Singling out the best hiking trails in the Valley of the Sun can be intimidating, given the hundreds of celebrated contenders that spread across Greater Phoenix like a spiderweb. That’s why we went to the experts for advice. When we polled the 17,000-plus members of the Arizona Hiking Group on Facebook, we found that they gravitate to the old standards but also love grueling mountain climbs, quirky explorations, contemplative walks and anything near water. Here, we’ve curated some of their picks and threw in a few of our own. Happy trails!
Always bring water and proper sun protection. For hiking and trail safety guidelines and tips, visit phoenix.gov/parkssite.
Photography by Jim David, Rick D’Elia, Paul DeKort, Bree Hamilton, Mirelle Inglefield & Chirag Patel
Clothing provided by Calvin Klein Performance Scottsdale
Styled by Bree Hamilton
Find the right trek for you with these helpful buttons.
i.e. new trails
i.e. near water
i.e. up and down
i.e. short and pretty
i.e. bring your dog
East Valley Hike
West Valley Hike
South Valley Hike
North Valley Hike
Located near and around creeks, lakes and coves, these Valley hikes have a refreshing finish.
Yavapai Point Trail
This vertiginous rise adds a moderate climb and highpoint drama to the otherwise easy system of trails at Lake Pleasant Regional Park about 20 miles north of the Valley. To reach the zenith, begin at the Cottonwood Day-Use Area with a 0.2-mile walk on Pipeline Canyon Trail to the Yavapai Point junction and hike 1.5 miles to the top.
Elevation: 1,782-2,178 feet
Finding It: Easy to find via Google Maps or other online map service: 41835 N. Castle Hot Springs Rd., Morristown
This extraordinary trek winds through an abandoned corral and windmill site in the Superstition Wilderness before connecting with a burbling creek that leads to a serene mountain spring. The moderate, 3-mile roundtrip hike to the spring requires boulder-hopping and a crab crawl through a slick-rock passage. The destination is located above a tiny pool where a rusty pipe protruding from a cave drips water into a quiet desert oasis.
Elevation: 1,900-2,450 feet
Finding It: Getting to the trailhead is a little tricky. Visit the website below to pinpoint the gate entrance off Forest Road 78. From the FR 78 gate, continue down into First Water Canyon and the corral area and hike east on the informal path that leads to First Water Creek. From the point where the path intersects a bare-rock slot canyon, head north (left) and follow the creek 1 mile to the spring. arizonahiking.blogspot.com
Lower LaBarge Creek
Tucked into the cacti-studded hills surrounding Canyon Lake just north of Apache Junction, a little-known path leads to a quiet pool of water with a sandy beach. To find this secluded desert beach, follow Boulder Canyon Trail #103 for roughly a half-mile to the top of a rise and look for a faint path that leaves the main trail and heads right and downhill into the creek gorge. Once at the creek, simply veer left and hike upstream.
Elevation: 1,680-2,300 feet
Finding It: From Apache Junction, go 15 miles north on State Route 88 to the Canyon Lake Marina between mileposts 210 and 211. The trail begins at the sign for Boulder Canyon Trail #103 across the road.
Butcher Jones Trail
Of the string of reservoirs tethered by the Salt River northeast of the Valley, Saguaro Lake is the closest and easiest to find. Hikers can hit the dirt by way of Butcher Jones, a trail that wraps around a water-piercing peninsula with secluded coves. Most of the moderate 5-mile roundtrip route hugs the cliffs high above the lake, but fishermen paths to the shore make nice scenic detours.
Elevation: 1,529-1,600 feet
Finding It: Located 31 miles north of Mesa, the trailhead is located off Bush Highway (FR 74). From SR 87, take exit 199 and follow Bush Highway 2 miles to the site. fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto
Palo Verde Trail
A convoluted series of steep climbs and slippery descents, this action-packed trail resides on a base of crumbling granite and sand in the hills above Bartlett Reservoir. The moderate 9.4-mile, out-and-back trek wastes no time getting you up into the hills above Rattlesnake Cove for vistas of the distant peaks of the Mazatzal Wilderness and the reservoir’s 33 miles of shoreline.
Elevation: 1,798-1,882 feet
Finding It: Driving east on N. Cave Creek Road from Carefree, turn right on Bartlett Dam Road and continue 12.6 miles to N. Shore Road (FR 459). Turn left and continue 0.6 mile to the turn off for Rattlesnake Cove Recreation Site (FR 459A). Park at the south end of the parking loop. Walk down the stairs behind the restrooms and head right toward the trailhead sign. fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto
Lower First Water Creek
Beginning at the Canyon Overlook trailhead, a steep descent along informal trails leads to the canyon floor and the Lower First Water Creek bed. The subsequent mile-long trek involves picking your way through a sandy wash flanked by walls of volcanic rock that ends at a finger cove of Canyon Lake.
