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The Desert Foothills

“Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while.” ~Mark 6:31

The region of central Arizona known as the Desert Foothills generally includes the towns of Cave Creek, Carefree, parts of North Phoenix and North Scottsdale, and the rural communities of Desert Hills and New River. The foothills area is part of the Sonoran Desert, which is called “the most beautiful desert in the world.” Located at the edge of mountains about 30 miles north of the metropolitan “Valley of the Sun,” the foothills communities enjoy clean air and a casual lifestyle.

The drive from the valley to the foothills is a gradual climb from the 1,000-foot level up to around 2,000 feet. The Desert Foothills Drive is noted for its scenic desert vegetation. The cacti, trees, and shrubs grow so dense that it is referred to as a “desert forest.” In fact, the Tonto National Forest directly borders New River, Cave Creek, and Carefree. It is the largest of six national forests in Arizona, encompassing almost 3 million acres of rugged mountains and saguaro-studded desert.

In the foothills, cool mountain breezes help keep temperatures 6 to 10 degrees lower than those of the valley, ranging from freezing in the winter to more than 100 degrees in the summer. Rainfall averages twice as much as the desert valley, but it is still only about 14-16″ per year. The foothills generally receive one or two light dustings of snow in the winter, while the surrounding mountains receive more and the valley receives none. Major rainy seasons are in winter and during fierce late summer thunderstorms, which have some of the highest concentrations of lightning in the U.S. In summer, hot dry winds often create “dust devils” resembling mini tornadoes that blow harmlessly across the desert. The daytime sky is usually bright blue and clear with lots of sunshine, and none of the pollution of the big city. The nighttime sky is full of bright stars, and even the Milky Way can be seen overhead.

Wild animals that live in the area (and are often seen in people’s yards) include jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, rock squirrels, ground squirrels, mice, coyotes, javelina (wild pigs, pronounced “ha-va-lee’-na”), even mule deer and bobcats. Birds most often seen are hawks, vultures, quail, roadrunners, doves, cactus wrens, thrashers, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and cardinals. Poisonous creatures that come out in summer are rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions, and black widow spiders. There are also several varieties of lizards and other reptiles, including the horned toad, desert tortoise, and gila monster. Vegetation consists of paloverde and mesquite trees, creosote bushes, saguaros, prickly pear, barrel cactus and other cacti, jojoba (“ho-ho’-ba”), brittlebush, annual grasses and colorful spring wildflowers.

The geology of the Desert Foothills is mostly volcanic in origin, ranging from huge granite boulders to basalt-covered mountain slopes. The ground is hard in places with caliche (“kal-lee’-chee”), a cement-like calcium carbonate deposit, and the soil is a clay that becomes a sticky mud when wet. Many washes (desert streams) run through the area, which are dry most of the time but fill with fast-moving water during heavy rains as they drain the surrounding land and hills. The majority of residents obtain their water from private wells that are 100-300 feet deep. There are many ancient archaeological sites in and around the area, a few having 3-6 foot high rock walls still standing on top of steep buttes, with pottery shards laying around and an occasional arrowhead to be found.

New River used to be a stagecoach stop between Phoenix and Prescott. It is the most rural of the foothills communities, zoned for a minimum property size of one acre, while many people own 2, 5, or even 10 acres. A lot of these folks maintain gardens or small farms while enjoying the natural desert lifestyle. Cave Creek has the most history, dating back to 1873 when it was a gold mining town with sheep and cattle ranches nearby, and also a stage stop. Many of its restaurants and shops still promote an Old West flavor. Carefree is a planned resort community started in 1956. It boasts one of the world’s largest sundials, expensive custom homes designed to blend in with the desert environment, and quaint street names such as Easy Street, Never Mind Trail, and Ho and Hum Roads. Several famous celebrities including Dick Van Dyke, Paul Harvey, and Hugh Downs have resided there.

Most people who live in the Desert Foothills work in Phoenix and cannot wait to come back home to the wide open spaces, picturesque mountains, beautiful red sunsets, peace and quiet. Depending on individual preferences, weekends may be spent horseback riding, hiking, mountain climbing, four-wheel driving, rock hunting, exploring Indian ruins, shooting, golfing, hot air ballooning, boating, simply staying at home and working around the yard, or traveling into town for shopping or other activities.

Although the majority of homeowners that originally moved to this area wished to get away from suburbia’s ubiquitous grass lawns, concrete sidewalks, and rows of cookie-cutter houses, a master-planned community called Anthem is currently in development nearby. Along with it will come shopping centers, office buildings, parks, playgrounds, and other facilities. Hopefully these two very different styles of desert dwellers living side by side will learn to appreciate each other. Long-time residents should strive to inform newcomers about the nature and history of the Desert Foothills so that its heritage can be preserved for future generations.

See Also:

Desert Wildflowers

Discovering the Desert

Arizona Archeology

Backyard Wildlife Habitats

Additional Information

Cave Creek and Carefree, Arizona: A History of the Desert Foothills by Frances C. Carlson. (The best book on the history of the area.)

Carefree/Cave Creek Foothills: Life in the Sonoran Sun by the Foothills Community Foundation, 1990. (Provides a great deal of interesting information about the area’s flora, fauna, history, geology and lifestyle.)

Land of Our Own: New River, Arizona by Pauline Essary Grimes, c. 1987. (The story of a family’s homestead days in New River, and a general community history.)

Prehistoric Cultural Development in Central Arizona: Archaeology of the Upper New River Region, by Patricia M. Spoerl and George J. Gumerman, 1984. Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Occasional Paper No. 5; 379 pp.

( The Desert Foothills Chapter of the Arizona Archaeological Society is located in Cave Creek, AZ.)

(Desert Foothills Land Trust info and desert awareness articles, to foster the conservation of the Sonoran desert and its natural resources.)

(Desert Foothills Scenic Drive and additional info about the area.)

(An article about ancient Indians in our area that contains some interesting information.)

(Carefree/Cave Creek Chamber of Commerce official site.)

(Cave Creek history and recreational activities.)

(Information about the Town of Cave Creek, Arizona.)

(Photos and facts about the picturesque high desert town of Black Canyon City, Arizona, gateway from the desert foothills to the upper plateaus and mountains.)

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