Arizonensis --> Sonoran Desert Naturalist --> Sonoran Desert Places --> Piestewa Peak

Piestewa Peak & Dreamy Draw Parks


Together, Piestewa Peak (renamed from ‘Squaw Peak’) and Camelback Mountain characterize the natural skyline of Phoenix. They offer city residents a nearby sojourn into the desert or an athletic hiking experience. The desert encounter is not perfect of course. There are often crowds of people all seeking solitude. Some of the trails are very popular with mountain bikers requiring casual hikers to frequently step aside. And one is never really far enough from roads and other city noises to find complete solitude. Not withstanding, many desert plants and creatures eke out a living here and provide opportunities to observe ecology and behavior.

There are several entry points to this recreation area. The entrance to Piestewa Peak Recreation Area is off Lincoln Dr. just west of 24th Street. The Dreamy Draw Recreation Area is reached from Northern Avenue, just east of 16th Street. Formerly "Squaw Peak" was renamed to Piestewa Peak in 2003 to honor a Hopi soldier killed in the Iraq War.

Dreamy Draw has picnic ramadas, an equestrian staging area, and a several kilometers-long paved lane suitable for bicycles and casual strolls. The desert experience along this paved path is, I believe, marred by the installation of a drip irrigation system. Plants adjacent to the path are greener, lusher, and bloomier. The near-path Palo Verdes produce bumper crops of seeds. Why are we so offended by the dry harshness of the desert that we must add water? And it's more than an aesthetic problem. Some of the valves stick causing wasted water and rotting desert plants. The water is available to rodents and rabbits which then survive drought periods in excessive numbers (exacerbated by our removal of top predators). These subsidized herbivores then focus their energy on breaching the defenses of barrel and saguaro cacti. Eventually, they succeed, girdling or toppling the ancient giants. This may partially account for the scarcity of healthy saguaros in the urban parks.

Virtually all of Piestewa Peak is composed of ancient metamorphic rock dating to the Pre-Cambrian Period. Gneiss (alternating light and dark bands) and schist (highly compressed and layered) predominate. Many of the schist layers are tilted to nearly vertical as a result of past tectonic forces.

At the south end of Dreamy Draw there is a large earthen dam that helps control flooding for nearby homes. A thick layer of fine soil has collected behind it and this traps a lot of moisture beneath that plants with long root systems can tap. There are Tamarisk, Mesquites, Blue Palo Verdes and Salt Bushes growing behind the dam. Adjacent to the west side of the Dreamy Draw parking area the Parks Dept. has set up a little riparian area with flowing water and a few Fremont Cottonwoods. This is new and will likely begin to attract wildlife as the vegetation matures.

Adapted from Phoenix Parks & Rec. Map.

© Michael Plagens

This view from the Piestewa Peak trail was on a rare day when there was actually a cloud in the sky. January 2009.

Field Trip Report:
March 2, 2003

The year 2002 was among the driest on record in the Phoenix area, but a wet February changed all that. Carpets of green flanked the slopes of Piestewa Peak and nearby hills. I identified more than 50 species of wildflowers in bloom, including California Sun Drops, California Poppies, and Wild Heliotrope.

Field Trip Report:
Dec. 10, 2000

October's rain followed by a month of spring-like temperatures has resulted in green desert shrubs and a few early spring wild flowers. I found Creosote Bush, Trailing Four O'Clock, Desert Poinsettia and Brittle Bush in bloom. Ocotillos are still fully leaved due to the lack of freezing temperatures.

I took my hike late in the day as dusk was falling and the weekend coming to a close. I arrived at a low pass looking west just as the setting sun had set the horizon ablaze. Rock Wrens, Mockingbirds, and Curve-billed Thrashers were adding an evening chorus to a very peaceful setting. But alas a veritable roar could be heard filtering up from the valleys below. The collective sounds emanated by cars, trucks, heat pumps, slamming doors and barking dogs. Energy that had fallen on the planet millions of years ago only to be converted into fossil fuels. Echoes of long gone sunsets.