Elevation: 1,676-2,000 feet
Finding It: From Apache Junction, go 12 miles north on State Route 88 to the road turnout at milepost 208. The Canyon Overlook trail begins at the telephone pole nearest the road where a worn path heads downhill. Once you’ve reached the canyon floor, head left (north) and follow the creek bed.
Fish Creek Canyon
Boulder-choked and woodsy, this gash in the Superstition Wilderness harbors rare desert water in the middle of nowhere. From the parking area, scope out the cave in the cliffs and head toward it following primitive footpaths. Once at the cave, scramble downhill to the creek and hike upstream (go right) among the boulders, sand and shallow pools. Reasonably fit hikers can make it to roughly the 1.5-mile point, where a major barrier of disheveled rock denies further access to all but the most determined adventurers.
Elevation: 2,200-2,400 feet
Finding It: From Apache Junction, go 27 miles north on State Route 88 to the Fish Creek Bridge, located just past milepost 223. Park in the turnouts near the bridge.
AZ Trail Swag: Outsaks
Handmade in Flagstaff, these no-nonsense, ultralight hiking products from Simple Outdoor Solutions protect food and gear with animal-proof wire mesh and a durable, minimalist design ($10-$72). simpleoutdoorstore.com
Top 10 Picks by Locals
Which Valley hikes do Phoenicians favor most? We polled 17,000 members of the Arizona Hiking Group in September to find out. Find their Top 10 Valley hikes on the following pages, along with tips and testimonials from the civilian trail-lovers who nominated them.
10. Thunderbird Mountain
“I like Thunderbird Mountain Conservation Park because it has many trails, from easy to difficult. Once you get to the top, it overlooks the beautiful city of Peoria.”
— Alicia Fierro
Administrative assistant, Buckeye
9. Mormon Loop-Hidden Valley
“I have many favorite local trails, but South Mountain, [from] Hidden Valley to Fat Man’s Pass, is super fun. I love destination hikes. It really makes hiking extra fun when you can stop at [the summit] before turning back and admiring the wonder and sometimes oddity of nature!”
— Katy M. Obert
Dental hygienist, New River
8. Tom’s Thumb
“Tom’s Thumb is the best trail for beginners like us. The best part is it’s visible every day on the way to work. Makes me want to ascend it on a daily basis.”
— Vyshali Ravikiran Mal
7. Jewel of the Creek
“Any trail in Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, especially the Dragonfly Trail, since you can see lots of wildlife along the creek.”
— Teri Ferro
6. Butcher Jones
“Here is my son and I on the Butcher Jones trail. I live in Tempe. It’s close to home [and] scenic, with spectacular views of the lake. The wildlife is plentiful. I’ve seen all manner of birds, from ducks to vultures to eagles, [plus] snakes, deer and the wild horses.”
— Debbie Wright
Artist and yoga teacher, Tempe
5. Hieroglyphic Trail
“Hieroglyphic Trail in the Superstitions is a great place to see Hohokam petroglyphs and waterfalls after it rains!”
— Cassie Musick
Health and fitness coach, Buckeye
“It was the first hike I did in Arizona when I arrived in Phoenix in 1987. The hike is challenging enough, but not too hard. And, of course, the payoff at the end, the magnificent view of Weaver’s Needle. This is the trail I have taken many friends and family on as an introduction to the Superstitions.”
— Andy Dilling
Air freight company manager, Mesa
3. Piestewa Peak
“Popular trail, but love it because you are in the center of the Valley and can see for miles in any direction you look.”
— Olivia Huerta Sanchez
2. Camelback Mountain
“Camelback. Echo Canyon. Killer workout in the middle of the city with amazing views at the top.”
— Elizabeth Garnet Straley
Restaurant manager, Tempe
1. Flatiron-Siphon Draw
“Siphon Draw to Flatiron and peak 5024 is my favorite trail in the Valley. Killer workout and best views around! I say, ‘Wow!’ a lot when I look up on this trail, no matter how many times I’ve done it.”
— Patrick Bulger
FedEx driver, Gilbert
A pleasing payoff awaits when you hike one of these distinctive trails.
Gawk at the Ginormous Mushroom Rock at McDowell Sonoran Preserve
Even in terrain replete with wind-sculpted granite formations, Balanced Rock stands out. Find this massive, mushroom-shaped behemoth by way of a 4.2-mile roundtrip hike that follows Powerline Road to the Balanced Rock Trail junction.
Elevation: 2,570-2,646 feet
Finding It: Granite Mountain Trailhead, 31402 N. 136th St., Scottsdale, scottsdaleaz.gov/preserve
Meet the Famous “Michelin Man” of the Renegade Trail
The pilgrimage to the famous bubble-armed Michelin Man saguaro in Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve follows a twisted route through open desert and boulder passages. Build your own route using the preserve map.
