PHOENIX — "Everything in the Sonoran Desert either sticks, stings, bites or eats meat. There are quite a few things you don't want to touch, and in the dark it's harder to discern between safe and scary," said tour guide Bruce Leadbetter as he geared up to lead a night hike at McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Fountain Hills, northeast of Phoenix.
The cautionary note was not comforting as I headed into the vastness of the desert after dark with a dozen other hikers. Nothing but the moon illuminated the shapes and shadows of barren trees, wiry plants and cacti. But then, like a sign from above, the pitch black was ablaze with streams of white lights as meteoroids shot through the sky for what seemed like minutes. The natural fireworks were a prelude to several hours of darkness on a hike that mixed the mystical beauty of the desert at night with the humorous warnings from our guide, a former Marine and co-owner of a company called 360 Adventures.
For example: "If you get lost, look for barrel cactus; they tend to always lean south." But don't get too close. Pointing at a "jumping cactus" (also known as the cholla cactus) that looks like the love child of a cactus and a pine tree, Leadbetter warned that the sharp needles will pierce your skin if you even slightly brush against them.
For the most part, though, exploring the Sonoran on that moonlit night was an almost solemn experience, a stark contrast to the heat and blue skies of a daytime trip. In the evening, the sinking sun beams a fiery light over the mustard-red buttes, spires and mesas, and you gradually adjust to the calm of the cool air and dark and quiet landscape with dilated pupils and a heightened awareness. Depending on the time of year, lizards, toads and other nocturnal creatures may be spotted.
In addition to privately arranged expeditions like the one offered by 360 Adventures, McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers public monthly moonlit tours with an interpretive ranger for $6 per car. Other ways of exploring the desert include hot-air balloon rides from Hot Air Expeditions and Jeep tours with Arizona Territorial Adventures. The nighttime treks from 360 Adventures are arranged year-round on request, $200 for the first person, $80 for each additional person.
Then there are the local culinary adventures. Hole-in-the-Wall is a Phoenix smokehouse with a great view that offers barbecue fare grilled on its vintage outdoor smoker and barbecue pit. A backyard feast for two is $23 a person.
In Phoenix's Roosevelt Row neighborhood, try Barrio Cafe, decorated with Day of the Dead artwork. Its exceptional Mexican fare by award-winning chef Silvana Salcido Esparza includes shrimp tacos and sweet potato mash; menu prices range $10 to $26.
For a fun if kitschy Western atmosphere, Greasewood Flat, a onetime stagecoach stop in Scottsdale from the 1880s, hosts country music nights with live bands on weekends with line dancing in the outdoor eating area, under $10. Also in Scottsdale, the Mission offers good martinis and mojitos, plus Latin cuisine.