Pima Dynamite Trailhead

Engaging Public Building on Nature Preserve in the Sonoran Desert

by the American Institute of Architects

Straddling the line between Scottsdale, Arizona, and the desert, the Pima Dynamite Trailhead is a new public gateway into the expansive McDowell Sonoran Preserve.  Responding to the unique conditions presented by its site, the project serves as a responsible interface for hikers, bikers, and equestrians as they prepare to explore the sprawling and biologically diverse Sonoran Desert.

         The preserve was established in the early 1990s by Scottsdale residents that voted to protect a portion of the McDowell Mountains and the desert in perpetuity as natural open space.  It has grown significantly since then and is now the largest land preserve in the country at more than 30,500 acres and 225 miles of multi-use trails.  The project’s site is one of the most accessible points from the city but had been previously scarred by off-road vehicles and its former life as a materials storage yard.  Given the preserve’s history, the team’s design process was centered on robust community engagement that gathered input from users and a group of 650 volunteers who work with the preserve to promote its stewardship.

Photos courtesy of Bill Timmerman

         The new trailhead was designed by Weddle Gilmore Architects of Scottsdale to promote responsible interactions between visitors and the preserve’s natural environment while connecting them to its meandering trails.  It was delicately integrated into the existing natural drainage flows and topography between two power line corridors that traverse this section of the preserve.  Wrapped in a Corten® steel skin that allows it to weather pleasingly in the desert, the trailhead contains restrooms, an amphitheater, meeting space, and staff offices and facilities.

         Adhering to a central tenet of the preserve, the new trailhead focused on the preservation and restoration of the desert environment.  Its construction was limited to previously disturbed land and salvaged saguaro cacti, trees, and soil from the site have been combined with other native plants to tie seamlessly into the surrounding desert.  Fritting and film were used in the building’s glazing to reduce the chance of bird collisions, and low-level exterior lighting helps preserve the dark sky environment for nocturnal animals.

         The Pima Dynamite Trailhead won a 2023 Small Project Award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA).  “This building sits well in this landscape setting.  The shade structure, from a distance, feels like an interior space,” said one AIA juror. 

         Development of the site also focused on maintaining and protecting the existing water flows.  The new trailhead is perched on a topographic high point with vehicular and equestrian parking located below to provide unimpeded flow to the three major washes that traverse the site.  Permeable surfaces comprise the equestrian parking, while riprap-formed swales and basins capture run-off from the vehicle parking area’s durable surface.

         A point of resilience for the community, the trailhead is also an important resource for Scottsdale’s first responders.  It serves as an outpost office for police patrolling a remote area of the city, and access trails include additional buffer zones that create fire breaks for one of the more vulnerable regions of the preserve.

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