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 of McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Fountain Hills, northeast of Phoenix.
The cautionary note was not necessarily 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 near pitch black was ablaze with streams of bright white lights as meteoroid after meteoroid 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 an outdoor adventure 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 the "jumping cactus," (also known as the cholla cactus), which looks like the pale lovechild of a cactus and a pine tree, Leadbetter warned that the species will pierce your skin with its sharp needles if you even just slightly brush against them. Moments later, someone in the group yelped as the jumping cactus lived up to its name.
For the most part, though, exploring the Sonoran on that moonlit night was an almost solemn experience, and 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 also be spotted.
In addition to privately arranged expeditions like the one offered by 360 Adventures, McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers public monthly moonlit tours led by interpretive ranger Amy Burnett for just $6 a carload, http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/mcdowell/. Other ways of exploring the desert include hot-air balloon rides from Hot Air Expeditions — http://www.hotairexpeditions.com — with desert launches for sunrise trips daily throughout the year and sunset trips November-March ($175 per person or $195 with hotel pickup in Phoenix). Jeep tours from Arizona Territorial Adventures — http://www.arizonaterritorialadventures.com/ — offer expeditions June-October to see the moonrise over the rugged desert terrain, http://www.arizonaterritorialadventures.com, $80; other times of year, the company offers daytime desert trips. The nighttime treks from 360 Adventures are arranged upon request, year-round, $200 for the first person, $80 each additional person, and for a group of six or more, a flat $80 each; http://www.360-adventures.com/.
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. The chicken is finger-lickin' good and the cornbread moist; http://www.squawpeakhilton.com/dining/hole-in-the-wall . The restaurant's backyard feast for two is $23 a person; located at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, 7677 N. 16th St.
In Phoenix's cool Roosevelt Row neighborhood, try Barrio Cafe at 2814 N. 16th St., decorated with Day of the Dead artwork, http://barriocafe.com/ . Its exceptional Mexican fare by award-winning chef Silvana Salcido Esparza includes shrimp tacos, pomegranate-infused guacamole, stuffed peppers and sweet potato mash; menu prices range $10-$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; http://www.greasewoodflat.net , 27375 N. Alma School Parkway, under $10. Also in Scottsdale, The Mission offers good martinis and mojitos, plus Latin cuisine; http://www.themissionaz.com/ , 3815 N. Brown Ave.