Elevation: 2,614–2,849 feet
Finding It: Granite Mountain Trailhead, 31402 N. 136th St., Scottsdale, scottsdaleaz.gov/preserve
Hike through a Desert Box Canyon
Baked deep into the heart of McDowell Sonoran Preserve, the main attractions of Coyote Canyon Trail are a granite-walled slot canyon and a gloriously gnarled crested saguaro. There are many avenues to the goodies. Just download a map and pick your route.
Elevation: 2,580-2,840 feet
Finding It: Granite Mountain Trailhead, 31402 N. 136th St., Scottsdale, scottsdaleaz.gov/preserve
Find the Crazy Cacti in Cave Creek
The most impressive and well-known crested saguaro in the Cave Creek Mountains lives right on Skunk Tank-Cave Creek Trail #4. You can’t miss its broad crown and mangled arms. Several other less spectacular specimens are visible as you hike this 10.4-mile circuit along creek canyons, riparian ecosystems and edgy cliffs.
Elevation: 2,980-4,100 feet
Finding It: From the Loop 101 in Scotts-dale, take the Pima/Princess Road exit 36 and go 13 miles north on Pima to Cave Creek Road. Turn right (east) and go 12.5 miles on Cave Creek Road past Seven Spring Recreation Area to Cave Creek Trailhead on the left located between MCDOT mile markers 12 and 13. fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto
Scope out Wild Horses Along the Salt River
Originally constructed by mountain bikers, the 10.3-mile Sonoran Desert (Hawes) Trail System overlooking Granite Reef Dam on the Salt River in Mesa works great for hikers as well. The moderate routes offer an entertaining mashup of twists and swoops that trace the site’s rolling terrain. From the high points, it’s easy to spot herds of grazing wild horses.
Elevation: 1,150-1,760 feet
Finding It: From Phoenix, go east on Loop 202 to exit 23 for Power Road in Mesa. Travel 2.1 miles north on Power Road to the Hawes Trailhead on the left.
Petroglyphs and a “Hang Five” Saguaro on the San Tan Trail
How do you see a peculiar cactus and a collection of ancient rock art in one hike? Just grab a free trail map at the San Tan Mountain Regional Park visitor center and follow San Tan Trail (SA) to the crest of a ridge with views of the park’s signature geological features: Rock Peak and the Malpais Hills. The petroglyph site is located a quarter-mile downhill in a jumble of granite on the left. To see the saguaro, continue on SA and you’ll soon see the famous “hang five” plant on the right.
Elevation: 1,160-1,800 feet
Finding It: 6533 W. Phillips Rd., Queen Creek. maricopacountyparks.net/park-locator/san-tan-mountain-regional-park/park-activities/trails/
See Wild Burros at Lake Pleasant
Like it or not, you’re likely to encounter rogue donkeys on the Wild Burro Trail. The 2-mile path traverses prime grazing territory in and around Lake Pleasant Regional Park where approximately 480 burros live. Burros are wild animals that are naturally distrustful of humans. When approached, they will usually run, but can bite and kick when they feel trapped or threatened. Therefore, it’s best to observe them from a respectful distance.
Elevation: 1,568-1,860 feet
Finding It: 41835 N. Castle Hot Springs Rd., Morristown, maricopacountyparks.net
Squeeze through Fat Man’s Pass at South Mountain Park
You’re not a certified Phoenician hiker until you’ve completed the moderate 5-mile loop through the Hidden Valley natural tunnel and the famous stone slot. To get there, follow the Mormon Trail 1 mile to the Mormon Loop junction. Turn left here and continue 1.1 miles to the National Trail junction. Veer right and hike 1.4 miles on the National Trail to the Hidden Valley Junction.
Elevation: 1,400-2,000 feet
Finding It: Mormon Trailhead, 8610 S. 24th St., Phoenix, phoenix.gov/parks
AZ Trail Swag: Emmitt Barks Cartography
Taking the mystery out of getting around on Arizona trails, this Flagstaff-based map-maker produces pack-proof plastic maps and mobile apps ($2-$10) that are updated frequently. Mobile device apps for Phoenix-area trails are available at Avenza Maps. emmittbarks.com, avenzamaps.com
From grandmas to first-graders, the whole brood can find footloose fun in these low-intensity hikes.
Jewel of the Creek
The Dragonfly Trail and Harry I. Dalton trails loop through the “Jewel of the Creek Preserve”—a 26-acre strip of lush creek-side willows, alders, walnut trees and cattails hemmed in by cactus-fringed canyon walls making for a breathtaking hybrid desert-wetland hike.
Although this trek is only 2.6 miles long, its connectivity with the Spur Cross Ranch, Tonto National Forest and the Valley-circumnavigating Maricopa Trail provides myriad opportunities for extended jaunts.
Elevation: 2,150-2,400 feet
Finding It: Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, 44000 N. Spur Cross Rd., Cave Creek. $3 per person daily fee. maricopacountyparks.net
Jane Rau Trail
As one of the original mavericks behind the McDowell Sonoran Land Conservancy, Jane Rau used steady determination to preserve the pristine Sonoran Desert around Scottsdale. The barrier-free trail that bears her name – which meanders among boulders and washes in the Brown’s Ranch parcel of the preserve – is a tribute to this tenacious mover-and-shaker. Wide, flat and adorned with interpretive signs and benches, the half-mile, hikers-only loop trail makes for an effortless walk with strollers, wheelchairs, antsy kids and hikers of all ages and ability levels.
