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Exploring the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Nestled in the heart of Scottsdale, Arizona, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve stands as a breathtaking testament to the beauty and history of the American Southwest. At Optima®, we’re always on the lookout for extraordinary places that resonate with history and natural splendor, and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a perfect example. Spanning over 30,500 acres, it’s not just an expanse of pristine desert; it’s a journey through time, culture, and nature.

The story of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is as rich as the landscapes it encompasses. The area’s earliest known inhabitants, the Hohokam, thrived here from around 1 AD to 1450 AD. Renowned for their intricate irrigation canals, the Hohokam left behind a legacy etched in the form of petroglyphs and pottery, still revered today. Following them, the Yavapai and Apache tribes called these lands home, leaving their mark on this ancient terrain.

Fast forward to 1865, and you encounter Fort McDowell, a military outpost pivotal in the Apache Wars. It played a crucial role in the westward expansion of the United States. Then there’s the tale of DC Ranch, a sprawling cattle ranch that reflects the area’s ranching heritage and now stands as a modern residential community, melding past and present.

Hikers on a McDowell Mountain Preserve trail, Photo by Take a Hike Arizona flickr
Hikers on a McDowell Mountain Preserve trail, Photo by Take a Hike Arizona flickr

The Preserve’s diverse terrain, ranging from the lower Sonoran Desert to the rugged McDowell Mountains, offers a visual feast. It’s a natural haven for an array of wildlife and native plants, including majestic saguaros and vibrant wildflowers. The Preserve’s extensive trail network caters to outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. Whether you’re a hiker, mountain biker, or horseback rider, there’s a path that’s just right for you.

One of the joys of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is its accessibility. With multiple trailheads, each outing can be a new adventure. The Gateway Loop Trail is a favorite among locals, offering a moderate hike with stunning views. For mountain bikers, the Tom’s Thumb Trail provides a challenging ride through remarkable terrain. And for a family-friendly excursion, the Bajada Nature Trail is a delightful, educational experience with its interactive exhibits on desert ecology.

The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, a non-profit organization, diligently manages the Preserve. They not only maintain the trails and facilities but also offer educational programs and guided tours, enriching visitors’ experiences. Their work ensures that the delicate balance between nature and human enjoyment is maintained, preserving this treasure for future generations.

A prickly pear cactus in bloom at the McDowell Mountain Preserve, Photo by CEBImagery flickr
A prickly pear cactus in bloom at the McDowell Mountain Preserve, Photo by CEBImagery flickr

The creation and maintenance of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve are a testament to Scottsdale’s commitment to conservation and sustainable development. It’s a place where history, culture, and natural beauty coalesce, offering a serene yet invigorating escape from the bustle of modern life.

For residents of Optima Kierland Apartments, Optima Sonoran Village and future residents of Optima Mcdowell Mountain Village, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is more than just a scenic backdrop; it’s a living, breathing piece of Arizona’s history and a perfect example of nature’s unparalleled artistry. It’s a place to explore, to learn, and to connect with the timeless beauty of the desert. We invite you to experience this remarkable preserve, where every trail leads to a discovery and every visit leaves you with a deeper appreciation for the natural world.

Visit the Shakespeare Garden at Northwestern University

With Optima’s passion for having nature within reach, it’s no wonder that we are drawn to sumptuous gardens in and around the communities where we build. Imagine our delight in discovering the Shakespeare Garden on the Northwestern University campus, with its rich mix of history and modernity.

Planted in 1917, the Shakespeare Garden has had its home on Northwestern’s Evanston campus for over a century. Emerging from the vision of The Garden Club of Evanston members, it was crafted both as a wartime gesture of solidarity with Britain and to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s passing.

Measuring 70 by 100 feet, this garden sits just north of the Frank W. Howes Memorial Chapel, bordered by hawthorn hedges that create an intimate haven. As you enter, the garden reveals a curated collection of flora mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. From fragrant lavender and vibrant marigolds and daffodils in Winter’s Tale, to the rosemary and pansies in Hamlet.

