Karla's Top ten hikes in the Phoenix area
One of the things many locals like best about living in Phoenix is that one can live in an urban setting while still being in close proximity to nature and the outdoors. We have so many beautiful hikes in the metro area that even if you hike frequently you won't get bored. Here are some of the best spots, in no particular order!
White Tank Mountain Regional Park
Near the 303 freeway and Olive you will find the White Tank Mountain Regional Park, which is commonly just called White Tanks. It is the largest park area in Maricopa County with nearly 30,000 acres of beautiful scenery. Made up of rain-carved recesses and canyons of white granite, the area appears to have natural white “tanks” of water after flash floods fill them up. While there is no one main peak, the highest point is just over 4000 feet. You can reach the trailheads easily as the road is paved the whole way.
There are three main trails to enjoy at White Tanks: Waterfall Trail is 1.8 miles round trip, Waddell/Ford Canyon/Mesquite Canyon Trail Loop is a more challenging 9.9 miles and Goat Camp/Willow Canyon Trail Loop is 12.7 miles. Most paths in the park are considered “multiple use” so you will be hiking alongside mountain bikers and equestrians, but generally the trails are not overcrowded.
Waterfall Trail is a there-and-back hike rather than a loop and the even, broad path is accessible to most hikers. As you hike along the path you can see Hohokam petroglyphs on some rocks right on the trail. It does have an actual waterfall at the endpoint where you turn back, but the waterfall is dry except when there have been heavy rains. Even so, it's a beautiful, scenic hike.
The Waddell/Ford Canyon/Mesquite Canyon Trail Loop is dotted with beautiful vegetation and craggy scenery. To me the scenery is at its glorious best during wildflower season which is in March and early April. Parts of the trail are flat and easy although the path does get more challenging toward the middle where it is unmaintained. Still, it's easy to follow even where it's not marked and there are warning signs letting you know that the trail is becoming more hazardous. As you hike you'll find an abandoned dam, typical desert vegetation and a place where the trail tops out (although the view isn't the point; it's not nearly as impressive as some others in town).
The Goat Camp/Willow Canyon Trail Loop is the longest trail at White Tanks, more than 12 miles roundtrip. It ranges from flat and easy to moderate climbing intermittently so there is plenty of scenic variety to take in along the way. The lovely pools at Willow Spring are part of this hike so make sure to leave time to stop and enjoy once you reach them.
Because this is a large, hub of a regional park there are loads of guided activities through the Parks and Recreation Department. You'll find everything from snake feedings and scorpion hunts (in season) to moonlight hikes and kids' desert bingo at White Tanks; this is one of the things about this park that really makes it a standout destination and for a complete listing of upcoming activities for folks of all ages you need only check out the website. Enjoy White Tanks, it's a wonderful day hike, evening adventure and more.
Camelback, Echo Canyon/ Summit Trail
Camelback Mountain is a two summit sleeping camel (one summit the head and the other its hump) in the center of Phoenix and one of the notable sights in town. It is 2,704 feet at its highest point and you reach the summit through stunning sandstone formations on the Summit Trail in Echo Canyon Park. This is a very steep hike for much of the way so if you are a novice this is not a good first time option; even at only 2.3 niles it is one of the more difficult hikes in town. The gradient is extreme enough that there are handrails along the way at times, and naturally for much of the year the heat makes the hike even more challenging.
Start this hike at the Echo Canyon parking lot (and make use of the facilities there, especially the water fountain if your bottle isn't full!) and head into the canyon. Once you reach the top of the canyon there is a bench if you need to rest before the real climbing begins. The handrails appear as you press on and it is this portion of the hike that will likely begin to intimidate you, but press on to take in some incredible views! After about half a mile of handrails the trail kicks up the intensity another notch; this last half a mile or so should take you around an hour unless you are very fit and experienced. As you scramble up the crags and boulders you will probably see wildlife such as lizards and birds, and once you reach the summit you'll want to rest and take it in for a bit. The summit of Camelback Mountain allows you to view Phoenix and its outskirts in every direction, and multiple mountains including the Superstitions and Four Peaks. The summit is the halfway mark of this hike but of course the way down is far less strenuous, albeit steep and a bit treacherous (you'll be glad of those handrails again).
