A Walk with Nature

Hikes are thousands of steps in the right direction for your health

Echo Canyon - Camelback Mountain

Venture out at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning to the 1.2-mile-long summit trail of Piestewa Peak and you will see a reflection of pure Phoenix, of true Arizona. In the quiet of the gathering light, hikers bearing water bottles emerge from cars in the fast-filling parking lot and on adjacent streets eager to walk thousands of vertical steps to the top, take in the view, recover on the rocks, and amble back down.

What you see on the way up and at the top is the Valley of the Sun in all its glory — levels of dazzling and dizzying panorama displaying a desert tamed by man, teeming with its street capillaries and highway arteries neatly woven around bare mountains and leading to and emerging from a cluster of downtown towers. In between, red and gray roofs, pop-up church spires and backyard pools dot the brown and green desert carpet. The view is the hard-earned reward for the pain being emitted from your quads.

Piestewa Peak, the second-highest point (2,600-foot summit) in the Phoenix Mountains after Camelback Mountain (2,700-foot summit), is a true gathering place for some. And for others, it is a gym or a place of reflection.

It doesn’t matter what the weather is, they will be there either trying to beat the heat or celebrating the fact that it is not there. And “they” isn’t just one type. Hiking is one activity that reflects accurately the soup of Phoenix demographics — old and young, affluent and not, families and singles, in shape and not-so-in-shape, white, black, Canadian, Latino, Asian — all are represented on the trail and are humbled by its vertical relentlessness as they brave bug bites, blisters and bruises to trudge and sweat harmoniously toward the shared goal of checking the boxes of Saturday morning cardiovascular accomplishment, with an added bonus of achieving sufficient introspection along the trail.

This scenario plays out all across the trails in or near Arcadia, Biltmore, Scottsdale and Paradise Valley. The naturalist John Muir may as well have been describing a Saturday morning Camelback Mountain hike when he said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” And hundreds of thousands are bent on receiving, year in and year out.

The Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department estimates that 750,000 people hike Camelback Mountain a year (Echo Canyon and Cholla trailheads combined) and about 12 to 15 million visitors a year use the city’s 88 trails. Piestewa Peak draws about a half million people a year.

Piestewa Peak, Camelback Mountain’s Cholla Trail and Echo Canyon Trail are designated by the city with a double-black diamond rating, meaning they are not for the casual or inexperienced hiker; the Parks people caution, “Take a Hike, Do It Right.”

Caution is always called for when hiking but risk goes down somewhat when there is less vertical challenge. Take Quartz Ridge Trail at 32nd Street and Lincoln Drive. It’s a moderate hike (a gradual, not strenuous, climb) of about four miles roundtrip. The same goes for Dreamy Draw Recreation Area off Northern Avenue — less strenuous, more gradual inclines.

Whatever social and psychological benefits hiking offers (they are hard to measure but clearly exist), the physical benefits are more clear. Regular hiking leads to improved cardio-respiratory fitness (heart, lungs, blood vessels), better muscle fitness and weight control. For a 154-lb. person, hiking burns up to 370 calories an hour (and even more for steep summits like Camelback and Piestewa). Logging cardio via hiking can reduce blood pressure by four to 10 points, and cut the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke at the same time.

He’s not a doctor, but Garrison Keillor, host of National Public Radio’s “Prairie Home Companion,” was onto something when he said, “There is no fever that a 10-mile hike can’t cure.” A 2007 study showed that 71 percent of hikers reported decreased levels of depression after hiking, 80 percent reported mood improvement and 90 percent reported their self-esteem increased after a hike.

So, take the advice of settled science and go take a hike.

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