, in the end, is your responsibility. Anything can happen anywhere, so don’t do anything that might get you into trouble.
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