41 Local Hikes

Written by Mare Czinar and Lilia Menconi Category: Health & Fitness Issue: January 2015
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On your feet, Phoenicians! You happen to live in America’s premier hiking town. From the White Tanks to the peaks of South Mountain, find an invigorating and scenic holiday calorie-buster near you.

Hike City, USA

Where does Phoenix rank in the pantheon of great American hiking metros? “You want my biased opinion?” asks PHOENIX magazine hiking guru Mare Czinar. “It’s the best.” Consider: The Valley has not one, not two, but three world-class hiking mountains in its city core, plus dozens of lesser-known trails on the metro fringe, plus hundreds of wilderness hikes within a three-hour drive.

What other American city can match that?

Denver? Naw. Pretty flat, actually.

Salt Lake? Maybe, but good luck hiking anything come January.

Los Angeles? Dude, those are hills, not mountains.

In brief: Phoenix hiking reigns supreme. Find our mountain-by-mountain profile of the Valley’s best local hikes on the following pages, or use this handy short-cut guide to find a trail just for you.

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Highest Summit:
Only the heartiest hikers will conquer the 5,691-foot peak at Harquahala Peak... and they might see a snow drift or two. Closer to home, the McDowell Mountain summit from Tom’s Thumb Trailhead tops out at a rarefied 3,925 feet.

Best Sunset Hike:
Ridgeline Loop in Deem Hills Park boasts a west-facing summit and commanding views of the Valley sprawl.

Prettiest Hike/Best Flora:
In the spring, the west side of the Dixie Mountain Loop in the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve is overcome by legions of wildflowers. But for dependable autumnal eye candy, the Camp Creek Falls-Blue Wash Trail in Cave Creek features dramatic granite, fall sycamore colors and a waterfall if El Niño hits.

Best Hike for Novice/Challenged Hikers:
Any of the hikes snaking from the Apache Wash Trailhead in North Phoenix make for a nice nature stroll.

Most Interesting Wildlife:
The ringtail cats at Piestewa Peak are adorable, but a bit Garbo-esque. Backup plan: Look for wild bighorn sheep at Harquahala Peak near Wickenburg.

Most Technical/Challenging:
Echo Canyon Trail at Camelback Mountain. The Valley’s most popular hike is also its most technical, with two vertical railings and a boulder scramble on the final third.

Best Quick Hike:
North Mountain is a brisk 1.4-mile up-and-back burner with great views of the city. And sparse crowds.

Most Secluded:
Compared to the vertical dogpiles of Piestewa and Camelback, the 5-mile Geronimo Trail at South Mountain is a fortress of solitude.

 

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CENTRAL HIKES
Camelback Mountain
Want to see a hairless dude in electric-blue Speedos climbing a mountain? Sure you do. Summiting Camelback’s Echo Canyon Trail – perhaps the most popular city hike in the nation with 700,000 visitors per year – you may run into this curious soul or one of the many colorful characters who flock to Camelback’s well-trodden 2.5-mile up-and-back trail. Following the park’s recent $3.4 million upgrade, Camelback's legendary parking hassles have subsided somewhat, but the lot is still dependably packed every weekend.

Finding it: Find the Echo Canyon Trail (4925 E. McDonald Dr., Phoenix) at the main trailhead located at Echo Canyon Parkway, south of McDonald Drive. Navigating the trail is a no-brainer. It’s the big, wide trail with all the people on it, snaking up the mountain between two sheer-face rock formations.

Best Time to Go: The crowds thin on weekdays (especially in the early afternoons), but if you must hike Echo Canyon on a peak Saturday or Sunday, try carpooling or biking to the trailhead so you can at least bypass the crowds in the parking lot.

That Extra Mile... or Three: If you’re hard-core, continue to follow the trail from the summit as it merges with the Cholla Trail to descend the east side of Camelback Mountain. At the end of the Cholla Trail, turn around and take the mountain in reverse to total six hard-fought miles. Bonus: Cholla is dog-friendly. Echo Canyon is not.

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Colorful Characters: Aside from the Speedo guy, you’ll see Scottsdalians showing off their glistening bods, Euro families with small children, tatted bikers and, well, everyone else because the trail is that popular. As far as the non-human wildlife goes, you might see the occasional lizard or cottontail rabbit, but most creatures steer clear of this area.

Elevation Gain: 1,200 feet

Rating: Difficult. Novice and challenged hikers are good for about a quarter-mile until they reach the “saddle” portion of the trail. After that, hikers must contend with two vertical “rails” and much bouldering to reach the summit. Which is spectacular, by the way. Worth every near-twisted ankle.

Losing It: Parks maestro Ken Vonderscher of the City of Phoenix estimates that about 100 hikers a year lose their way and need to be rescued on Camelback Mountain – about 70 percent of the city’s annual lost-hiker total. His advice: Bring a flashlight if you hike at dusk. Or choose a different mountain. “We’ve got lots of nice ones,” he says.

