LOCAL HIKERS PICK THE VALLEY’S BEST TRAILS
asked this a lot—”What are the best hikes in the Phoenix area?” While my answers are unapologetically
subjective (and off the wall), I find that when I turn the same question back
on the asker with a, “What do YOU think?”, I get consistent responses:
Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak.
leads me to ask, is there a difference
between “best” and what first comes to mind?
Camelback and Piestewa have high-name recognition. Any hotel concierge with a
pulse can rattle them off, but does that mean they are the “best” hikes? While these iconic trails do have their finer
points such good workouts and great summit vistas, they are also notoriously
crowded, noisy, prone to search and rescue incidents, they often smell like laundry
additives and cologne. Finding parking at these iconic sites can be a
door-dinging nightmare. Not big plusses per my rating criteria.
Here in the Valley, we are fortunate to be surrounded with
hundreds of miles of fantastic trails, so finding alternatives to the Big Two
is easy. Who better to ask for recommendation than local hikers.
I recently surveyed the Arizona Hiking Group, a
29,000+-member Facebook community of resident and winter visitor trekkers for
their top picks. Here’s what they had to
These scenic treks in and around the central Metro Phoenix
corridor are crowd-pleasing classics without the huge crowds.
It takes some huffing and puffing to get to the good stuff,
but Phuong La of Goodyear says it’s worth the effort to explore Hidden
Valley in South Mountain Park in Phoenix.
|The Natural Tunnel in Hidden Valley|
“Hidden Valley via Mormon Trail is a good fun hike
that has many beautiful views,” La says.
The 3.3-mile loop begins with a hefty 700-foot climb among the rocky
clefts of Neighborhood Canyon before landing on the spine of the Guadalupe
Mountain Range where the fun part begins.
“The hike starts off getting your heart racing with the
elevation incline, then you hit the loop,” La describes. “I always go
counterclockwise and hike toward Fat Man’s Pass where you can slide between two
large boulders. When you pass that area, there are boulders you can slide
under, around or over and then you get to the short Natural Tunnel—an amazing
rock formation. Then, you hike back down and see the beautiful Phoenix scenery
as you get back to your car.”
Donnelly of Chandler to point you toward a great hike in South Mountain
Park and he’s quick to respond. “That’s
easy, Telegraph Pass,” he shares.
Easily accessible from the Desert Foothills
Trailhead, the 1.5-mile path climbs 520 feet and connects with the National
Trail where hikers may continue on to the iconic Telegraph Pass Lookout
or connect with the park’s other trails for a longer hike.
|Telegraph Pass Lookout|
“It has petroglyphs, city views and great desert views,”
Donnelly says of the Valley classic. “It
can be made into a quick and easy hike or extended into a longer one. It isn’t
super crowded, and has great sunset views. The trail head parking lot has just
been re-done and most importantly, it’s free!”
“Lookout Mountain is my absolute favorite local hike,”
says Toni Barker of Phoenix. Located in the North Phoenix suburbs in Lookout
Mountain Preserve, the 0.6-mile Summit Trail spins off the park’s
2.6-mile Circumference Trail for a good workout with 474 feet of
“I rarely hike during the week but when I get the urge I can
always count on seeing an amazing sunset there,” Barker says about the mildly
challenging trek. “The short, steep hike has 360-degree views that always amaze
me. No matter how many times I’ve been up there it always feels like a
NORTH VALLEY PICKS
Packed with mountainous parks and preserves at the edge of
Tonto National Forest, the towns of Cave Creek, Scottsdale and Fountain Hills
are ever-expanding hiking epicenters.
of Phoenix suggests a little gem hiding in plain sight near the hyper-popular,
difficult-rated Tom’s Thumb Trail in Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
|A fallen “mushroom rock” on Marcus Landslide Trail|
“I always suggest Marcus Landslide for an easier hike,”
she says. The 4.6-mile roundtrip trek with 280 feet of elevation gain has much
to offer besides a healthy walk in the desert.
“There’s so much cool geology, fun rock formations and
interpretive signs so you can learn something too,” Diamond adds.
For a hike
that encompasses everything amazing about desert hiking, Michelle Lottner
of Phoenix heads to the Metate Trail
in Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek.
|Metate Trail in Spur Cross Ranch|
“It’s beautiful because you get the rocks, the creek and the
amazing saguaros!” The moderate-rated hike
is usually done as a 2.4-mile loop with the Spur Cross Trail and the Towhee
Trail and is an ideal way to introduce out-of-town visitors to the beauty
and diversity of Sonoran Desert terrain and ecosystems. “It is a magnificent area overall.” There’s a
$3 per person entry fee.
Looking for less-crowded scenic loop hike that’s easy
to get to? Ingrid Gold of Phoenix picks a meandering, mountainous route
in the North Valley.