Elevation: 2,710-2,747 feet
Finding It: Brown’s Ranch Trailhead, 30301 N. Alma School Pkwy., Scottsdale, scottsdaleaz.gov/preserve
In terms of commotion and noise level, Hieroglyphic goes to 11. This is especially true on weekends, when droves of families with kids hit the moderate, 3-mile roundtrip trail, which climbs 600 feet to a slick rock chute with a large gallery of Hohokam petroglyphs and seasonal waterfalls gushing off 5,000-foot escarpments of the Superstition Mountains.
Elevation: 2,050-2,620 feet
Finding It: Located approximately 7 miles northeast of Apache Junction off US 60, the trailhead is easy to find. Just enter “Hieroglyphic Trailhead” in a map app. fs.usda.gov
Silly Mountain Park Loopy Playground
With easy access just off of the US 60 in Apache Junction, Silly Mountain Park has a web of nine trails that meander for 3.5 miles along the mountain’s humps, slumps and points of interest. The well-signed routes range from barrier-free to difficult.
Elevation: 1,550-2,139 feet
Finding It: From US 60 in Apache Junction, turn left onto Mountain View Road just past milepost 199. Go 0.3-mile on Mountain View, turn right onto 32nd Ave. and continue 0.2 mile to Silly Mountain Rd. Turn right and go 0.4 mile to the trailhead on the left.
Spur Cross Ranch
Opened in January 2016, the Fairy Duster and Mariposa Hill trails in Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek add a mile of short, pretty detours on the site’s east side. Both routes trace the foothills above mesquite-cluttered Cottonwood Wash, where profuse plant life makes the trek sort of like hiking through a mini botanical garden.
Elevation: 2,200-2,468 feet
Finding It: 44000 N. Spur Cross Rd., Cave Creek, maricopacountyparks.net
AZ Trail Swag: Arizona Trail Cholla Comb
Sooner or later, every desert hiker (dogs included) will be attacked by a jumping cholla – seemingly magnetic cactus off-shoots. The pesky cactus burrs are best removed with a wide-tooth comb like this handy grooming tool ($2) from the Arizona Trail Trading Post. aztrail.org/store
Known even to novice hikers, these well-trod trails are great for out-of-towners and Valley newcomers.
Elephant Mountain Trail
This rough, difficult route in Cave Creek’s Spur Cross Conservation Area uses a thread of 4x4 tracks and primitive paths that cut through stream washes, grasslands and boulder fields to ascend to a saddle near the “tusks” of the familiar pachyderm profile of the natural landmark. To take this 9.2-mile hike, follow the Tortuga Trail for 1.2 miles to the Elephant Mountain trail junction. At this point, the sketchy route is marked by rock cairns. Only experienced hikers need apply.
Elevation: 2,400-3,200 feet
Finding It: From Spur Cross Trailhead (44000 N. Spur Cross Rd., Cave Creek) follow the trail 0.2 mile and veer left (west) at the kiosk. Hike 0.6 mile to Tortuga Trail. $3 per person daily fee. maricopacountyparks.net
The trails on this centrally located range are polarizing superstars that climb to the highest point in Phoenix. Revered for their difficulty and reviled because of the crowds, the extremely difficult Echo Canyon Trail and Cholla Trail both ascend 1,420 feet in just under 1.5 miles. The experience is, well, unique. Parking is a nightmare, you might get an elbow to the gut from impatient hardcore athletes and the overhead whir of rescue helicopters is an all-too-familiar soundtrack. Sometimes, the summit smells of Chanel. Add to that the annual controversy of the mountaintop Christmas tree and the drama bleeds into off-trail social media wars. Even though this Valley icon smacks of a bad hat on an aristocrat, devotees abide.
Elevation: 2,704 feet
Finding It: Cholla Trail, 6131 E. Cholla Ln., Phoenix; Echo Canyon Trailhead, 4925 E. McDonald Dr., Phoenix, phoenix.gov/parks
Like the Camelback trails, the Piestewa Peak Summit Trail is another darling of hotel concierges who direct visitors to the difficult, 1.20-mile trail with gushing enthusiasm. A trifecta of convenience, challenge and congestion, the “urban treadmill” is the shared domain of ultra-fit elites, speed hikers with a heart rate agenda and gaggles of chatty walkers in yoga pants. It’s mostly the same people every day.
