Nowhere else in Arizona do you find such a contrast between city and wilderness as in the south-central part of the state. More than half the state's population lives in the urban sprawl surrounding Phoenix. Yet just beyond you'll find craggy mountains, vast woodlands, and seemingly endless desert. People today tend to keep close to the rivers, which provide water to nourish crops and cities. But a different kind of thirst—for gold and silver—once lured many pioneers into the rugged mountains of south-central Arizona. Most of the towns they founded have faded into memory, but a few survive on income from tourism, copper, or other resources.
The mountains in this region aren't particularly high—most summit elevations range from 3,000 to 8,000 feet. But what they lack in size they make up for in challenging terrain—off-trail travel can be very difficult. The major ranges, all with good hiking and wilderness, lie north and east of Phoenix. These include the Bradshaw, Mazatzal, Sierra Ancha, Superstition, and Pinal Mountains. South and west from Phoenix you'll find a very different sort of country—the often harsh desert most people associate with Arizona. In this region, small craggy ranges break through plains of rock and sand, springs and streams rarely flow, and only hardy desert plants and wildlife survive.
Because most of south-central Arizona lies below 4,500 feet, temperatures stay on the warm side. In winter you'll enjoy springlike weather while people in the north are digging out from snowstorms. Spring and autumn also bring fine weather; in the high country, these are good seasons to be outdoors. In summer (May through September), the sun turns the desert into a giant oven; highs commonly top 100ºF! Drink plenty of liquids and wear a hat when venturing out into the summer heat.
Annual rainfall varies from about five inches in the lowest desert to more than 20 inches in the highest mountains. Most moisture arrives in two seasons: gentle rains arrive between December and March, and spectacular thunderstorms occur during July and August. The summer storms can kick up huge clouds of dust, cause flash floods, and start lightning-ignited brush fires.
Flora and Fauna
Cacti feel right at home across much of the region. You'll see lots of prickly pear, cholla, barrel cactus, and giant saguaro. Small plants and low trees also thrive. Rainfall prompts spectacular floral displays in early spring and sometimes in summer. Learn more about desert flora at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix and the Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior.
Most animals hole up during the day, though lizards seem to enjoy sitting on hot rocks. In the larger mountain ranges you might meet mountain lion, black bear, bighorn sheep, javelina, pronghorn, or deer. Always watch where you put hands and feet in the desert so as not to disturb rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, scorpions, or poisonous spiders.
Nomadic groups roamed across the region in seasonal cycles for thousands of years before learning to cultivate the land. Around 200-300 B.C., a tribe we know as the Hohokam settled in the Gila and Salt River valleys. They may have had the most sophisticated ancient culture that ever developed north of Mexico. Industrious agriculturalists, the Hohokam dug more than 300 miles of irrigation canals in the Salt River Valley alone. The larger canals measured more than 15 feet wide and 10 feet deep. Using water from the canals, the Hohokam grew corn—the staple of their diet—as well as beans and squash. They also hunted game and gathered wild plants. For most of their history the Hohokam lived in pithouses built of brush and mud over shallow pits. Later, some built rectangular adobe houses. Larger towns had houses by the hundreds and ball courts—large walled fields likely made for games played with hard rubber balls. The Hohokam made pottery, clay figurines, stone bowls, shell jewelry, paint palettes, and cotton cloth. At their peak around A.D. 1100, their settlements contained a population of between 50,000 and 100,000. The civilization disappeared by about A.D. 1450; much mystery surrounds their origin and demise. Pima, who likely descended from these people, described their predecessors as Hohokam—a word meaning "all used up" or "departed." Today you can see Hohokam artifacts and two of their most impressive ruins at Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix and at Casa Grande National Monument about 50 miles to the southeast.
Spanish and early American explorers overlooked the area. It wasn't until after the Civil War that stories of gold attracted streams of fortune hunters into this wild land. Pinal and Tonto Apache discouraged outsiders, but in September 1865, the army arrived to build Camp McDowell. Ranching and businesses soon followed. Jack Swilling, a prospector who had served on both sides in the Civil War, first took advantage of the Salt River Valley's farming potential. In 1867, he formed a company with $400, eight mules, and 16 former miners to dig out the Hohokam canals. By the summer of 1868, the group had harvested their first crops of wheat and barley. Their success attracted 30 more farmers the following year, and soon the beginnings of a town appeared. Swilling predicted that a new city would rise from the ruins of the Hohokam civilization, just as the mythical phoenix arose from its own ashes. Surveyors laid out Phoenix in 1870, marking off lots selling for $20-140 apiece. The early settlers had little wood, so they built with adobe. The results looked, according to some accounts, much like an ancient Hohokam village.
Phoenix Comes of Age
With increasing prosperity and a nearby railroad line, residents built ornate Victorian houses, planted trees, put in sidewalks, and opened an icehouse. Soon Phoenix resembled a town transplanted from the Midwest. By 1889 the town had enough energy and political muscle to wrest the state capital from Prescott. Not even 20 years old, Phoenix had established itself as the business, political, and agricultural center of the territory. Roosevelt Dam, dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1911, ensured water for continued growth. With the glamorous West now safe, Easterners flocked to dude ranches where they could dress like cowboys, ride the range, and eat mesquite-grilled steaks. World War II brought new industry and an increased military presence. Growth has been frantic ever since, helped by the development of air-conditioning, which makes the desert summer bearable. Though major manufacturing and service industries now dominate the economy of south-central Arizona, agriculture remains important. Area farmers raise crops of citrus, cotton, melons, sugar beets, and vegetables.
On to Phoenix