AprÈs Hike: To keep the glorious sensation of treating your body right, try Flower Child for a post-hike meal that’s super nutritious. With wraps, salads and a mishmash of healthy sides available, you’ll replenish your energy in no time. They also have a handful of local beers on tap and a wine list for a boozy treat. 5013 N. 44th St., Phoenix, 602-429-6222, iamaflowerchild.com

photo by Jim David

Piestewa Peak aka “Squaw Peak”
Over the decades, Piestewa Peak Summit Trail on the southeast side of the Phoenix Mountains has extracted more moisture from Phoenix pores than perhaps any other fitness venue in the Valley. At 2.4 round-trip miles, with an elevation gain of about 1,200 feet, the well-groomed trail has been described as an “outdoor Stairmaster,” luring an eclectic mix of 400,000 hikers per year. Be ready to glimpse the pulsating calves on the super-buff as they inevitably pass you. Then test your patience as you lag behind the families with small children wearing flip-flops.

Finding It: To start the hike, access the trailhead (2701 E. Squaw Peak Dr.) past the gate on Squaw Peak Drive, north of Glendale Avenue. The trail is well-traveled and features plenty of trail markers to keep you on the right track.

Best Time to Go: Taking on a trail in the Phoenix summertime might sound like the worst idea ever, but if you summit Piestewa in the evening to catch the spectacular summer sunset light show on your way down, you’ll soon change your mind.

photo by Jim David

COLORFUL CHARACTERS:
>>Phoenix Mountains’ coyote population has learned to steer clear of the popular summit trail, but you can often catch a glimpse of the area’s horned lizards scurrying like mad to clear the way.

>> During early morning and sunset hours, Piestewa’s beloved ringtail cats sometimes emerge from their cool warrens to nibble on summit crumbs or sip water from bottle caps.

>> Weekend-morning hikers are accustomed to the sight of a lady with a large, loud macaw perched on her shoulder.

>> Beware the “on your left” woman.

Piestewa Protocol: The Piestewa summit trail is narrow and crowded. And some people like to hike it at high speed. Thus, it’s vitally important to observe standard American traffic rules during your ascent and descent: Stay to the right, hike single file. Flout these basic rules, and you’ll likely catch hell from the “on your left” woman.

3 Alternatives to the Summit Trail
1. With so many options in the vast Phoenix Mountains, you can skip Piestewa completely, finding hikes with fewer people and more wildlife. The Quartz Ridge Trail 8A stems from a small trailhead on the northeast corner of 32nd Street and Lincoln Drive. Follow the 8A heading north along the bank of a large wash and finish with a cardio challenge as you climb to a peaceful saddle (2.2 miles up and back). The trail is popular but rarely crowded, so you’ll likely see coyotes, bats, owls or other critters.

2. If you want a break from the crowd, try hiking around the mountain via Freedom Trail 302 (aka the “Circumference Trail”). This 3.7-mile loop is accessible at the northwest end of Squaw Peak Drive. Follow Trail 302 signs to trace the north and west sides of Piestewa Peak before colliding with the Summit Trail. Quickly descend along the Summit Trail, making sure to catch a left turn to hop back on the 302 just before reaching the Summit Trail parking lot.

3. For more seclusion, try out a portion of Trail 100 from Dreamy Draw Park. Access to this teeny, tiny fraction of the 11-mile Trail 100 (which runs end to end in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, passing by Shaw Butte, North Mountain and Piestewa Peak) is on the north side of the Dreamy Draw main parking lot (east of Highway 51 on Dreamy Draw Drive). Head west under the tunnel that clears Highway 51 and follow Trail 100 as it climbs the south side of a small mountain and heads north to an unassuming saddle, which makes for a lovely stopping point (up and back totals a doable 2.2 miles).

AprÈs Hike: Head to Otro Café for tasty contemporary Southwestern dishes. While you’re at it, order a refreshing prickly pear margarita or choose from their healthy list of beer and wine. 6035 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-266-083, otrocafe.com

 

North Mountain
Piestewa and Camelback get the most notoriety when it comes to summit hiking, but they aren’t the only quad-ripping games in town. North Mountain’s National Trail is a definite must-do. At 1.4 miles round trip, it’s perfect if you’re looking for a quick burn to a beautiful view, minus the parking lot politics.

Finding it: Find this hike (10600 N. Seventh St., Phoenix) on the west side of Seventh Street at North Mountain Recreation Loop (north of Dunlap Avenue). Access the trailhead at the northern parking lot, then follow a narrow trail that quickly ascends to hook up with a paved access road. Join the superhuman joggers and moms pushing strollers as you trace the road to the top of North Mountain to enjoy a well-deserved view of Downtown Phoenix.

