Dobbins Lookout at South Mountain
Dobbins Lookout at South Mountain

You conquered all the Valley’s easy and intermediate hikes and now want a challenge that really puts your legs and lungs to the test. You’re in luck! The Valley offers several hikes that really crank things up a notch, and we rounded up our favorites below.

As always, before you set out on a hike in Arizona — especially a strenuous one — make sure you play it safe:

  1. Bring plenty of water, and that means more than a small bottle or two. Maricopa County Parks recommend turning around once your water reaches halfway empty.
  2. During the summer, hike first thing in the morning when the temperatures are lower. And just stay home if the forecast calls for more than 110 degrees. People are hospitalized and die every year from heat stroke. Make sure that doesn’t happen to you.
  3. As of May 2017, dogs are not allowed on trails when the temperature exceeds 100 degrees.
  4. During monsoon season, avoid washes as sudden downpours upstream can lead to flash floods.
  5. If you see storm clouds forming, don’t hike. Arizona experiences a lot of potentially deadly lightning strikes.
  6. Make sure you know what to do if you encounter bee swarms or rattlesnakes.
  7. Hike in a group, let someone know where you’re going and carry a cellphone.

OK, now that you possess the necessary paranoia to survive the Arizona wilderness, let’s look at some of the Valley’s top hiking spots.

1. South Mountain

Dobbins Lookout at South Mountain
Dobbins Lookout at South Mountain

South Mountain covers a huge area and offers more than two dozen trails from simple strolls to strenuous climbs. For the latter, look at the Alta Trail, which offers a 1,100-foot elevation change over 4.5 miles, or the Holbert Trail, which covers the same gain in 2.5 miles and ends at the spectacular Dobbins Lookout.

For an endurance hike, try the Desert Classic Trail, which stretches 9.2 miles, or the massive 14.5-mile National Trail. You can also combine two hiking styles, as the Alta Trail arrives at one of the National Trail’s endpoints. Other difficult trails meet up with the Desert Classic Trail as well.

Click here to see all of South Mountain’s trails and their difficulty ratings.

Good to Know: 

  • Access to South Mountain’s trails come from multiple points around the area. Make sure you know where you’re going for the trail you want.
  • Most of the access areas offer free — if limited — parking, and some amenities.
  • Gated access areas are only open from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. and trails close at 11 p.m.

2. Usery Mountain Regional Park

Pass Mountain at Usery Mountain Park
Pass Mountain at Usery Mountain Park

Situated just northeast of Mesa, Usery Mountain Regional Park contains 20 trails of varying difficulty. Serious hikers will want to try the demanding Wind Cave trail, which climbs 812 feet over 1.5-mile (one way) and the Pass Mountain trail, which covers 7.5-mile in a loop and varies elevation by 731 feet.

The park also offers a large campground, nature center, archery range and plenty more outdoor activities, which makes it a good spot for an outdoor weekend.

Click here to learn more about the park’s trails.

Good to Know:

  • Entry to the park costs $6 per vehicle and $2 to hike.

3. McDowell Mountain Regional Park

To the northeast of the Valley just above Fountain Hills, McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers 20 hiking trails of varying difficulty. When it comes to endurance hiking, the Pemberton trail offers a 15.3-mile loop that can vary in elevation up to 667 feet.

As with Usery, McDowell offers a large campground, stargazing spots and plenty more outdoor activities, which makes it a good spot for an outdoor weekend.

Click here for more details on the trails in this park.

Good to Know:

  • When it rains, stay out of any trails that include “wash” in the name.
  • The park costs $6 for vehicles and $2 to hike.

4. Piestawa Peak

Piestawa Peak
By Ted Eytan via Wikimedia Commons

At roughly 1.2 miles one way, Piestawa Peak seems like it would be a relatively short hike, but the 1,200-foot elevation gain provides a real challenge. One of the more popular hiking destinations in the Valley, Piestewa offers a step-like layout on its trail to give less-experienced hikers a little more structure to get up and down the mountain’s rocky terrain.

Surrounded by freeways, neighborhoods and resort hotels, “Stairmaster Peak,” as it is sometimes called, draws a lot of visitors — up to 10,000 hikers per week — so you can often meet new people along the way.

Click here for more trails in the area and their difficulty ratings.

Good to Know:

  • Location: 2701 E. Squaw Peak Dr., Phoenix
  • It’s recommended that hikers get to Piestewa Peak early as the parking lot tends to fill up fast.
  • There are plenty of areas to sit and hang out or just take in the view; bring a camera to capture a few memories.

5. Camelback Mountain

Camelback Mountain from the north.
Camelback Mountain from the north.

Camelback Mountain, so named for its shape reminiscent of a kneeling camel, offers one of the Valley’s most difficult, yet rewarding, hikes. There are two main trails: Echo Canyon and Cholla.

Echo Canyon, which starts in the Camelback Mountain Echo Canyon Recreation Area, begins leisurely on the .5 mile Bobbie’s Rock Trail. However, the Summit Trail offers a 1.3-mile trek (one way) that gains 1,200 feet in elevation. Add in rocky terrain and possible drops, and you need to treat this trail seriously. Plan for a minimum of 1.5 hours round trip.

Camelback’s Cholla Trail, which starts in a residential area, covers Camelback’s 1,200 foot elevation gain in 1.5 miles along the spine of the mountain. It offers excellent views along the way, but no shade for hot summer days. The trail can also become difficult to find toward the summit.

Click here for more details about these trails. 

Good to Know:

  • Trailheads: 5700 N. Echo Canyon Pkwy., Phoenix, or Cholla Lane, Phoenix.
  • Parking is limited at Echo Canyon, especially on weekends, so get there early.
  • There is no parking on Cholla Lane. You will need to park at designated spots on Invergordon Rd., or elsewhere.
  • Handrails are available along some lengths of the climb to help steady your ascent
  • Dogs are prohibited on both trails.

– Justin Ferris,