My story begins in the desert. I grew up on the edge of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a desert habitat in North Scottsdale. Much of my extended family lives in Illinois, so stories I told about the desert seemed almost eerie and foreign, as if in another world.

Getting pricked by cacti on the trail and finding scorpions in floorboards were mundane events, but so were mountains that actually turned purple at sunset and trails less than a mile from my front door. Of course I didn’t know this was special as a child: I knew nothing else.

But the time I spent enjoying the McDowell Mountains and the public land right outside my neighborhood fundamentally shaped me as a person, and taught me to love the trails and those who use them.

Farmland to Desert

Hannah Bernier

Surprisingly enough, I learned to appreciate my home through the eyes of my family from the Midwest. Every spring, my grandparents would make the long trip from Illinois to Arizona with their RV, staying in KOAs and campsites all across America. Their final destination was always McDowell Mountain Regional Park, a site only half an hour from my house.

This was the highlight of my year: the arrival of my grandparents brought along with it blooming poppies, spring training, and my birthday. We would devour pork tenderloin sandwiches in the spring sun, cheering on the Cubs from the lawn seats.

Our tradition for my birthday was to have pie instead of cake, and each year I thought long and hard about what flavor I would request (Blackberry? Raspberry? Key lime?).

Life on the Preserve

Hannah Bernier

But the most special times were when we all convened at the campsite in the McDowell Mountains where the RV waited patiently. On weeknights we would sit out on lawn chairs and watch the sunset through saguaros, snacking on tortilla chips and cowboy caviar as coyotes howled in the distance.

Weekends passed at an even slower pace: I’d bike lazy circles around the campground as our German tradition of poppyseed kuchen baked in the oven. My grandparents, parents, and I ate dinners and desserts pressed closely together in the RV with a promised game of Rummy afterwards.

This preserve became a home away from home for me, an oasis where I was simultaneously in and out of my comfort zone. Though I lived just on the other side of the mountain range, every problem seemed so far removed once we stepped foot on the campground.

A Lifelong Exploration

Hannah Bernier

I also learned to mountain bike on the preserve, a passion that remains with me to this day. I went out on my light blue Moxie bike with my dad, exploring the trails more difficult to reach by foot. I would come back to the campsite with scrapes and smiles, knowing I deserved an extra slice of bread and butter.

Though we no longer camp on the preserve every spring, I frequent the McDowell race loops for mountain biking and the ramadas for Trader Joe’s picnics. I hope that when I have the chance, I’ll set out to explore preserves like McDowell across the country and the world, open to all people to cherish.

Hannah Bernier

Public lands are the shared inheritance of citizens, a place we’re free to explore. It is our responsibility to care for, protect, and appreciate these wonders so that future generations will see the very same landscapes.

The McDowell Mountains will always have a place in my heart: they're where I forged close bonds with family, found a sport that I love, and discovered the transformative power of nature. They are mine. They are ours.