Rating: Moderate.

AprÈs Hike: After completing North Mountain or Shaw Butte, it’s only natural to make a stop at North Mountain Brewing. Wash down anything from pizza to oysters with your choice of microbrews including their Hefe, Baby Belgian, IPA and more. 522 E. Dunlap Ave., Phoenix, 602-861-5999, northmountainbrewing.com

North Mountain Alternative
Shaw Butte is another clear favorite in the area, and this sucker packs a punch. The regulars are polite and often yanking a leash attached to a beloved pooch. For the fastest and most unrelenting climb to the summit (2.6 miles up and back), access Shaw Butte’s Trail 306 from a small parking lot located on Central Avenue, south of Thunderbird Road. From the trailhead, veer to the right to hike up the dirt access road. Put your head down and breathe deep until you reach metal towers at the summit. Enjoy the view of neighboring North Mountain to the southeast as you regain your composure from this nonstop ascent.

 

photo by Madison Kirkman

South Mountain:
North Side
As if the Phoenix Mountains weren’t impressive enough, South Mountain Park – the largest municipal park in the U.S. – boasts 51 miles of hiking within its 16,000 acres. From the north side of the mountain, first on the to-do list is the Mormon Trail to Hidden Valley. Study a map before tackling this one, because you’ll follow a tricky combination of trails totaling 3.6 miles.

FINDING IT: Start at the trailhead located at 24th Street and Euclid Avenue, south of Baseline Road (8610 S. 24th St., Phoenix). Climb the Mormon Trail for about 1.5 miles, then follow a small portion of the National Trail to connect with the Hidden Valley Trail. Enjoy the cool shade created by a dark passage in the rocky Natural Tunnel, then climb over a few boulders and – BOOM – you’ll be making footprints in the soft sand of the Hidden Valley, which ends at Fat Man’s Pass, a gut-sucking squeeze between two huge boulders. The Hidden Valley trail then immediately rejoins the National Trail. Follow it northeast and look for the turnoff to the Mormon Trail, which returns to the parking lot.

RATING: Moderate.

AprÈs Hike: While you’re on the north side of the mountain, head to the legendary Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles for some much-needed carb replacement. You can’t go wrong choosing from the huge menu at this local staple of Southern soul food. They serve breakfast all day, “samiches” and “dranks” by the jar, including Kool-Aid and sweet tea, or their Bloody Bacon Mary – just to name a few options. 1220 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-340-1304, loloschickenandwaffles.com

Alternative North Side Hikes
>> A few miles west of the Mormon Trail (but still in South Mountain because South Mountain is huge) is the popular Holbert Trail. Holbert is accessed via the Central Avenue entrance (10919 S. Central Ave., Phoenix) and climbs to the highest hikeable elevation on the mountain at Dobbins Lookout. The first mile-ish is relatively flat and passes through a fine sample of petroglyphs (ancient rock art). Then Holbert climbs the north side of the Guadalupe Range until it pops up to the Civilian Conservation Corps-built stone structure that marks Dobbins Lookout. Up and back is about four miles.

>> Though most of these South Mountain trails offer solitude, the blue ribbon for secrecy goes to the Geronimo Trail. Seek the tiny trailhead on the southeast corner of Dobbins Road and 20th Street. Park on the road and follow the trail as it cuts through a neighborhood, then heads south to climb into the mountain range, through a small canyon, then up, up, up to Buena Vista Lookout. Even on a Saturday in the best weather, you’ll hardly see another soul on this 5-mile, up-and-back hike.

 

South Mountain:
South Side
On the Ahwatukee side of South Mountain – or “Tukee Way,” in the local parlance – your main hiking hub is the popular Pima Canyon Trailhead (9904 S. 48th St., Phoenix). Like an outdoor Grand Central Station, the trailhead attracts a bustling, diverse crowd of hikers and mountain bikers who depart for many varieties of trail including craggy ridgelines, sandy washes, and low-impact access roads. In this area, be on the lookout for the 18-inch long chuckwalla lizard. These big fellas have bright orange tails that are entirely unique from the chuckwallas found in other desert preserves.

FINDING IT: From the Pima Canyon Trailhead, hike a clearly-marked access road west to tap into the National Trail, which circles the entire length of the park for an epic 14.5 miles one way. If you’re not in the mood for that all-day jaunt, simply use the National Trail as a conduit to other landmarks. For starters, hike the National Trail to Hidden Valley and back (6.2 miles). Or continue on to the Buena Vista Lookout for a hefty 10-mile out-and-back hike that's sure to leave you pleasantly spent.

RATING: Advanced. Each of these options are certainly challenging from a physical and technical level, so be sure you’re in shape, geared up and carrying a trail map. With so many miles, you’ll encounter other hikers, sure, but you’ll also enjoy quiet areas of the trail that may be shared with coyotes, rattlers or chuckwallas.