Field Trip Report:
Oct. 29, 2000

Usually dry, October has been instead very wet. As a result the desert has greened up considerably. Triangle Leaf Bursage and Brittle Bush are dense green spheres. Alkali Golden Bush and Desert Senna have added a late season burst of yellow blooms. Even Foothill Palo Verde and Ocotillo have flushed new, green growth. Hillsides are developing mats of green algae, mosses, liverworts, ferns and selaginella.

At the top of a small hill along Trail #220 I sat and ate a banana. Joining me were a dozen or so butterflies of two kinds: The Gray Hairstreak and Painted Lady. Also hilltopping were some tachinid flies and a dragonfly. Most hilltoppers are there for purposes of encountering a member of the opposite sex. The dragonfly was instead making lunch of the hopeful suitors.

Field Trip Report:
May 15, 2000

I arrived early to avoid some of the intense mid-day heat that is already upon us. At 6 AM the temperature was a balmy 25° C, and the predicted high was 38°. Wildlife is most active early. I observed Audubon's Cottontail, Rock Squirrels and Harris' Antelope Squirrels. Birds too were abundant and busy feeding.

Few flowers are left blooming: Trixis, Ocotillo, Brittlebush, Menodora, and Saguaro Cactus. Swarms of bees and flies were at the saguaro blooms. Birds too were helping themselves to the nectar including hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and thrashers. Ocotillo seeds were ripening and becoming food for White-winged Doves and Harris' Antelope Squirrels. The throaty sound of Ash-throated Flycatchers were heard in several places.

Many Foothill Palo Verde trees have hundreds of little silken tents in them, about 3 to 7 cm long. They were spun by the caterpillars of a pyralid moth. The caterpillars feast on the tiny palo verde leaves before the plant would shed them anyway in a few weeks. Because the trees will shed these leaves soon, they do not contain protective phytochemicals, that is, they are easy for the caterpillars to digest. No harm is done to the trees.

Field Trip Report:
Feb. 22, 1998

A clear sunny day after a week of rather wet weather. Lots of hikers and strollers out. Almost no parking spaces left. Lots of Gambel's Quail have move back into the park from the surrounding urban areas where bird lovers had been keeping them fed through the drought. Now they can dine on much preferred, tender, nutritious sprouts of wild plants. The wildflowers are just getting underway. The best place to look now is on the somewhat shady north-facing slopes. This is because the dry January gave plants in this moister habitat a boost. The rest should be blooming profusely in a few weeks. There are lots of poppy seedlings coming up. Barring a hot dry March, the show should be wonderful and last until April.

Field Trip Report:
Jan. 4, 1998

A beautiful Sunday, late in the afternoon, on a whim, I decided to drive on over to Piestewa Peak Park proper and hike around a bit. I almost struck out though because the entire park was jam-packed with citizens out for a day's hike. Only by pure luck was I successful in finding a parking spot among several hundred other cars already there. A steady stream of hikers was moving up and down Piestewa Peak on the partially paved trail. If you have never done this hike before, the difficulty may surprise you. And the many people who use this as their daily work out will embarrass you as they rush past.

If you choose to take a more leisurely hike you will be able to see some characteristic shrubs and cacti while you get your workout. Two species of spring wild flowers already are open: Brittle Bush and Sweet Bush. Several Trailing Four O' Clock had flower buds that should be open very soon. Pincushion Cactus is notedly common on this peak and was conspicuous because of the small, bright red fruits.

With so much foot traffic it's not surprising that the path is very dusty. And what is that dust, laid thick on the trail and powder coating the shrubs and nearby boulders? Try in good part pulverized rock. But this mountain is composed of tough, solid gneiss and schist that exacts a toll from shoes. So there must be leather and "man made materials from China" in the dust as well. And the thousands of hikers certainly shed fibrous dusts of cotton, spandex and polyester from their clothing. And don't forget to add bits of skin, dried droplets of sweat and spit and you've got a brew sure to create havoc in your lungs as it gets kicked up and you inhale it deeply.

