Desert After Dark

Have you ever been to the desert? The kind where craggy buttes tower over escarpment terrain? Now, have you been after dark?

Oh, Canada! Ours is a country that wants for few things, save for a place to have a true desert experience. While the Nk’mip Desert will serve in a pinch, it doesn’t quite encompass the solitude and sandstone of Mesa, Arizona. 

Have you ever been to the desert? The kind where craggy buttes tower over escarpment terrain? Where cactus-studded forests carpet the landscape, sculpted canyons invite exploration, and where wildflowers bloom vibrantly after the rain.

While Canadians layer up against dropping temperatures, the easing temperatures of fall are welcome news for desert enthusiasts. The milder weather is a siren’s call to hikers and mountain bikers. The reasons to visit are obvious; a terrain so exotic, contrasted against the prairies, forests and thundering rivers of Canada; the incredible flora that decorates the landscape…and then there’s the stars. With expansive starlit skies punctuated by a full moon casting an enchanting glow over the scenery, visitors might  just realize that the desert is actually better enjoyed after dark. 


Fast facts

  • Mesa is the third-largest city in Arizona with a population just over 440,000 people.

  • Get there: flying into Phoenix (32 km from Mesa) will take three hours from Vancouver and Calgary, under four from Winnepeg and five from Toronto. 

  • Mesa shares a border with the expansive Tonto National Forest. As the gateway to this national treasure, the city enjoys easy access to some of the best wilderness in the state.

  • Just a hop and a skip into Tonto National Forest lays the spectacular Superstition Mountains. Not only can visitors hike endless desert trails with mountain views and enjoy exploring old ghost towns, but the Superstition Mountains are an area steeped in mystery and legend dating back to the Wild West.

  • Lost Dutchman State Park lies near Mesa. One of the most famous tales is the legend of the Lost Dutchman‘s mine, a rich gold mine long lost to the world. It has attracted treasure hunters worldwide.

Full moon dates

While the desert is stunning during the day, those who want to get the fullest from their desert-after-dark experience best plan their visit during the full moon.

For 2015 and into 2016, the full moon will rise on:

  • October 27th

  • November 25th

  • December 25th (Christmas in the desert is a magical Christmas!)

  • January 23rd

  • February 22nd

  • March 23rd

  • April 21st

3 Adventurous desert-after-dark experiences

Depending on your schedule, here are four options for exploring Mesa’s surrounding deserts.

Day hiking

Can’t commit to spending the entire night to the desert? Why wrap up a day of hiking in the San Tan Mountain Region Park with a sunset? While this park has 10,000 acres of creosote flats and thick saguaro forest, the crowning jewel is Goldmine Mountain.

To time the perfect sunset hike, visitors should make for the San Tan Trail. This 10.2-kilometre hike treks through the Broken Lands and the Central Valley of San Tan, and all the way to the pinnacle of Goldmine Mountain. While the San Tan Trail has its difficult washes and steep, rocky climbs, it is excellent for intermediate hikers. Plus, it features one of the best sunset vistas in the area.

Trailhead: 6533 West Phillips Road, Queen Creek Arizona 85242
Parking: designated lot
Notes: $6.00 vehicle park entry fee


Overnight camping

Without a doubt, overnight camping provides the best desert after dark experience. Visitors will get to experience how the landscape dramatically changes from day to dusk to dark.

The 32-kilometre Ballantine Trail provides the perfect challenge and scenery for an overnight trip. It winds through the golden sandstone walls of Ballantine Canyon and beyond, showcasing the diversity of the Sonoran Desert. With unique rock formations and riparian areas, hikers navigate their way from the canyon to the small creek at the end of this out-and-back hike. Visitors can end their night camping under the stars at the end of the trail by the creek. It’s here where the canyon walls have faded away and there is nothing but the sky above to keep you company. While considered only moderately difficult due to its length, the trail can be difficult to follow once it heads out of the canyon.

Trailhead: just past milepost 210 on AZ 87 (39 km north of the Shea Blvd intersection)
Parking: lot
Notes: primitive trail fades out in some places, ability to way find is required


The multi-day trek

Finally, what better way to spend a few days out in the desert than in the Superstition Mountains?

The Eastern Superstitions Superloop is one of the most challenging treks in Arizona. The route touches upon all the major trails in the eastern Superstition Wilderness, showcasing spectacular vistas, two historic ranch sites, two Native American cliff dwellings, and a full range of unique desert rock formations. On the Eastern Superstitions Superloop, backpackers cover 54.7 kilometres in around 3 days, stopping to camp within wide open range of Angel Basin and in the pine-studded Campaign Creek Canyon. The length of the trail makes it a daunting trek, but the eastern Superstition Wilderness is relatively flat terrain. What’s more, it’s surrounded by desert scenery and framed by the mountains in the background.


Only have a few hours?

Tour the planetarium after dark – attend an Astronomy Night at the Mesa Community College planetarium. Click here for more details 

Travelling with the kiddos? Visit Usery Mountain Park after dark for a Stargazing for Everyone series presentation. Find out more here:

Ranger-guided full moon hikes – follow the lead of a park ranger in Lost Dutchman State Park. On Friday nights find astronomer Bill Dellinges hosting Sky Talk at the nearby campground amphitheatre. Read more: Click here

Credit: Visit Mesa

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