AprÈs Hike: For your post-hike chow, head to Hillside Spot, a local-focused market and cafe specializing in Southwestern twists on American favorites. They offer pancakes, huevos rancheros, burritos and sandwiches galore. To catch a quick buzz, choose from a variety of beers from Four Peaks and Oak Creek breweries. 4740 E. Warner Rd., Phoenix, 480-705-7768, hillsidespot.com

Alternative South Side Hikes
>> Heading farther west for a more isolated hiking experience, check out the Pyramid or Bursera trails from the Chandler Boulevard and 19th Avenue Trailhead (1900 W. Chandler Blvd., Phoenix). Start the hike on the Pyramid Trail and veer right at the fork to continue northeast for a 6-mile up-and-back hike. Or if you veer left from the fork, you’ll follow the Bursera Trail northwest for 6.6 miles. Both of these trails meet their end when they collide with the National Trail – there’s just no avoiding that thing.

 

photo by Madison Kirkman

WEST VALLEY & BEYOND
Western Deserts
It takes guts to get to the summit of Harquahala Peak. Only driving on a white-knuckle 4x4 road or hiking a 6-mile cliffhanging pack trail can conquer the troposphere-tickling, 5,691-foot massif. Both options spiral skyward through the rugged domain of big horn sheep topping out on southwest Arizona’s highest point with vertigo-inducing views of the Vulture Mountains and remote Hummingbird Wilderness. Summit curiosities include ruins of the 1920s-era Smithsonian Observatory that was used to study solar activity from its perch on an escarpment surrounded by abandoned mining gear and the drone of modern-day communication contraptions.

FINDING IT: From Wickenburg, go west on US 60 past the little town of Aguila. Turn left at a small brown “trail” sign between mile markers 70 and 71, pass the gate and follow the  “trail” signs 2.2 miles to the trailhead. blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/cultural/harcs.html

RATING: Difficult.

APRÈS HIKE: In terms of authentic Mexican dining, Raul & Theresa’s Mexican Restaurant is the real deal. Slinging salsa since 1968, this family-friendly establishment has a huge menu with lunch and dinner specials. 1363 N. Litchfield Rd. Goodyear, 623-536-9700, raulandtheresas.com

Rest of the West
Because of its straightforward nature and endless thread of attractions, Waterfall Canyon is one of the most traveled trails within White Tank Mountain Regional Park’s 25-mile system. The hike is barrier-free up to “petroglyph alley,” a boulder-lined corridor of Native American rock art. Beyond the petroglyphs, the trail narrows and begins a mild ascent to a box canyon where water streams over smooth granite after rainstorms. 20304 W. White Tank Mountain Rd., Waddell, 623-935-2505, maricopa.gov/parks/white_tank

 

Wickenburg Area
Despite the name, there’s not a dinosaur fossil to be found in the hilly deserts and sandblasted washes of Wickenburg’s Dinosaur Wash. In the absence of terrible lizard relics, nice lizards, tortoises and deer meander through a stark, Jurassic-like world of wind-and-water-ravaged rock. Occasionally, blowing dust might uncover the skull of a wayward cow or bones of an unfortunate mule. There’s more than one way to get to Dinosaur Wash, but the 10.5-mile round-trip Sophie’s Flat trailhead – with its ample parking, restrooms and horse staging area – is the most convenient access point (see map). The landmark’s mascot looms in an enormous rock formation that resembles a yawning Brontosaurus leaning from the craggy foothills of 3,190-foot Red Top Mountain. The way is reasonably clear up to the 4.97-mile point where a slick rock drop-off requires some scrambling. From this point, it’s one mile to the Hassayampa River, Mistake Mine Ruins and the Box Canyon. River water levels vary with rainfall, so bring wading gear if you’re intent on hiking through the box.

FINDING IT: From the Interstate 17/Carefree Hwy (exit 223), go 30 miles west, turn right at US 60 and continue to just before the Hassayampa River Bridge traffic circle in Wickenburg. Turn right on El Recreo, go 0.25 mile and veer right onto Constellation Road. Continue 2.7 miles, turn left onto Blue Tank Road and drive 1.3 miles to the trailhead on the right. wickenburgtrails.org

RATING: Moderate-Difficult.

APRÈS HIKE: It’s fitting that Anita’s Cocina is on Valentine Street, because we’re in love with Wickenburg’s unofficial “chamber of commerce.” For nearly 30 years, locally-owned Anita’s has been cooking savory Mexican staples that are delivered to your table by servers with encyclopedic knowledge of everything local. 57 N. Valentine St., Wickenburg, 928-684-5777, anitascocina.com

 

map by Brian Goddard; click to enlarge

FINDING DINOSAUR WASH
1. From Sophie's Flat trailhead, follow the A trail 1.1 miles to the B trail.