Field Trip Report:
Dec. 25, 1997

Today I entered the park from Dreamy Draw, following trail #100 east from the parking area, then on to the #1 Equestrian Trail. Wow. It's actually turned a bit chilly here in Phoenix. Yesterday some ice pellets even fell in a few spots around town. Typically our coldest weather comes very close to the solstice. With several days of good amounts of rain so far in December, next spring is shaping up to be a good year for wildflowers. Some are already sprouting up! Like Bluedicks, Dichelostemma pulchellum, which appear as reddish-green blades. These members of the lily family grow from underground bulbs and will have many blue-purple flowers come February.
A beautiful green lawn of Selaginella is springing to life on all the north facing slopes. A moss-like plant, it curls up brown and dormant through drought, then regenerates quickly with rain. Other true mosses and crusts of algae are making the soil itself verdant. I'm always amazed at how fast life returns to the desert. Further up the trail there are even liverworts growing on exposed damp soil. The flat finger-like blades grow prostrate to the soil. Because these primitive plants lack vascular tissue they cannot conduct water more than a few millimeters... they must be in direct contact with moist soil at all times. A plant, so dependant on water, flourishes on this desert mountain. In the shade of the most vertical slope look for the tough and beautiful Cheilanthes ferns.

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Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)
Bruce Walsh' Butterflies of Southeast Arizona

This 100+ year old saguaro grows near a hiking trail and so is subject to pelting rocks from vandals. The injuries destroy a portion of the cactus' photosynthetic surface, offer routes for fatal infections, and turn a stately beauty unsightly. Hard to fathom why. There is a folklore story of a man living near Tucson who began firing his shot gun repeatedly at a saguaro. He got quite close and fired again, felling the cactus upon himself. Few lament the vandal's demise.

Gambel's Quail

Gambel's Quail


Year-round Resident

  (In general order of Abundance w/usu. seasonal occurrence.)

  1. Rock Wren -- Salpinctes obsoletus -- S,F,W,Sp
  2. Verdin -- Auriparus flaviceps -- S,F,W,Sp Tiny birds, barely larger than a hummingbird. Gray/brown with a majestic yellow head.
  3. Anna's Hummingbird -- Calypte anna -- S,F,W,Sp
  4. Black-throated Sparrow -- S,F,W,Sp A little less common during the hot summer months.
  5. Mourning Dove -- Zenaida macroura -- S,F,W,Sp
  6. Cactus Wren -- Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus - -- S,F,W,Sp likely to be seen near picnic areas.
  7. House Finch -- Carpodacus mexicanus -- S,F,W,Sp
  8. Great Horned Owl -- S,F,W,Sp
  9. Curve-billed Thrasher -- Toxostoma curvirostre -- S,F,W,Sp
  10. Gambel's Quail -- Callipepla gambelii -- S,F,W,Sp
  11. Northern Mockingbird -- S,F,W,Sp
  12. White-throated Swift -- W,Sp These guys will already be cajoling around the summit when (if?) you arrive.
  13. Black-tailed Gnatcatcher -- Polioptila melanura -- S,F,W,Sp
  14. Gila Woodpecker -- Melanerpes uropygialis -- S,F,W,Sp
  15. White-winged Dove -- Zenaida asiatica -- S
  16. Brown-crested Flycatcher -- Myiarchus tyrannulus -- Sp,S
  17. Ash-throated Flycatcher -- Myiarchus cinerascens -- F,Sp
  18. Black-chinned Hummingbird -- S,Sp
  19. White-crowned Sparrow -- Zonotrichia leucophrys -- F,W,Sp
  20. Common Raven -- Corvus corax -- W,Sp
  21. Red-tailed Hawk -- Buteo jamaicensis -- F,W
  22. Gilded Flicker -- S,F,W,Sp
  23. Greater Roadrunner -- Geococcyx californianus -- S,F,W,Sp
  24. American Kestrel -- S,F,W,Sp
Photo by Mike Plagens

Cactus Wrens make a boisterous, raspy call.