The entrance to Echo Canyon Parkway is east of Tatum Blvd. off of McDonald Drive. Parking is limited and at busy times can be hard to find so plan your hike thoughtfully and enjoy this amazing climb in the heart of the city!
Shaw Butte Trail
This is a fun quickie sort of hike; it's a centrally located, moderately paced hike and a pretty serene trail. The hike itself is about 4 miles and gains in elevation by around 650 feet. If you're looking for a solid, easy to reach, uncrowded place to hike, especially if you want to run for part of it, Shaw Butte Trail might be for you.
At the end of Central Avenue south of Thunderbird Road you will find the paved parking lot and visitor center that abuts the trailhead. It's a great visitor center and there are good, clean bathrooms, water and staff. This trail does have two trailheads, the other on 15th Avenue just north of Peoria, but the more popular one that I am familiar with is the one on Central Ave. However the parking is not very plentiful and street parking isn't allowed in the neighborhood, so it may be best to either go at a less common time, off-season, or to plan to walk a bit from where you park.
This is a low key hike, a nothing fancy sort of outing. The outset of the hike is over nearly flat ground and a good place to run if you like that sort of thing. The trail is mostly well-marked, and as you follow the signs up the service road towards the towers and then down again to the steel pipes you'll happen upon the ghost of what used to be “Cloud Nine,” which was a very fancy place in its heyday back in 1960s Phoenix. Although there is some vandalism and graffiti at this sight, to me that adds to the way the burned out place interests you as you explore.
While you're up at the towers you'll have what is actually a decent view, albeit one rendered unusual by the presence of towers and satellite dishes. Also, you can get a panoramic view from various points just below the top of the mountain if you make your way down and around. You'll see views of the downtown and midtown skyline, Lookout Mountain and humble Sunnyslope. You'll also see even the Bradshaws in the distance. Eventually as you continue back down the mountain (through wildflowers at certain times of the year) you will come to the dam, and back to the parking lot.
This trail has comfortably wide paths, so even if you see other hikers it's unlikely to be too close for comfort. You won't be hiking in seclusion, but you'll be amongst a friendly, low-key crowd if there is one. Especially if you live in the North Valley this is a great, less bustling alternative to Camelback and Piestewa. Give it a try!
Piestewa Peak summit trail (North Mountain preserve, formerly Squaw Peak), Phoenix Mountains Park and Recreation Area and Dreamy Draw Recreation Area
At the base of the popular hike up 2,608-foot Piestewa Peak you will find a large paved parking lot, and an unpaved staging area with hitching racks and a horse trough. Water and restrooms are also available here. The trailhead is wonderfully central, located just north of the parking lot in Dreamy Draw Recreation Area near 19th Street and Northern Avenue. Although peak can be crowded at times there are many miles of trails in the area and this remains one of Phoenix's best hikes.
Originally the area surrounding and including Piestewa Peak was home to mercury mining and grazing operations; eventually the area became a touchstone for local preservation efforts. The numerous trailheads through the schist launch the hiker into the diverse, unexpectedly lush desert landscapes typical of the lower Sonoran Desert and provide both captivating views outward from the high points and quiet valleys filled with local flora and fauna. Take advantage of the picnic areas nestled into the surrounding beauty. You are guaranteed to see nearly all varieties of Arizona cactus as you hike the peak as well as other local plants like palo verde and mesquite trees as well as creosote and sage shrubs. On the fauna side of things you can run into anything from coyotes and foxes to owls, hawks and rabbits. Probably one of the biggest hazards to be aware of is the rattlesnake, especially when the weather is cooler and they come out onto the trail to warm up in the sun. There are also gila monsters in the area although I have never run across one. One special note in this hiking area is the children's trail, called 220A. It's a great way for kids to explore alongside you.
All trailhead parking areas and roadways are open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. For trailheads that close at sunset, closure will be sunset or 7 p.m. whichever, comes first. Though gated parking areas, restrooms and ramadas close at 7 p.m., the trails themselves remain open until 11 p.m. (of course if you didn't walk there and the roadway is closed this might not do you any good). Enjoy this jewel of a hiking area in the heart of the city!