2. Follow the B trail to the 1.88-mile point, veer right and folllow the C trail.

3. Hike the C trail to the 2.39-mile point and turn left, rejoining the A trail.

4. Follow the A trail to the 2.91-mile point and connect with the D trail. Turn right and follow the D trail through a northwest cutback, continuing until you see the Brontosaurus-shaped rock formation.

Other Wickenburg Winners
>> Full disclosure: There will probably be buck naked people wallowing in Kaiser Hot Springs. Not to worry, though. The hike is a walk through the twisting, steep-walled course of Burro Creek, where the tiny natural hot tub is fed by a trickle of earth-warmed water. The spa is located around a bend in the canyon, so you’ll hear the bathers in time to blindfold the kiddies or avert your gaze. From Wickenburg, go 65 miles north on US 93, cross the Kaiser Canyon Bridge and turn right onto a dirt road just past milepost 135. Follow the dirt road roughly 0.1 mile to a wire gate where the road splits, stay straight, pass through the gate and park in the turnouts near the bridge. Read the trip report at arizonahiking.blogspot.com for detailed hike directions.

>> Open to gold-panners, ATV buffs and hikers alike, Box Canyon is a very busy, recreational free-for-all. A hike through the narrows of the Hassayampa River runs for 1.5 miles among sand bars, rivulets and the ruins of Mistake Mine. From Wickenburg, go 4.6 miles north on US 93 to Scenic Loop Road at milepost 195. Turn right, drive 6.8 miles, take the right fork at a Bureau of Land Management “no dumping” sign and go 0.1 mile to the parking area.

 

NORTH VALLEY HIKES
North Phoenix
With the stellar combination of South Mountain and the Phoenix Mountains satisfying centrally-situated hikers, the City of Phoenix recently added two new parks to keep north Phoenicians happy on the trail: Deem Hills Park and Phoenix Sonoran Preserve. The most popular trail in the area is the Circumference and Ridgeline Loop (3.9 miles) on the west side of Deem Hills Park, a 1,000-acre wilderness parcel set aside for the inhabitants of the neighboring subdivision. (Take that, urban sprawl!) This moderate loop is perfect for all fitness levels with a slight ascent over the first mile topped by one major push to the ridgeline. The rest is a breezy descent overlooking the neighboring developments and the impressive Central Arizona Project canal stretching across the northern horizon.

FINDING IT: From the main Deem Hills trailhead (51st Ave. and Deem Hills Pkwy.), find the Circumference Trail. Take it left or right and follow it until a turnoff for the Ridgeline Trail, which climbs to – surprise! – a ridgeline. Continue along the Ridgeline Trail as it descends then rejoins the Circumference Trail to close the loop.

RATING: Moderate.

photo by Madison Kirkman

APRÈS HIKE: For an eatery away from the cookie-cutter shopping centers in the area, sprint for Times Square. This neighborhood Italian restaurant serves rich, traditional dishes that will undo your workout (hey, live a little). Pick from their huge menu of pastas, salads, pizzas and sandwiches, then wash it all down with your favorite drink from their full bar. 2602 W. Deer Valley Rd., Phoenix, 623-582-8866, timessquareaz.com

Alternative North Phoenix Hikes
New Trailhead! The other North Phoenix newbie is the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve. With two major trail systems, it’s tough to say which of the 36 miles of trail will emerge as the city’s favorite. Our vote goes to the 5.7-mile Dixie Mountain Loop accessible from the Desert Vista Trailhead (1900 W. Desert Vista Trail, Phoenix). Bring your map and pay attention to the trail markers along the way. You’ll pass by a rusty truck in a ditch along the west side of the loop and in the spring, you’re treated to a gorgeous field of wildflowers. Add the two summit spurs (Western Vista and Dixie Summit trails) for some delicious views.

>> For more miles of trail, head to the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve’s Apache Wash Trailhead (1600 E. Sonoran Desert Dr., Phoenix). For a super long stroll through this new park, we recommend following the Ocotillo Trail heading northwest for an impressive 6.25 miles one way to experience the lay of the land.

 

Black Canyon-Lake Pleasant Area
Running 78 miles from Carefree Highway in North Phoenix to the Bradshaw Mountains near Mayer, the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail has been in use since prehistoric times. Over its history, the trail served as a Native American pathway and livestock driveway before being repurposed into a trail for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.  The trail is a work in progress, but the 13.3 miles located in Maricopa County are complete and easy to access from the Black Canyon City Trailhead. The K-Mine (1.4 miles), Skyline (3.1 miles) and Horseshoe Bend (1.5 miles) segments wrap around the quartz-studded hills and canyons around the Agua Fria River.

FINDING IT: Take Interstate 17 north to exit 242, veer left, turn right at the stop sign, then make an immediate left onto Warner and go 0.1 mile to the trailhead. bctaz.com

RATING: Moderate.

