Scottsdale, Arizona, has a well-deserved reputation as an international tourist destination with its multitude of restaurants and resorts, a winter desert getaway for northern snowbirds. Its western border snuggles up against the country’s fifth largest city, but relatively few people venture east of Scottsdale, which is their loss. Nestled in the hills and canyons between Scottsdale and the Fort McDowell Yavapai Indian Reservation, lies the quiet, unassuming residential community of Fountain Hills.
Consisting of just twenty square miles, Fountain Hills is home to less than twenty-five thousand folks living in a beautifully varied desert landscape that ranges across 1,500 feet of elevation change. Stunning views are abundant, particularly to the north, east and south, where you find McDowell Mountain Regional Park, the Verde River, Saguaro Lake and the Salt River Recreation Area. Mountains on the horizon include the iconic Four Peaks, reproduced on the Arizona license plate.
In the center of town lies a 33-acre lake and park, circumscribed by a mostly level, scenic one mile paved walking path. In the center of the lake sits the attraction which gives the town its name, a powerful, towering geyser-like fountain that once was the tallest in the world and still the fourth highest. For fifteen minutes on the hour, from 9:00 AM until 9:00 PM, this geyser shoots a massive amount of lake water 330 feet into the sky, suggesting a fireworks display more than a water show. Normally only two of three pumps are in operation, but on special occasions all three are employed, driving the water column 560 feet high.
We had the opportunity to live near this fountain and lake for 10 weeks this fall, and a daily walk around the lake became our restful respite from the less pleasant purpose of our stay. And of course being birders, we took full advantage of the lake’s magnetic draw to birds. The lake is an ebird hotspot, with 151 reported species from 374 visits. During our time there, between our rental home across the street from the lake and our daily walks around the lake, we counted 70 species. There are three small treed islands on the lake, and the mile long trail runs through a variety of trees including mesquite, pine and olive. Current sightings include Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers, Gilded and Northern Flickers, Double-crested Cormorants, American Wigeons, grebes, egrets, herons and spectacular Hooded Mergansers.
In addition, countless birding opportunities lay close to Fountain Hills, with enough ebird hotspots to satisfy the most demanding birder. The ever-flowing Verde River is just outside of town to the north, but our favorite secondary destination is Saguaro Lake and the Salt River Recreation Area. From Fountain Hills Lake, it’s just 16 miles to Saguaro Lake, a ten-mile long reservoir that features canyons, trees and, surprisingly, saguaros. An hour and a half daily boat tour is an easy way to find birds, including Bald Eagles, and waterfront picnic areas can be found at two ebird hotspots, the marina area and Butcher Jones Beach (named after an early surgeon). High cliffs combine with desert scrub to broaden your birding opportunities. From Saguaro Lake, continue on the Bush Highway and you follow the Salt River past a dozen other ebird hotspots as you loop south and back to civilization at Mesa and Highway 202. In addition to birds, several of these stops are also good places to find and photograph wild horses. And all this adventure is less than a two-hour drive from SaddleBrooke.
(This article was published in the February, 2018, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)