Brawl-Cliff-Walk-Esplanade Loop
Sonoran Preserve

Mountain views on the Esplanade Trail

If the
human brain has a “dangerous things archive”, an image of a roaring desert wash
ought to be seared into it.

This hike exposes the power of running water.

Arizonans especially, the fear of running water should rank right up there with
snakes and heights. Although storm water
raging through usually-dry channels solicits choirs of oohs and ahhs, the flows
are definitely not something to mess with.

Creosote smells wonderful after rains.

They can go from trickle to torrent
in minutes. Driving, riding or hiking
through them is extremely risky and potentially deadly. Need more evidence?
Next time you’re hiking by a creek or wash, look up into the trees. Those wads
of debris dangling high above mark where the water was.

Wash and creek bed crossings are key features of the hike.

That’s why
it’s always smart to steer clear of trails that cross waterways until the swells
subside. It only takes a day or two for the trails and crossings to dry out
enough to pass through safely. Also, not using trails when they are wet and
soggy helps prevent the kind of damage that ruins drainage systems, creates
dangerous conditions and encourages the blazing of “work around” paths that
destroy native vegetation.

Skull Mesa framed by greenery around Apache Wash

A good
place to observe the force of water in a desert landscape is in the north sector
of the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve. Hedged between the Carefree Highway and
Sonoran Desert Drive east of Interstate 17 in north Phoenix, the chunk of
pristine desert holds many surprises.

The trails
here offer a diverse menu of options including moderate ridgeline rambles,
barrier-free strolls and easy explorations of the wily water alleys that
permeate the area.

A healthy saguaro on Badger Brawl Trail.

A hike on
the easy-rated Badger Brawl-Cliff Walk-Esplanade loop on the preserve’s far
east end is one of the best ways to explore the transformative powers of water.

Using trails when they are wet causes damage like this.

The circuit begins with a short walk on the Apache Wash Trail which traces a
ragged drainage fringed with greenery.
Soon, the trail dips into the first of several wash crossings where
signs warn not to attempt when water is running.

Ironwood trees dot the desert plains.
The circuit is flat and easy.

Above the
washes, sunny stretches of classic desert are dotted with saguaros, cholla and isolated patches
of mesquite and Palo Verde trees that throw bits of shade on a flatland littered
with basalt lava blobs and milky quartz.

Filaree or Stork's Bill grows along the trails.

Where the route wanders through open desert, mountain
views–dominated by Skull Mesa and Black Mountain to the north–bolster the horizons.

Heed this warning.

2.9-mile Cliff Walk Trail tethers the three legs of the loop with a
traverse of the banks above the Cave Creek river channel. Scattered boulders,
plant dregs and frazzled edges of the waterway document the ferocity of flash

Phoenix Sonoran Preserve Trails are well-signed.

The return leg of the trip follows the level grade of the Esplanade
Trail–an unfettered space of quiet beauty safe from the sporadic deluges
of creeks and washes.

Black Mountain (right) seen from Apache Wash Trail.

LENGTH: 8.56 miles


1720 – 1910 feet


Wash Trailhead, 1600 E. Sonoran Desert Drive, Phoenix.

From Loop 101 in north Phoenix, take Cave Creek Road exit 28
and go 4.5 miles north to Sonoran Desert Drive. Turn left (west) and continue
3.5 miles to the trailhead on the right. The preserve is open daily from
sunrise to sunset. There are restrooms but no water at the trailhead.


From the trailhead,
follow Apache Wash Trail (AW) 0.5-mile to Badger Brawl Trail (BB). Continue
1.55 miles on BB to Cliff Walk (CW) and hike it 2.9 miles to where you’ll swing
back on the Esplanade Trail (E). There’s
a shortcut roughly halfway up CW that cuts 2.25 miles off the big loop. Follow
Esplanade 3.4 miles back to AW, veer left and hike 0.73 mile back to the