APRÈS HIKE: “World Famous” for their home-baked pies, the historic Rock Springs Cafe roadside eatery and saloon serves hearty barbecue, steaks and Bradshaw Mountain Oysters (don’t ask). 35769 S. Old Black Canyon Hwy, 623-374-5794, rockspringscafe.com

photo by Mare Czinar

Two Low-Key Alternatives
>> Until recently, the Agua Fria Conservation Area at the north end of Lake Pleasant was clogged with junk cars and trash. The riparian gorge has since been cleaned up and restricted to foot traffic. The easy, 4-mile stroll explores mesquite bosques and wildlife-rich wetlands. From Phoenix, go north on Interstate 17 to Table Mesa Road, exit 236. Turn left, cross the freeway, make a right and then a left onto Frontage Road. Continue 1.1 miles to a fork near a rock quarry and veer right. At 1.6 miles, go left at a second fork and left again at a third fork at 3.8 miles. At 4.2 miles, cross a cattle guard and continue 0.4 mile to the parking area. maricopa.gov/parks/lake_pleasant/AguaFria.aspx

>> Thanks to the good folks at Desert Foothills Land Trust, the 20-acre spring-fed New River Nature Reserve along Interstate 17 will remain a pristine corridor of whispering cottonwoods, native Arizona walnuts and rare willows that transforms into a mile-long tunnel of golden fall foliage in December. From Phoenix, go north on Interstate 17 to the New River exit 232. Go to the frontage road, turn left and continue 2.2 miles to the trailhead. dflt.org/testdflt/new-river-nature-preserve

 

photo by Mare Czinar

Cave Creek-Bartlett Lake Area
If the El Niño wet-weather pattern plays out as predicted this winter, the Camp Creek waterfall will be running wild. Even in drier years, the ribbon of water that drenches the walls of a secluded grotto feeds a fringe of cottonwoods and reeds before trickling down the sandy, canyon-bound course of Blue Wash on its way to the Verde River. Find it via the 8-mile round-trip Camp Creek Falls-Blue Wash Trail.

FINDING IT: In Scottsdale, go 13 miles north on Pima Road to Cave Creek Road (FR24), turn right and continue 6.5 miles to a gravel lot on the left just past the “Blue Wash #1” sign. Trail begins across the road. arizonahiking.blogspot.com/2014/02/blue-wash-camp-creek.html

RATING: Moderate.

APRÈS HIKE: Creaky-floor casual and dripping in Green Bay colors, the Buffalo Chip Saloon & Steakhouse is a rough bar that proudly caters to Packers fans. Steelers fans must walk (or be ejected) across the street to Harold’s Corral. 6811 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, buffalochipsaloon.com

More Cool CC Hikes
New Trailhead!
>> Maricopa Trail has been dubbed the Appalachian Trail of Greater Phoenix. When complete (target date: 2015), it will form a 240-mile loop around the Valley linking 10 county parks, open spaces, canal trails and South Mountain. Get acquainted with it via the scenic 6-mile segment running from the Spear S Ranch trailhead to Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area. 41799 N. New River Rd., Phoenix, maricopa.gov/parks/maricopatrail/

>> Curious about that colossal white “golf ball” perched on the summit of Humboldt Mountain in the Cave Creek Mountains? You can visit it by way of a hikeable, 4-mile road that climbs 1,600 feet to the globular FAA radar facility which, upon closer inspection, more resembles a soccer ball. To get there from Scottsdale, go 13 miles north on Pima Road to Cave Creek Road. Turn right (east) and continue on Cave Creek Road (aka FR 24, Seven Springs Road) to FR 562 (Humboldt Mountain Road), located between MCDOT mile markers 9 and 10.

>> Used by anglers and hikers alike, the 1.3-mile Jojoba Trail on the cliffs and shores of Bartlett Reservoir provides access to secluded coves, prime fishing spots and sandy beaches. $6 daily fee per vehicle. From Carefree, take Cave Creek Road east to Bartlett Dam Road, turn right and continue 13 miles to the lake. fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto/null/recarea/?recid=35257&actid=24u

 

photo by Mare Czinar

EAST VALLEY
McDowell Sonoran Preserve-Pinnacle Peak Area
New Trailhead!
Within the geologically diverse terrain of North Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve, “mushroom rocks” are the star attractions. Balanced Rock – so named for a top-heavy, gargantuan cone of granite perched atop a jumble of mica-imbued volcanic boulders – is the crown jewel of the bunch. With the opening of Granite Mountain Trailhead in fall 2013, a selection of fresh-cut trails with excellent signage now make short work of getting to the stony toadstool. Hikers can customize trips using the trailhead map kiosk.