Daffodils in the Shakespeare Garden. Photo: Trevor Duggins / North by Northwestern

Jens Jensen, the illustrious Danish-American landscape architect, brought this garden to life. Known for his influential works on Chicago’s West Side, including Garfield Park and Columbus Park, Jensen took inspiration from Sir Francis Bacon’s essays on gardens. On entering the Shakespeare Garden, you are greeted by two Hawthorn trees, symbolic bridges between the Prairie and the garden. These trees, along with the foundational hawthorns that germinated from French seeds, have stood the test of time, providing a consistent backdrop to this historic site.

Over the decades, the Shakespeare Garden has seen numerous enhancements. In 1929, an Elizabethan-style stone bench and a captivating fountain became part of this serene landscape. The fountain, a generous donation by architect Hubert Burnham, showcases a bronze relief of Shakespeare’s visage crafted by the French-American sculptor, Leon Hermant. Further augmentations followed, including the addition of a sundial in 1990 and later, a reshaping of the garden’s layout based on the recommendations of the English garden designer, John Brookes.

Hawthorn Trees in Shakespeare Garden. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Brookes’ suggestions, which included moving the sundial to the garden’s center and adding antique brick edging, have given the garden a touch reminiscent of traditional English gardens. This shift also marked the garden’s evolution from a knot garden to a more fluid, perennial-focused design.

Northwestern’s Shakespeare Garden is not only a place for quiet reflection but also a venue for countless weddings, tours, and cherished moments. It’s entirely free and open to the public, but special tours and events may have to be scheduled.

The Natural Splendor of Elmwood Dunes Preserve

At Optima®, we’re always excited to showcase places where our residents can connect with nature, engage in healthy outdoor activities, and experience the unparalleled beauty of local landscapes. Today, we’re turning our spotlight to a gem hidden right in Wilmette – the Elmwood Dunes Preserve.

Elmwood Dunes Preserve is a true oasis nestled amidst urban surroundings. Just a stone’s throw from Optima Verdana®, this preserve promises an unforgettable journey into an ecosystem where the quiet rustle of dune grass and the song of shorebirds are your only distractions.

Preserving an acre of remnant dune and swale habitat, Elmwood Dunes is a vestige of the original Wilmette. This preserve is a testament to the region’s geological past, showcasing an environment shaped by the winds and waves of prehistoric Lake Chicago. Here, you’ll find native grasses, wildflowers, and migrating birds, presenting an idyllic spot for nature enthusiasts.

Elmwood Dunes Preserve doesn’t just offer a tranquil green space for residents to enjoy; it’s an important haven for local biodiversity. After a brief encounter with invasive trees and shrubs in the past, community volunteers worked diligently together to restore the Elmwood habitat back to its former glory, introducing over 50 native plant species, all while protecting endangered species, and providing habitat for migratory bird species. This responsible approach to conservation makes Elmwood Dunes a shining example of how urban spaces can coexist with nature.

Elmwood Dunes. Photo: Village of Wilmette

Its serene walking trails offer an opportunity for peaceful contemplation, a leisurely walk with your dog, or a fun weekend adventure with the family. Whether you’re an avid birder, a nature photographer, or simply someone seeking a breath of fresh air, Elmwood Dunes Preserve is the place to be.

Visiting the preserve also offers an excellent opportunity to learn about local ecology and the importance of conservation efforts. Community stewardship is a key element of this preserve, with various educational programs and events held throughout the year for local schools!

Elmwood Dunes Preserve is more than just a nature preserve — it’s a vital part of our community’s commitment to sustainability and conservation. As an Optima Verdana® resident, you have this incredible natural resource right at your doorstep. Take advantage of it, enjoy it, and most importantly, respect and protect it for future generations. We guarantee you’ll fall in love with the peace and serenity it offers.

Cycle the Arts in Scottsdale

Thanks to the city’s deep appreciation for the arts, Scottsdale is home to some of the most visionary public art in the country. And, with warm weather here and summer approaching, there is no better way to experience the city’s inspiring works than on a bike! Here is our guide to Cycle the Arts Scottsdale 2022:

Cycle the Arts Scottsdale is hosted by Scottsdale Public Art and the City of Scottsdale. The annual cycling event is back for the first time since 2019 to showcase some of the city’s exciting public art displays and sculptures. And because this is the event’s first time back in more than three years, participants will be able to hear about some of Scottsdale’s newest public art additions. 

The leisurely 9-mile bike ride is free and perfect for the whole family. It kicks off on Sunday, April 3, and check-in is at 8:30 a.m. at Scottsdale’s Museum of the West. While the event is expected to last until noon, the ride on Scottsdale’s award-winning bike paths will only take about two hours. 