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  1. Harris' Antelope Squirrel (Amospermophilus harrisii) - small squirrel with a long bushy tail. White stripe along flank
  2. Audubon's (Desert) Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii)- common rabbit species.
  3. Round-tailed Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus tereticaudus) - small squirrels that burrow incessantly and are often mistaken for gophers or prairie dogs.
  4. Rock Squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus) - large rusty brown or gray squirrel without stripes and a large bushy tail.
  5. Coyote (Canis latrans) -
  6. Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) - An abundant tail ringed with black and white together with large eyes and ears distinguish this animal which is about the size of a house cat. The best times to see this nocturnal animal are at dawn and dusk.
  7. Blacktail Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) - Seen from the west side of the #302 circumference trail.
  8. Racoon (Procyon lotor) -

Photographed at Piestewa Peak, June 2002

Rock Squirrel
(Citellus variegatus) -
Photo © by Mike Plagens.

Reptiles and Amphibians

  1. Side-blotched Lizard -- Uta stansburiana - most common lizard about during cooler weather
  2. Western Whiptail -- Cnemidophorus tigris - common in sandy spots especially
  3. Tiger Rattlesnake -- Crotalus tigris - small rattlesnake, rarely sounds off and not very aggressive.
  4. Long-nosed Snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei)- One seen May 2005 hunting in a shady wash.
Photographed at Piestewa Peak, August 2003

Tiger Rattlesnake
(Crotalus tigris) -
Photo © by Mike Plagens.


  (Common ones listed First)

Engelmann Hedgehog Flower
  1. Buckhorn Cholla (Opuntia acanthocarpa) - Most of the chollas are of this species.
  2. Compass Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus acanthodes)-
  3. Fishhook Pincushion (Mammilaria microcarpa) - Fairly common on the Piestewa Peak Summit trail.
  4. Saguaro Cactus (Cereus giganteus)
  5. Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) - just a few located mostly on the upper slopes.
  6. Engelmann Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii)
  7. Desert Christmas Cactus -- Cylindropuntia leptocaulis - a single plant growing in front of the Ranger Station. Others? Yes! Fairly common on west slopes of Piestewa Peak.
  8. Prickly Pear -- Opuntia engelmannii - decidedly rare in this area. Three plants were found growing on western flanks of the peak.
Buckhorn Cholla Flower
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Trees and Woody Shrubs

  (Mostly in order of Abundance)