FINDING IT: In Scottsdale, go north on Pima Road to Dynamite Boulevard/Rio Verde Drive. Turn right and continue 5.9 miles to 136th Street, turn left and go 1.8 miles to the trailhead on the left. scottsdaleaz.gov/preserve

RATING: Easy.

APRÈS HIKE: Yup, Greasewood Flat is still open – but its future is uncertain. Although the property was sold and relocation plans are stirring debate, the historically rough-around-the-edges watering hole will remain at its current location for about another year. 27375 N. Alma School Pkwy., Scottsdale, greasewoodflat.net

Three More McDowell Favorites
New Trailhead!
1.  The long-anticipated Brown’s Ranch Trailhead opened to much fanfare in 2012. Outfitted with eco-savvy buildings, water, restrooms and a pop-up museum, the site is staffed by volunteer stewards who are experts on the flora, fauna and geology of the area. Look for their bright blue shirts – they love sharing their passion for hiking and conservation. Favorite routes launching from this portal are the summit-busting Brown’s Mountain Trail and Cholla Mountain Loop, which features the stunning boulder jumble known as Cathedral Rock. 30301 N. Alma School Pkwy., Scottsdale, scottsdaleaz.gov/preserve

2.  In short, Pinnacle Peak Trail is an outdoor treadmill frequented by Scottsdale’s buff and beautiful crowd. Although the impeccably groomed, 1.75-mile moderate trail around the eponymous rock spire does attract stylishly-outfitted athletic types, its clean route and gentle grade make it an ideal choice for anybody with the tenacity to take it slow and easy while stepping aside for the swift and svelte. 26802 N. 102nd Way, Scottsdale, scottsdaleaz.gov/parks/pinnacle

New Trailhead!
3.  You know that curious rock knob on top of Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains? There’s a trail for that. The ambitious 5-mile, 1,368-foot climb from the Tom’s Thumb Trailhead to the 3,925-foot landmark culminates at a shallow cave with dizzying views of the Cave Creek Mountains and Four Peaks Wilderness. For a less exhausting alternative with educational embellishments, try the adjacent Marcus Landslide Trail. 23015 N. 128th St., Scottsdale, mcdowellsonoran.org

 

Fountain Hills Area
Spanning 817 miles from Mexico to Utah, the Arizona National Scenic Trail passes through or near cities like Tucson and Flagstaff, but it scoots around Metro Phoenix emerging north of Fountain Hills. The closest trailhead to the Valley – Saddle Mountain Passage #22 – lies along the Beeline Highway near Sunflower. Here, the trail ducks under the road via a tunnel designed especially for AZT users that acts as a gateway to the rugged, remote Mazatzal Wilderness paralleling Sycamore Creek. The undulating 16-mile path snakes through bucolic rangelands, gradually moving into mountainous mining tracts near the base of Mount Peeley. It reaches a max height of 5,774 feet.

FINDING IT: From Fountain Hills, travel north on AZ 87 to milepost 218, turn right on Bushnell Tanks Road (FR22) and park at the gate. Hike 0.5-mile down the closed road  (just before a cattle guard) and look for signs heading right. Follow the signs/cairns/creek about 300 yards to where the trail makes a sharp left going uphill, where there’s an AZT sign on the crest. aztrail.org/

RATING: Moderate.

APRÈS HIKE: Food always tastes better after a hike, and the homey atmosphere of Desert Dave’s Old Digs perfectly complements reasonably priced soups, salads, burgers and libations. Reservations are recommended on weekends. 13407 N. La Montana Dr., Fountain Hills, 480-404-9660, desertdavesdigs.com

photo by Mare Czinar

Other Fountain Hills Faves
>> You’ve probably whizzed right by Ballantine Trail dozens of times en route to Payson. Bland terrain and highway noise at the trailhead are a buzzkill, but within the first mile, the thrill is rekindled in canyon lands of sculpted granite, high desert scrub and seasonal water tumbling through gullies. The trail runs east for 10 miles; however, most hikers tackle it as a 6.8-mile loop (1,460 feet of elevation gain) with connecting Pine Creek Trail. Located on AZ 87, 21 miles north of Shea Boulevard near milepost 210. fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto/null/recarea/?recid=35449&actid=50

>> McDowell Mountain Regional Park’s 40 miles of trails straddle a strip of Sonoran Desert between the eponymous mountain range and the hills above the emerald-flounced confluence of the Verde and Salt Rivers. Rock Knob Trail, on the park’s western edge, is a good trek to try if you’re up for a challenge that rewards with awesome views. Grab a free map at the gate and make a 12.3-mile circuit using Pemberton and Tonto Tank, or navigate at will among majestic boulders and saguaros. $6 daily fee per vehicle. 16300 McDowell Mountain Park Dr., Fountain Hills, maricopa.gov/parks/mcdowell/

 