Industrial Pipe Wave, Christopher Fennel, 2015, Courtesy of Scottsdale Public Art
Industrial Pipe Wave, Christopher Fennel, 2015, Courtesy of Scottsdale Public Art

The event includes 17 works from the city’s public art collection, including Jack Knife, Industrial Pipe Wave and Terraced Cascade. Each stop will include information about the art provided by Scottsdale Public Art staff and board members and possibly feature the artists themselves.

Made for both bike riders and art enthusiasts, Cycle the Arts Scottsdale is the perfect event for those looking to explore and learn more about the vibrant community. If you plan to participate, please bring your own helmet and water, and RSVP on Scottsdale Public Art’s website here.

Summertime in Chicago

Summertime in Chicago brings an abundance of sunshine, blue skies, and long days to spend exploring everything the city has to offer. Optima Signature, located just east of Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, is perfectly positioned to access the best of the city’s summer activities. Here are just a few of the many adventurous things to do this summer in Chicago:

Farmer’s Markets

Every Tuesday from 7 am – 2 pm through October 26, the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents (SOAR) Farmer’s Market sets up in the plaza of the Museum of Contemporary Art just blocks away from Optima Signature. The SOAR market features a diverse array of local vendors and seasonal produce including Back of the Yards Coffee, a woman and Latinx owned coffee company based in Chicago’s south side, Bennison’s Bakery based out of the North Shore, flowers from Oosterhoff & Son Flowers, and numerous farms from Indiana and Wisconsin. 

Of course, a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art is always fun after a day at the market. The museum champions the new and unexpected in contemporary art and culture and has an exhibit on Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now through October 3.

Just a short bike or bus ride away, the Green City Market in Lincoln Park runs from 7 am to 1 pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays, May through October. The market features sustainable vendors and community programming. Chef’s and vendors offer wholesale pricing on their fresh products and many local restaurants use the market to obtain ingredients. 

After visiting the market, be sure to explore the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Lincoln Park Conservatory, and the nature boardwalk.

A group of kayaks floating down a body of water

The Chicago River

Spending a hot day on the water is a perfect Chicago summer activity. Optima Signature’s proximity to the Chicago River makes e-boating or kayaking a perfect outdoor activity. 

Urban Kayaks located on the Chicago River Walk provides guided kayak tours and rentals seven days a week through the end of the summer. Chicago Electric Boat Company, also located on the River Walk, offers environmentally-friendly electric boat rentals that can be exhilarating experiences for water novices and experts alike.

Chicago’s River Walk, open until 11 pm, offers beautiful views of the city and the river’s bridges, restaurants, and cafes, and is a perfect place to end a summer day.

For Chicago residents and visitors alike, the summer months are precious. So while we still have these long, warm days and sunny skies, make sure you venture out to enjoy the bounty at the iconic neighborhood farmers markets and the unique access to our namesake river!

Giving Back: Cleaning Up Skokie Lagoons

As part of our commitment to the built and natural environments, our team regularly organizes outings that give back to the community. Not only do these opportunities allow us to create meaningful impact, but they serve as team-building and bonding exercises, as well. Most recently, we took a trip out to local Skokie Lagoons to help keep the area clean. 

Skokie Lagoons are just a short drive from our Glencoe office. An 894-acre destination, the lagoons are the premier spot for both people and wildlife, offering critical natural habitats and the chance for visitors to appreciate the outdoors through canoe and kayak rentals, biking and hiking trails and picnic areas.

The Optima team at Skokie Lagoons

To help restore the area with healthy woodland, savanna and prairie habitats, Skokie Lagoons relies upon volunteers to regularly remove invasive plants such as buckthorn, garlic mustard and Canada thistle.

Cleaning up Skokie Lagoons

Working with the Cook County Forest Preserve, our team joined the Shedd Aquarium for a Great Lakes Action Day to help restore the local habitat and encourage amphibians and other wildlife to thrive. We cut and burned the thick and concentrated invasive buckhorn brush to make room for native flora and fauna.

To learn more about the Skokie Lagoons and how you can support wildlife restoration, visit their website.

person name goes here

Maintenance Supervisor

Glencoe, IL





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