• Arizona Contractor & Community

Architect's Perspective: Celebrating the McDowell Sonoran Preserve's Trailheads

Doug Sydnor, FAIA


Scottsdale residents realized their quality of life was under threat in 1991. The pristine McDowell Mountains, a landscape rich with wildlife and plants of the Upper Sonoran Desert, archaeological sites, and ranching history, were being infringed upon by new development. As a result, this irreplaceable habitat along with its human history dating back 7,000 years could soon become just a memory.

Lost Dog Wash Trailhead


Initial efforts at preservation were meager but vital; the McDowell Sonoran Preserve was formed with 5 acres in 1994. But the organization had much larger aspirations. Strong citizen support for the idea approved two sales tax increases and two bond votes by 2004, which led to the creation of the largest urban preserve in the nation. Within a short time, one-third of the City of Scottsdale’s land area, about 34,000 acres, was protected.


Public access amenities began two decades ago, including trailheads; multi-use trails for equestrian, mountain biking, and hiking; and research to monitor the preserve’s plant and animal life. By 2013, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy had more than 225 miles of new recreational trails.


On its 30th anniversary, I celebrate four of its 12 trailhead facilities. All have been widely published, received professional design awards, and demonstrated sustainable architectural design. The first two featured trailhead facilities were designed by the Scottsdale-based architectural firm of Weddle Gilmore, and the final two by the Phoenix-based Smithgroup architectural/engineering firm.

Lost Dog Wash Trailhead


“The Lost Dog Wash Trailhead is an example of commitment to environment apparent through its preservation of native habitat, choice of appropriate building materials and natural resource conservation,” stated Weddle Gilmore in 2006. “The Lost Dog Wash Trailhead exists harmoniously in its natural surroundings [and] exists with minimal impact to its habitat, reducing the environmental impact of the building. The design is sustainable, achieving short and long-term savings of energy, water, and other natural resources. These design parameters result in, and encourage, a healthier environment."


Having hiked its trails, I find the trailhead facilities an appropriate fit with the natural desert surroundings. Amenities include public restrooms, shade ramadas, parking, water, horse-trailer parking, hitching rails, a water trough, directional signage, and an accessible nature trail.


Weddle Gilmore added that the structure’s rammed earth walls utilize earth material excavated during foundation construction. “These earth walls allow the structures to blend seamlessly into the landscape.” The trailhead restrooms utilize a composting system which minimizes water consumption and saves approximately 200,000 gallons of water annually over a conventional system. Gray water and rainwater harvesting saves an additional 75,000 gallons of water annually in landscape irrigation. Solar power is provided to the trailhead facilities by a roof-integrated 3,000-watt solar electric array that allows the trailhead to be completely self-sufficient.


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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2022 issue, Vol. 11, No. 1.