Apache Junction-Superstition Wilderness Area
If you think you’ve got to fly to Hawaii to hike a volcano, think again. Arizona has hundreds of dormant eruptive features, including a colossal cluster known as a “supervolcano.” Geologists say a period of active volcanism that occurred between 15 to 20 million years ago converged into a massive cauldron complex in the Superstition Wilderness – a simmering magma mass similar to the one at Yellowstone National Park, currently poised to disrupt a sizable chunk of the Rocky Mountain states. To see what the aftermath of such a cataclysm might look like, all one needs to do is hike the 3.4-mile Bluff Spring Trail. Evidence of the Supes’ volcanic epoch – which spewed ash as far away as Arkansas – includes crater-like depressions called calderas that are visible from the trail’s high ridgelines. Additionally, molten rock and seething cinders cooled into craggy cliffs and bizarre pillars of ash sculpted by wind, water and tectonic activity. It’s like walking on the moon, but with cacti.

FINDING IT: Take US 60 east to milepost 204 in Apache Junction, turn left at the Peralta Trailhead sign and follow Peralta Road (FR77) 8 miles to the trailhead. fs.usda.gov/tonto/

RATING: Difficult.

APRÈS HIKE: With the look and feel of a 19th-century mining camp cook shanty, the Historic Mining Camp Restaurant & Trading Post features a heavy-on-the-mesquite menu, generous portions and some very tasty prickly pear lemonade. 6100 E. Mining Camp St., Apache Junction, miningcamprestaurant.com

Other Superstition Specials
>> Between 700-1100 A.D., the Hohokam people etched intricate images on a slick rock chute at the base of Superstition Mountain. Today, the 1.4-mile Hieroglyphic Trail leads hikers 600 feet up an ironwood-shaded canyon to the petroglyph galley of animals, human figures, spiral motifs and mysterious geometric patterns that decorate the walls above a spring-fed sheet of water flowing into the desert below. For an easier option, the 6-mile Lost Goldmine Trail debarks from the same trailhead. From Phoenix, take US 60 east to Kings Ranch Road and turn north. Go 2.8 miles to Baseline Road and turn right. Go 0.3 mile to Mohican, turn left, go 0.3 miles to Valley View. Turn left and follow Valley View to Cloudview Avenue. Turn right and continue 0.5 mile to the trailhead.

photo by Mare Czinar

>> From the precipitous zenith of Boulder Canyon Trail, the sheer walls of LaBarge Narrows appear as a hazy, pyramid-shaped beacon on the horizon, marking the goal of this exploratory spin on a popular hike. The general idea is to trek down the main trail to where it crosses LaBarge Creek, head left and follow the watercourse into a stunning box canyon with soaring cliffs all around. The 9.4-mile trip requires maps, root-finding skills and extra stamina for the strenuous, 1,500-foot climb on the way out. arizonahiking.blogspot.com/2010/01/labarge-narrows.html

 

East Valley Regional Parks
A rare crested saguaro along San Tan Trail, the main artery of San Tan Mountain Park’s 20-mile system of trails, reminds hikers to “hang loose.” Biologists aren’t sure how this cactus grew its amusing shaka-sign-shaped crown. Some credit genetic mutations while others point to frost damage or lightning strikes. Whatever the reason, this one-in-a-million fluke cradled between Gold Mine Mountain and Malpais Hills is reason enough to hit the 6.4-mile in-and-back trail. We’ll take encouragement wherever we find it –even from a saguaro.

FINDING IT: Take US 60 to Ellsworth Road, exit 191. Go 13.6 miles south on Ellsworth/Hunt Highway to Thompson Road, turn right and go 2.1 miles to Phillips Road. Follow it one mile to the park. $6 daily per vehicle. 6533 W. Phillips Rd., Queen Creek, maricopa.gov/parks/santan

RATING: Moderate.

APRÈS HIKE: With a focus on local produce and vegetarian options, the “healthy Mediterranean” menu at Eatery at Queen Creek Olive Mill optimizes the benefits of your hike. Don’t be too disciplined – the gelato is killer. And pick up a bottle of EVOO while you’re there. 25062 S. Meridian Rd., Queen Creek, queencreekolivemill.com

East Valley Alternative
Beware the chipmunks of Wind Cave Trail. The little tricksters will steal your lunch if you let them, but don’t – people food is harmful to their health. The rodent stronghold is situated atop Usery Mountain Regional Park’s most popular trail, a 1.5-mile, 820-foot climb to a shallow cave scoured out of layers of ocher-tinged igneous rock. If you prefer an easier stroll – and dogs over chipmunks – the park hosts “Wag & Walk” hikes featuring adoptable dogs from Maricopa County Animal Care & Control’s Mesa shelter on the first Saturday of each month at 9 a.m. October through April. 3939 N. Usery Pass Road, Mesa, maricopa.gov/parks/usery/