Elevation: 1,400-2,608 feet
Finding It: 2701 E. Squaw Peak Dr., Phoenix, phoenix.gov/parks
Peralta Canyon Trail
One of the most well-known and heavily used trails in the Superstition Wilderness, this unrelenting uphill slog through desert scrub and slick rock chutes begins immediately after departing the trailhead and doesn’t quit until the trail tops out at the 2-mile point on the Fremont Saddle. The ROI for the sweaty haul is an up-close view of Weaver’s Needle – the area’s most recognizable rock pillar.
Elevation: 2,400-3,800 feet
Finding It: From US 60 in Apache Junction, turn left onto Peralta Road (Forest Road 77) and drive 8 miles. The road ends at the trailhead.
Tom’s Thumb Trail
Tom’s Thumb Trail in Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve offers a workout similar to what you get on Camelback Mountain or Piestewa Peak, but with better scenery and fewer headaches. It’s a 2.3-mile difficult climb to the signature rock knob, but numerous connecting routes can be used for myriad circuit options.
Elevation: 2,813-3,925 feet
Finding It: 23015 N. 128th St., Scottsdale, scottsdaleaz.gov/preserve
Thunderbird Conservation Park
With more than 14 miles of trails spread over a 1,185-acre preserve, this West Valley favorite offers easy access to desert hiking. The park’s eight trails weave around the Hedgpeth Hills – a chain of peaks capped with black basalt boulders tucked among subdivisions and bustling roadways.
Elevation: 1,400-1,862 feet
Finding It: The main entrance is located at 22600 N. 59th Ave., Glendale; to access the south entrance (Pinnacle Peak Road between 53rd and 55th avenues) go north on I-17 to the Pinnacle Peak Road exit 217 and drive 3.5 miles west to 55th Avenue. glendaleaz.com/parksandrecreation
The flat-topped silhouette of Brown’s Mountain is a familiar North Scottsdale landmark and a pretty great place to enjoy bird’s-eye views of the Verde River Valley and Tonto National Forest peaks. One option to get to the high point is to hike Brown’s Ranch Road north to Brown’s Mountain Trail and take the summit spur trail to the top.
Elevation: 2,710-3,253 feet
Finding It: From Scottsdale, drive north on N. Alma School Parkway until it ends and becomes Brown’s Ranch Road. scottsdaleaz.gov/preserve
Sunrise Peak Trail
Among the cloud-bumping mountain peaks that hover above the suburbs and shopping centers of North Scottsdale sits an impressive, pyramid-shaped pinnacle with a moderate, 4.4-mile trail leading to its summit. A hike up the Sunrise Peak Trail offers commanding views and a respectable workout.
Elevation: 1,923-3,069 feet
Finding It: 12101 N. 145th Way, Scottsdale, scottsdaleaz.gov/preserve
Like an incubus in hiking boots, summiting the Flatiron haunts many a bucket list. The herculean expedition gets props for a climb that rises almost 3,000 feet – the steepest gain in the Valley. The first two miles of the trek follow the Siphon Draw Trail to where it ends at a slick rock chute. From there, the route gets insanely steep with wayfinding conundrums, hand-over-foot scrambling and queasy maneuvers. Once through the chute, the trail levels out for the final half-mile walk to the top of the yucca-studded prize – a conspicuous rock formation that protrudes like the bow of a ship over Lost Dutchman State Park.
Elevation: 2,080-4,861 feet
Finding It: Find Siphon Draw Trail at 6109 N. Apache Trail, Apache Junction. Park charges $7 daily fee per vehicle. azstateparks.com/lost-dutchman/
AZ Trail Swag: Kahtoola
Not that you’ll need them for the 0.1999 inch of snow we get here in the Valley, but if your winter wanderlust extends into the mountains or northern climes, you might want to strap on a pair of these Flagstaff-made crampons for traction ($40- $170). You’ll feel good about buying the hiker-specific, flexible strap-on foot traction devices, because a portion of every sale benefits indigenous mountain cultures and sends kids to Flagstaff’s Camp Colton through their annual Kahtoola Uphill event in February. kahtoola.com
The Four Peaks of Peoria
Whether hiked as a single-day marathon or spread out over the year, this quadruple quest is the objective of the annual Copper Hills 4 Peak Challenge held in Peoria each November. If you missed the event this year or prefer to tackle the summits on your own terms, here’s a primer.
1. Sunrise Mountain: Begin with a warmup climb on Sunrise Mountain. The 4.6-mile network of stacked loops connects a chain of peaks with both easy and difficult options with an elevation range between 1,270 and 1,840 feet. 27100 N. Westwing Pkwy.
2. West Wing Mountain: Next up is West Wing Mountain, which shares the same trailhead as Sunrise. The mountain’s 3.5 miles of trails are rated difficult and extreme, making it a magnet for spandex-clad trail runners. Despite the intimidating ratings, the trails that ascend from 1,400 to 1,903 feet aren’t too steep, but slick rock and loose scree require proper footwear. 27100 N. Westwing Pkwy.
