Sprawled over 8,000 acres in the high Sonoran Desert is Desert Mountain, a vibrant, member-owned private community with six golf courses and nearly 2,000 homes bordered to the north by Tonto National Forest.
To say the residents and club members here are an active bunch would be a gross understatement.
At Desert Mountain, 66 percent of the community’s golf members hike upwards of 12,000 hikes per year – right in their own backyard.
The Trails is Desert Mountain’s private trail system are comprised of 20 routes, with more trails to come. It’s only available and open to club members and their guests.
And in an effort to keep up with user demand and provide consistent, accurate information to hikers about all the hiking options available to them, Desert Mountain has introduced an Interactive Trail Guide, a 55-inch touch-screen monitor mounted at the trailhead.
The Interactive Trail Guide shows the weather, hiking rules and tips, outdoor news, the trails’ wildlife and plant life info, upcoming events at Desert Mountain, donor info and – its biggest draw – incredibly detailed information about each trail.
Users can sort all 20 hikes by distance, estimated time of completion, elevation gain, elevation gain per mile and more.
“You can do any combination; it’s endless,” said Desert Mountain resident and creator of the Interactive Trail Guide, Craig Mitchell. “But most people here use distance and time.”
Mitchell is quick to identify himself as a member of The Desperados, the member-driven volunteer group responsible for building the Desert Mountain trails with donations and the Interactive Trail Guide.
“The trails themselves were a vision of the Desperados, and they made it all happen in 2012 through private donations,” Mitchell said.
The Desperados, a nonprofit organization that formed three years ago, also organize hikes and bike rides on and off the property.
They’re philanthropists, too.
The Desperados have raised and donated money to the Arizona Raptor Center and the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands, among other organizations and parks.
Mitchell, however, was the brains behind the Interactive Trail Guide. He said the idea was based on feedback from club member hikers.
“They always had the same questions: how far, how hard, what animals will I see, what will the views be, what are the rules, what’s the etiquette,” Mitchell said. “We didn’t get tired of answering, but it was important to us to be consistent in our answers.”
Mitchell purchased a Garmin watch, a GPS smart watch, and went to work hiking every route at Desert Mountain – twice – to get accurate GPS coordinates.
His wife, Sharon Wong, was by his side for most of the hikes.
“The main thing I was doing was not so much the coordinates as I was [tracking] the elevation, the net gain and the distance,” Mitchell said. “My Garmin would give me all of those.”
Mitchell focused on net gain because it was the No. 1 question hikers asked: “How high am I going up?”
“That’s a big, big measure,” Mitchell said. “Distance and net gain are the two biggest measures people use when they hike.”
Before the Interactive Trail Guide, the trailhead originally had a laminated flip chart. But once a member of the club suggested using a touch-screen, that’s when Mitchell’s eyes lit up.
“It definitely is his baby,” Wong said.
Mitchell added, “I just didn’t think we’d be able to pull it off up here.”
One particularly convenient feature about the Interactive Trail Guide is hikers can log onto the Wi-Fi at the trailhead, choose a hike, scan the QR code associated with that hike using their smartphone and download an image of the highlighted trail to their phone.
“This is what’s getting most people really excited about this,” Mitchell said. “Plus the fact that no map has ever been produced that shows all of this data.”
Another popular feature is the guide’s ability to compare popular hikes in the Valley, including Pinnacle Peak, Tom’s Thumb, Black Mountain and Bell Pass.
This is a favorite feature for Debbie Honerkamp, a Desert Mountain resident of four years.
“If I’ve hiked Tom’s Thumb, I know that it took me so many hours and I was able to do it, so therefore I can compare it to other ones here and I can do it,” said Honerkamp, who hikes at least twice per week at The Trails.
Mitchell plans to add more hike comparisons, including the trails at Camelback Mountain.
“People have asked us what’s similar to Camelback, and that means I’ll have to go to Camelback to hike it,” Mitchell said.
Hikers are also welcome and encouraged to send comments and questions and suggest ways to improve the Interactive Trail Guide via its email feature.
“User comments will drive next versions,” Mitchell said.
Again, users scan a QR code and it’ll launch an email with the recipient and subject line built in.
“If you want to join the Desperados or you want to donate or you want a PDF listing of all 20 hikes or you want to send photos, all of that is right here,” Mitchell said.
The Desperados also plan to add more trails to the Interactive Trail Guide as new trails open. They hope to open up their newest trail, Cintarosa Trail, in January – as soon as they get signage and maps done.
“We’re building new trails all the time,” Mitchell said, adding that it’s an expensive venture as trails cost $50,000 a mile.
“We took a gentlemen bushwhacking on a hike yesterday, a potential new trail, and he wrote a check for $10,000,” Mitchell said.
The Desperados will kick off a Desperado Development Campaign in January to raise funds for its current and future projects, including the building of new trails and a 60-foot mosaic representing the Sonoran Desert, supporting the nonprofit’s philanthropic efforts and more.
So far, they’ve raised $150,000.
“And we haven’t even started the campaign yet,” Mitchell said. “Our goal is half a million for the things we’re working on right now.”
The Desperados may pursue licensing or trademarking the Interactive Trail Guide, but Mitchell assures they aren’t in it to make a profit.
“We’re in it to provide service to our hikers,” Mitchell said. “The things we do are for the community, and we do philanthropy. We’re very giving people.”