Phoenix Mountains Recreation Area (main Piestewa Peak access)
2701 E. Squaw Peak Drive
Dreamy Draw Recreation Area
2421 E. Northern Ave.
Ranger Office Phone: (602) 261-8318
South Mountain: Los Molitas Loop, Scorpion Gulch, and Buena Vista Trail
South Mountain Park covers approximately 16,000 acres and is not only the largest municipal park in Arizona but also the country. The South Phoenix park offers Phoenicians and guests with wanderlust more than 51 miles of trails. Although not the highest point in the park, Dobbins Peak, 2,330 feet in elevation, is the highest point accessible to hikers (although you can get there without hiking). This isn't the most difficult set of trails around and so even a moderate hiker can soak in great views of Phoenix from the high trails of South Mountain Park. You can get into the park by taking Central Avenue all the way south until you hit the entrance.
The history of South Mountain Park is an interesting one, reflective of both local and US history. In the early 1900s when the territory of Arizona experienced a boom due to mining various minerals were extracted from what would become the park. The park was created in 1924 when socially powerful local citizens (assisted by Senator Carl Hayden) bought 13,000 acres of federal land for $17,000. Obviously the Great Depression ensued after the 1929 stock market crash and the resulting conditions led to large-scale planning on behalf of the National Park Service in conjunction with the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1935 the master plan for the park was unveiled and work on the site began; the many riding trails, hiking trails, picnic facilities and scenic overlooks. Even back in 1924 the park saw 3,000 visitors each month. Today South Mountain Park provides a beautiful recreational opportunities for approximately three million visitors yearly.
My own family history includes fond memories of South Mountain Park. My great grandmother, born in 1896 near Verde Valley in central Arizona, rode horses throughout the area even as a young girl. She spoke of staying watchful for bandits and other unsavory characters. My grandmother was born in 1921 and lived on a farm in South Phoenix. She too rode through the South Mountain Park and reported not only fond memories of the area but a sense of gratitude for never going hungry, even during the Depression, thanks to the bounty of the local farmland. Eventually the family moved to what would become Tolleson, Arizona and their ranch saw my mother and aunt riding and hiking there, and also back in the familiar South Mountain area. South Mountain Park is truly a local tradition and taste of old Phoenix.
South Mountain Park is actually home to three mountain ranges that run northeast to southwest. The Ma Ha Tauk, Gila and Guadalupe ranges erupt from the floor of the desert and this is typical of our Sonoran Desert. Also typical to our area are the occasionally hazardous areas of rocky, shifting terrain and, of course, rattlesnakes.
Within the park the Los Lomitas trail section is easily accessible from both entrances, east and west. From the eastern end, look for Scorpion Gulch and Ponderosa Stables which mark the trailhead. Conversely, from the western end you're looking for the ranger trail. Los Lomitas is very popular with hikers and riders alike (riders of the equestrian variety, that is). Obviously the view of the city to the north from Dobbins Point is breathtaking, day and night. I encourage you to stay late at least once and drink in the city lights! To the south you can see suburban sprawl and farming, both of which look charming from the height of the peak.
Buena Vista trail in South Mountain is another wonderful option that comprises parts or all of the Corona de Loma, Desert Classic, Telegraph Pass, and the National trails, depending on which route you choose. Either way, this hike is a loop just under 10 miles long and it takes you over the mountain, through arroyos and mini canyons, around the towers and past everything from wildflowers and petroglyphs to snakes and squirrels. This hike starts and ends from the Buena Vista lookout and is easy to moderate hiking.
The gated roadways, trail head parking areas, restrooms and ramadas at South Mountain Park are open from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. and trails are open until 11 p.m. Don't miss this slice of local history and beauty.
The Superstitions: Fremont Saddle and The Flatiron
The Superstition Mountains rise 3000 feet above the valley floor, awe-inspiring crags and peaks in the far east Valley. Many of the trails in the Superstitions are very crowded in peak times, usually the Spring, during which the weather is not just bearable but beautiful. Residents of the Lower Sonoran Desert, the Superstitions is a spectacular location for wildflowers in season and lookout views.
The Superstitions provide a certain diversity in flora and fauna. The lowlands in the west of the range are littered with the many varieties of cacti present in the area. The highlands of the Eastern Superstitions are cooler than surrounding areas with usual summer highs under 100° and a much more generous amount of annual rainfall than in the rest of the Metropolitan area (around 20 inches). Unlike in the lowlands area here are few cacti and more plentiful plants and trees such as Juniper and Pine.
The Superstition Mountains are rich in local history. The tale of the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine still thrills visitors and the strange sights of open pit copper mining also round out the experience.