3. East Wing Mountain: East Wing Mountain features a 2.4-mile circuit with a difficult-rated summit loop that climbs from 1,476 to 1,916 feet for a sweaty workout and sweet views. 7098 W. Miner Trail
4. Calderwood Butte: With two high-point clambers that hug sheer cliffs, Calderwood Butte is a compact, 1.2-mile trek that ascends the chiseled cliffs of an oblong butte. Elevation ranges from1,390-1,686 feet. 27192 N. 99th Ave. peoriaaz.gov/government/departments/community-services/parks-and-trails/hiking-trails
cockwise from top left: Sunrise Mountain, West Wing Mountain, East Wing Mountain, Calderwood Butte
AZ Trail Swag: Uvida Sportswear
Owned by Beth Naughton and Amy Huether, this Tucson-based clothing company partnered with skin cancer surgeon Dr. Michael Huether to develop a line of sun-protective sportswear ($77-$83). The stylish, lightweight, moisture-wicking attire blocks 98 percent of the sun’s rays – even when worn in salt or chlorinated water. uvidasportswear.com
Three Slices of the “Arizona Outback”
The Black Canyon Trail Coalition beckons hikers to “Experience the Arizona Outback” on the 80-mile route that flows from Carefree Highway in Phoenix to just outside of Prescott. The historic path follows centuries-old Native American trails, defunct livestock avenues, dirt roads and sections of new construction and is divided into segments with trailheads located along its entire length. Although there are no bad segments, there are a few that shine brighter.
Drinking Snake Segment
A good place to start is the 4.8-mile Drinking Snake Segment that cuts through foothills and grasslands fed by Big Bug and Antelope creeks. From Spring Valley Trailhead (directions below), the hike begins with a walk on Forest Road 9218A, where you’ll pass a gate and then turn left where the road splits at the 0.3-mile point. After another 0.3 mile, the trail becomes a single track and continues 2.4 miles to a scenic windmill and water tank above Dripping Spring Canyon. From here, you’re back on a Jeep road for the final 1.8-mile haul.
Elevation: 3,932-4,220 feet
Finding It: From I-17, take Bloody Basin Road exit 259 and go 3.3 miles west to the ghost town of Cordes. Turn right (north) on Antelope Creek Road and continue 3 miles to Spring Valley Trailhead on the left at Forest Road 9218A. Roads are sedan-friendly dirt/gravel.
This remote hike is a prime introduction to the canyon-riddled rangeland lodged between Agua Fria National Monument and Prescott National Forest. Begin at the Hidden Treasure Mine Trailhead (directions below) and hike north. Most of the trail is well-signed, but there are a few head-scratcher junctions. At 3.4 miles, pass a gate and continue to the 3.8-mile point, then turn left onto a Jeep road. An unsigned junction comes up at mile 4.1, where you’ll veer right, hike 0.1 mile and pick up the signed single track on the right. At the 5-mile point, the trail crosses Crown King Road (1.2 miles south of Cordes) then connects with a Jeep route that overlooks Black Canyon with majestic views of the Bradshaw Mountains towering above the gaping chasm before connecting with the Drinking Snake segment.
Elevation: 2,656-4,192 feet
Finding It: From I-17, take Bloody Basin Road exit 259 and go 3.3 miles west to the ghost town of Cordes. Turn left (south) on Antelope Creek Road, go 2.7 miles and veer left at the Bumble Bee/Crown King fork. Continue 1.3 miles to a stop sign, turn left and make an immediate left into the parking area marked by a rusty water tank and corral. Trail begins by the corral. The dirt road is washboard-rough in spots with hairpin turns and drop-offs but is passable by sedan.
Situated between the mesas and gorges surrounding the Agua Fria River and a gaping valley below the Bradshaw Mountains, this moderate-rated, 3.4-mile segment is smack dab in the middle of the trail and wanders along slopes above the scoured courses of Sycamore, Poison, Arrastre and Rock creeks. Weathered metamorphic rocks and chunks of milky quartz decorate the edge-hugging path that overlooks Maggie Mine Road, open rangeland and mineral-rich foothills.
Elevation: 2,520-2,720 feet
Finding it: From I-17, take Bumble Bee/Crown King exit 248 and go west 1.1 miles to the Gloriana Trailhead on the left. There are no facilities. The hike begins at the south side of the lot near the big sign. Roads are paved.
Directions & Maps: Black Canyon Trail Coalition, bctaz.com
AZ Trail Swag: Kafka Kool Ties
These compact bandanas ($11) have been cooling Arizonan brows since 1992. Simple and effective, they’re packed with crystals that help cool the body through natural evaporation. Locally made in Cave Creek, they’re also inexpensive and last for years. kooltie.com
Though not technically “Valley hikes,” these nearby climbs are well worth the drive.
Round Mountain Park
The 6.7-mile, six-trail Round Mountain system has family-friendly alternatives to the more remote and difficult (think: Sixshooter Canyon and Picketpost Mountain) routes in the Copper Corridor mining district near Globe. The trails wander among canyons, caves and fascinating geology including a curious hole in a wall of stone known as Bull’s Eye Rock. The highest point has 360-degree vistas of the Pinal Mountains and the area’s ore pits.