  1. Triangle-leaf Bursage -- Ambrosia deltoidea - Abundant everywhere in the preserves.
  2. Creosote Bush -- Larrea tridentata
  3. Brittlebush -- Encelia farinosa -
  4. Foothills Palo Verde; Yellow Palo Verde -- Parkinsonia microphylla -
  5. Ocotillo;Coachwhip -- Fouquieria splendens -
  6. Desert Ironwood -- Olneya tesota - this and Foothill Palo Verde are the only trees growing upon these low mountains
  7. Anderson Thornbush;Wolfberry -- Lycium andersonii - a few here and there. 1 to 2 meter tall shrub with noticeably black twigs. A lone wolfberry on the Piestewa Peak summit appears to have been heavily browsed, not by sheep, but by hikers.
  8. Desert Broom -- Baccharis sarothroides - found in ravines and at roadsides
  9. Desert Senna -- Senna covesii - found mostly at roadsides
  10. Desert Mistletoe -- Phoradendron californicum - parasitic in the larger trees along the washes.
  11. Trixis -- Trixis californica - found in ravines and usually in the shade of an ironwood or palo verde tree.
  12. Catclaw Acacia -- Acacia greggii -- A few growing in principal washes
  13. Alkali Goldenbush -- Isocoma acradenia - Found along the main Dreamy Draw wash just west of the parking area for Dreamy Draw.
  14. Four-winged Saltbush -- Atriplex canescens - Found along the main Dreamy Draw wash just west of the parking area for Dreamy Draw.
  15. Tamarisk;Salt Cedar -- Tamarix pentandra - An exotic shrub, considered a weed by most ecologists. Found along the main Dreamy Draw wash just west of the parking area for Dreamy Draw.
  16. Chilean Mesquite - Exotic planted by city around parking and picnic areas. Why?
  17. Coulter's Brickell Bush -- Brickelia coulteri -
  18. Desert Lavender -- Hyptis emoryi - a few can be seen here and there.
  19. Twinberry -- Menodora scabra - occasional on rocky slopes
  20. Joint Fir -- Ephedra aspera - A few scattered along the Piestewa Peak Summit trail.
  21. Velvet Mesquite -- Prosopis velutina - Except near picnic areas, where some exotic mesquite species have been planted, there are only a few very small saplings.
  22. Janusia Vine -- Janusia gracilis - a twisty, viney plant
  23. Shrubby Bedstraw -- Galium stellatum
  24. Desert Poinsettia (Euphorbia eriantha) - lovely plant with reddish leaves encircling the whitish-green flower clusters.
  25. Desert Willow -- Chilopsis linearis - a few in the Dreamy Draw wash.
  26. Fremont Cottonwood -- Populus fremontii - planted in the catchment areas of Dreamy Draw
  27. Southern Cattail -- Typha domingensis - growing in artificial wet spots above Dreamy Draw catchment area
  28. Mexican Palo Verde -- Parkinsonia aculeata - a few growing near parking area and near Dreamy Draw catchment basin. A weedy species introduced from Mexico.
  29. Flat-topped Buckwheat -- Eriogonum fasciculatum
  30. Oreganillo -- Aloysia wrightiii - very rare in preserve, a few isolated shrubs in upper elevations.
  31. Yellow Felt Plant -- Horsfordia newberryi - a rare plant at Piestewa Peak Park
  32. Rock Echeveria -- Dudleya saxosa - this botanical treasure can be found along portions of the Piestewa Peak Loop Trail.

Full List of Plants Recorded at Piestewa Peak

Watercolor © Mike Plagens

Desert Lavender (Hyptis emoryi)

Watercolor © Mike Plagens

Twin Berry
(Menodora scabra)

Spring Wildflowers - (observed Feb 22, 1998)

White Flowers

  1. Comb Bur -- Pectocarya platycarpa
  2. Peppergrass -- Lepidium lasiocarpum
  3. Narrow-leaf Popcorn Flower -- Cryptantha angustifolia

Pink/Lavender Flowers

  1. Desert Lavender -- Hyptis emoryi
  2. Bigelow's Four O'Clock;Desert Wishbone Bush -- Mirabilis laevis
  3. Red-stemmed Fillaree -- Erodium cicutarium
Desert Marigold

Yellow Flowers

  1. Desert Marigold -- Baileya multiradiata
  2. Brittlebush -- Encelia farinosa
  3. London Rocket -- Sisymbrium irio

Orange Flowers

  1. Orange Fiddleneck -- Amsinckia intermedia
  2. Desert Globe Mallow -- Sphaeralcia ambigua
  3. California Poppy -- Eschscholzia californica
California Poppy

Blue/Purple Flowers

  1. Blue Dicks -- Dichelostemma capitatum
  2. Blue Phacelia -- Phacelia distans
  3. Lupine -- Lupinus sparsiflorus
  4. Wolfberry -- Lycium andersonii

Greenish Flowers

  1. Triangle-leaf Bursage -- Ambrosia deltoidea
  2. Lance-leaf Ditaxis -- Argythamnia lanceolata
  3. Pellitory -- Perietaria hespera
Triangle-leaf Bursage

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Copyright Michael J. Plagens, 1999-2009
With additional observations contributed by Cathy Mullan.