For strikingly scenic spaces and moderate hiking the Fremont Saddle trail is spot on. From Fremont Saddle you'll experience unparalleled views of Weavers Needle after you make your start at the Peralta Trailhead and head north from there. The trail rises steadily but moderately through the hoodoos, gaining in all about 1,400 feet.
From Phoenix, take the U.S. 60 east past Apache Junction. Turn left about 4.5 miles past the freeway's end at milepost 204, following the signs for the Peralta Trailhead. The road is partially paved and partially graded dirt. Your hike begins as you go through the Peralta Trailhead and once you reach the choke stone you will be amazed by the panoramic views on each side of Weaver's Needle, the core of a former volcano. This is a beautiful and moderate hike—and a popular one! Be sure to come early!
The Flatiron (a/k/a Siphon Draw)
This is a tough hike, not for the faint of heart! But if you're a hardcore hiker this is a sure win. This five mile round trip hike presents an approximately 2,400 foot ascent to the local sight, The Flatiron, which resembles an inverted steam iron. This steep hike provides eye-popping 360 degree views of the Metropolitan Phoenix area and the rest of the Superstitions. As close as this hike is to the city, it encompasses untouched desert areas and amazing views.
From the Phoenix area, take US-60 East and turn North onto HWY-88 (the Idaho Road Exit). From Apache Junction, drive about five miles to the Lost Dutchman State Park (on your right) and follow the signs to the Siphon Draw trailhead. You'll have to pay a few bucks to enter the Lost Dutchman State Park.
The hike is an unrelenting ascent, rendering it very challenging. About half way up to the Flat Iron you will see a smooth rock face, polished by rainwater over the course of millennia. You'll only see water coursing over it after a good rain, though; this is definitely the right time to go as the entire area is blazing with color. Once at the top, you can look out east into the distance or look west towards the Superstition Mountains. The top of North Peak is accessible here should you want to go further; if you do, you'll love the panoramic views and the quaint graffiti old enough to be your great grandmother's work. Whether you included North Peak in your journey or stopped at the top of the Flat Iron, to get home simply turn back the way you came.
Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area (Cave Creek)
This delightfully pretty and easy hiking area is the newest addition to Maricopa County's Regional Parks System and comprises 2,154 rough acres of our Sonoran Desert. Spur Cross is home to various archaeological sites and Cave Creek rushing through the area all winter creates lush areas alongside it. As in many parks in this area, pieces of early Arizona history remain apparent, suggesting mining and the eponymous ranching. You cannot beat this hike for wildflowers during the spring and naturally various animals can be seen living off the lush landscape.
Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area offers more than seven miles of trails for hiking, along with mountain biking and horseback riding. The park is home to a variety of trails ranging from 1.2 miles to 4.6 miles and from difficult to easy. The trails within Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area are very popular due to the high elevation and dense vegetation which renders them far more comfortable in the heat than other hiking destinations.
To get to the trailhead from the Phoenix area, take the I-17 North to Carefree Highway. From there, take the Carefree Highway East about 8.5 miles to Cave Creek Road. You'll then turn left onto Cave Creek Road and drive to Spur Cross road, about about 2.7 miles. Finally, drive north on Spur Cross road about 4.5 miles. Although part of this last leg is over a dirt road, this particular road is and easy for most cars. There are restrooms at the trailhead, but no water so be sure to allow for water.
You will love the beauty and ease of this hike which is accessible to your family and you.
The Pinnacle Peak Trail in north Scottsdale is a 3 1/2-mile hike that encircles a striking local landmark and presents wonderful panoramic views of the surround. There is enough elevation in this hike to challenge but it is still accessible to less fit or experienced hikers.
The broad, well-marked trail ascends throughout the hike amongst typical Sonoran flora and the enormous, craggy granite boulders. You'll find water, restrooms, picnic tables and a large ramada between the parking lot and the trailhead. If it's your first visit, stop by the information center for a map and a list of plants you'll encounter along the way. Keep your eyes peeled for Grandview, a scenic and peaceful outlook with benches and geographical displays. From there you can see various mountains and landmarks. If you go in the early morning the trail will be dappled with refreshing shade and far less annoyed about crowding. Check out this easy, lovely hike!
www.scottsdaleaz.gov/parks/pinnacle or 480-312-0990.