Elevation: 3,560-4,201 feet
Finding It: globeaz.gov/departments/recreation/round-mountain-park
Burro Creek is a 23-mile-long desert waterway located in the rugged and remote wilderness north of Wickenburg. The hike is a difficult trek along the creek where conditions vary with water levels. The area is known for its active wildlife including beavers, javelina, shore birds and families of wild burros that live among copper-colored cliffs and mesquite forests.
Elevation: 1,960-2,100 feet
Finding It: From Wickenburg, go 59 miles north on US 93 to the turnoff for Burro Creek campground located between mileposts 140 and 141 and continue 1.5 miles to the parking lot. blm.gov/visit
Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park
Dedicated in 2016, the park has two moderate trails that trace the final steps of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who perished in the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. The 2.85-mile Hotshots Trail gains 1,200 feet of elevation while passing among contemplative rest spots, plaques, educational signs and a memento wall before it connects with the 0.75-mile Journey Trail that descends 400 feet to the fatality site. Bring a lot of water for the moderate 7.5-mile roundtrip hike – and plenty of tissues.
Elevation: 4,318-5,460 feet
Finding It: azstateparks.com/hotshots
A tributary of the Verde River, Red Creek creates a rich riparian corridor in the Tonto National Forest. The 8-mile out-and-back trail follows the creek and 4x4 roads through canyons and saguaro-studded foothills to the rushing waters and sandy beaches of the upper Verde River.
Elevation: 2,210-2,660 feet
Finding It: From Carefree, follow Cave Creek Road for 32 miles to the FR 269 junction (Bloody Basin Road) and turn right. Go about three miles and turn left onto Forest Road 18. Proceed roughly 2.5 miles and park in the dirt turnoff just before the steep descent to Red Creek. Expect to spend 2.5 hours on rough dirt roads. NOTE: FR 18 is nasty and requires at least a high-clearance vehicle.
Casa Grande Mountain Park
Located 60 miles south of Phoenix, the park resides in the desert space between a world of truck stops and freeways and valleys of checkerboard farmlands. Despite its proximity to the busy I-10/I-8 interchange, the park has quality hiking, especially at its southern end, where the din of industry is absorbed by cholla-fleeced foothills and stony clefts overlooking the profile of Picacho Peak. The 18-mile system is made up of stacked loops with varying levels of difficulty anchored by the 4.86-mile Ridge Trail that traces the mountain’s eastern flank.
Elevation: 1,500-2,350 feet
Finding It: Arica Trailhead: 2090 E. Arica Rd.; Peart Trailhead: 1086 Peart Rd., Casa Grande. casagrandeaz.gov/parks
Bridle Creek Trail
Located 100 miles northwest of Phoenix along the future Interstate 11 corridor, the Bridle Creek Habitat Enhancement Area is the jewel of Bagdad – a company town that orbits the Freeport-McMoRan copper and molybdenum mine. This easy, 1.4-mile roundtrip trail is an unexpected trek surrounded by an expanse of barren mesas and mineral-rich backcountry tucked between Aquarius and Weaver mountains.
Elevation: 3,799-3,870 feet
Finding It: Entering Bagdad on SR96, turn right (northeast) on Lindahl Road and go 1.3 miles before turning left on an unsigned dirt road located just before the sign for Turtle Rock Ranch. Follow the dirt road 0.1 mile to the trailhead. bagdadaztown.com
AZ Trail Swag: My Inspire Wear
Peoria-based My Inspire Wear sells inspirational active wear ($25- $60) made of breathable, moisture-wicking bamboo fabric. Leggings, skorts (trending among woman hikers) and tops are eco-friendly and odor-resistant. myinspirewear.com
Matt Woodson of Okanogan Trail Construction
Trail builder Matt Woodson blends the court of public opinion with sustainable design.
Trail builder and Valley resident Matt Woodson believes that the Metro Phoenix area is “the winter hiking mecca of the U.S.A.” He ought to know. As founder and president of Okanogan Trail Construction, Woodson has more than 30 years of experience building award-winning trails across the country, including many in Arizona (see Woodson’s Greatest Hits).
Nationwide, hiking is exploding in popularity, and no place has responded to the craze with more enthusiasm and dollars than the Phoenix area. But higher trail use raises concern about safety, access and sustainability. “Camelback Mountain Trail is the most congested in the Valley,” Woodson says of the popular hike, which draws 2,000 visitors a day during high season. “But its original design wasn’t great for withstanding the stresses of nearly a million visitors each year or hiker safety.”
Woodson’s job is to make sure trails are built or adapted to survive the onslaught while delivering exceptional user experience.
As with anything, it’s impossible to please everybody. Because some trail users complain that stabilization ruins or “sterilizes” trails, Woodson – who acquired his multi-faceted skill set as an independent contractor for the U.S. Forest Service – tries to strike a balance between sustainability and popular preferences. His redesign of the Echo Canyon Trail on Camelback Mountain is a good example of this objective. “To improve risk management and aesthetics, we removed 300 degraded rail ties and dangerous rebar along the first half-mile of the route,” Woodson says. “The changes reduced the risk of hiker injury and created a durable passage for rescue workers during the 100-plus evacuations they perform annually on the mountain.”
Another example of incorporating user preferences with smart design is the reboot of the nearly 100-year-old South Mountain Park trail system. Woodson’s company was just awarded a five-year contract to oversee an ambitious project to realign traditional trails, build a few new ones, incorporate some social (read: non-designated, user-made) trails and restore fragile vegetation.
Employing a “compression and release” style, Woodson’s trails are built with a mix of exertion and reward, with a distinctive tempo. Think: grueling climb, awesome vista point, short breath-catching section, a crested saguaro to the side and another climb. Verse-chorus-verse. “I look for stable terrain, interesting landforms, exceptional plant specimens and beautiful vistas that will blend well with the features trail users expect. I visualize each route concept as a framed landscape painting.”
Once completed, Valley trails take a pounding. The damaging effects of millions of boots, off-trail trampling and vandalism destroy drainage systems and wildlife habitats and can cause hikers to get lost or injured. Like many responsible outdoor enthusiasts, Woodson laments the destructive and contagious influence of careless trail users. “Once somebody shoots up a sign, cuts a wildcat trail or walks over native plants, others will follow suit. That’s why my designs include features like offset switchbacks that inhibit misuse.”
But better trail design alone is not enough to dissuade vandalism and inappropriate use. Woodson has a simple thought about that: “Hikers should embrace their better sensibilities.”
Woodson’s Greatest Hits
McDowell Sonoran Preserve
His design of Tom’s Thumb, Brown’s Mountain and Jane Rau trails is a brilliant mix of barrier-free and quad-busting routes.
Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area
The duo of Dragonfly Trail and Jewel of the Creek Preserve is one of the most eco-diverse sites in the state.
Skyline Regional Park
Recognized by the Arizona Forward Environmental Excellence Awards with a 2017 Award of Merit for Site Development, Parks & Trails.
Arizona National Scenic Trail
He designed parts of the epic, 800-plus-mile route from Mexico to Utah. aztrail.org
Parts of the Maricopa Trail
Nearing its “golden spike,” this Valley-circumnavigating 315-mile system connects 10 regional parks and multiple communities. okanogantrail.com
AZ Trail Swag: Arizona Sun
Family-owned and operated for more than 30 years, Scottsdale-based Arizona Sun makes sun-protective lotions, balms and sprays that are all-natural, PABA-free and never tested on animals. A full range of products pamper with soothing ingredients like cactus, jojoba, sage and aloe. We love the SPF 45 oil-free, water-resistant spray-on sunscreen ($13) and prickly pear lip balm ($4). arizonasun.com
AZ Trail Swag: Huppybars
Nutritious, delicious Huppybars are the brainchild of Flagstaff-based, Lyndsay “Huppy” Hupp, who created them while working as a Grand Canyon river guide. The all-natural, fruit-nut-seed snacks are the official energy bars of the Arizona Trail, and the AZT Wild Mesquite flavor soars. $2.29 single, $25.99 dozen. huppybar.com
West Valley Newcomer: Skyline Regional Park
Opened in 2016, this family-friendly recreational hub in the foothills of the White Tank Mountains in Buckeye answered the call for more hiking opportunities in the West Valley. With more than 17 miles of trails and still growing, the 8,700-acre mountain preserve has camping, equestrian facilities and ranger-guided events. 2600 N. Watson Rd., Buckeye, skylineregionalpark.com
Crest Summit: Three of the park’s newest trails – Quartz Mine, Skyline Crest and Lost Creek – can be connected for a magnificent loop hike with a short climb to a lookout on Crest Summit. To do this 6.14-mile loop, begin on Quartz Mine Trail and hike 2.6 miles to Lost Creek (LC) Trail. Turn left and hike 0.4 mile to the Skyline Crest Trail, turn left and go 1 mile to the optional 0.17 mile slog up to the summit. Then hike back to QM and retrace your steps back to the trailhead. The hike follows a knife-edge ridgeline that offers some mild exposure, a good workout and a perpetual feast of changing scenery.
Elevation: 1,400-2,100 feet.
Turnbuckle Trail: The 3-mile, moderate-rated Turnbuckle Trail is the longest of the seven Phase I routes that debuted at the park’s grand opening. Like most hikes in the park, it begins with a stroll across a graceful, oxidized bridge spanning Mountain Wash. It loops around a prominent mountain peak and connects with Valley Vista Trail for an optional 0.33 mile, difficult climb to the summit. This short, hikers-only trek involves some steep, narrow sections with drop-offs.
Elevation: 1,500-2,300 feet
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