“I recommend the Go John-Overton Loop in Cave
Creek Regional Park,” Gold says. The
6.6-mile loop with 411 feet of elevation gain circles several
geologically-complex peaks, topping out at Gunsight Pass for sweeping vistas of
the East Valley and beyond.
“Especially in these times of COVID-19, it’s totally worth
the $7.00 entrance fee to avoid the crowds,” Gold adds.
While you’re in the neighborhood:
Hikers are raving about the new Fountain Hills McDowell
Mountain Preserve, Adero Canyon trailhead.
|View from the Promenade Trail in Fountain Hills McDowell Mountain Preserve|
Opened in 2018, the trail-laced,
lofty space is sandwiched between golf communities, McDowell Mountain Regional
Park and Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve, creating a hilly buffer zone that
provides seamless hiking among the preserves and outstanding views of
surrounding river valleys and wilderness peaks.
WEST VALLEY STUNNERS
Bolstered by the majestic White Tank Mountains, two parks–one
an old standard and the other a rising star–combine for miles of way out west
|Valley Vista summit off Turnbuckle Trail|
For Valerie Ryan of Tucson, there’s a trail in a new
West Valley hiking hub trail that’s worth a drive from anywhere in the state.
“Turnbuckle Loop in Buckeye,” she says. Located just
2 miles north of Interstate 10 in the White Tank Mountains, the
Turnbuckle Trail anchors nearly 20 miles of routes in Skyline Regional Park.
The mountain preserve that opened in 2016 also offers camping by reservation
and family-friendly amenities.
“Turnbuckle is a 3.4-mile loop with 560 feet of elevation gain and has
an optional side trip to the Valley Vista summit that adds 0.66 roundtrip miles.
It has a good balance of switchbacks and incline and declines and the views are
beautiful,” Ryan adds.
While you’re in the neighborhood:
Looking for some remote, difficult hikes? Find them in Maricopa
County’s largest regional park.
Old standard, White Tank Mountain Regional Park boasts
over 30 miles of trails including three difficult mountain routes: Goat Camp,
Mesquite Canyon and the notoriously sketchy Ford Canyon trails.
|White Tank Mountain Regional Park|
The 7.4-mile Ford Canyon Trail gets you into the feral
end of the park’s 30,000 acres. It’s not for amateurs, though. The trail is rated extremely difficult, has over
1,400 feet of elevation gain and requires traversing edgy rock ledges and
attention to route finding where the path crosses bare stone. The payoff is solitude, up-close encounters
with the white granite depressions—the eponymous “tanks”–that collect water and
hard-earned sense of accomplishment .
Replete with kids and cul-de-sacs, bustling business centers
and way stations for winter visitors, the cities of Mesa, Apache Junction and
Queen Creek also exude a vibrant outdoorsy vibe thanks to a rich assortment of
nearby, easy-access parks and trail systems.
|Wind Cave in Usery Mountain Regional Park|
“I like Wind Cave Trail at Usery Mountain Regional
Park,” says Becky Brown of Gilbert.
The 3-mile roundtrip hike that climbs 812 feet to a shallow
rock overhang, is the park’s most popular trail. The Mesa recreation hub has more than 30
miles of groomed trails, picnic ramadas, campsites, restrooms and a nature
center making it a favorite destination for hikers of all levels of experience.
“Wind Cave is a short but hard hike with great views of the
East Valley from the top,” Brown said. “I love to time my hikes so I get to the
top right at sunset.” There’s a $7 daily fee per vehicle.
Creek resident Nimisha Patel doesn’t have to travel far to enjoy
outstanding desert hiking. San Tan
Mountain Regional Park straddles over 10,000 acres of diverse desert
terrain in the Southeast Valley. Her
favorite trail pick from among the park’s 9 routes is one of the most
challenging because it climbs 584 feet on a rugged incline.
|Crested saguaro on the San Tan Trail|
“Gold Mine Trail (2.5 miles one way) explores the San
Tan Mountain range. The trail does take you to 2,300 feet—a significant change
in elevation if that is desired,” Patel shared.
“Before dusk the view of the Valley is beautiful from up
there. I am sure a night hike would be just as beautiful. It takes you into the
middle of the range so you are enveloped into the mountains. I wish I had a chance to go more often.”
Holly Kim Kal
of San Tan Valley also recommends San Tan Mountain Regional Park.
“I just renewed my annual county parks hiking pass as live
less than 10 minutes from the park. I love the San Tan Trail (6.4 miles
with 234 feet of elevation gain) because of the gorgeous views and the crested
saguaro, especially in spring when the cactus blossoms are blooming! I call it
the “rock & roll saguaro”. You can add on to the trail using
different routes or loops to make it a longer hike.”
There’s a $7 per vehicle daily fee.
The Sonoran Desert (Hawes) Trail
System in Tonto National Forest north of Mesa winds through
horsey rangelands near the Granite Reef Recreation Area. Along with a chance to
see the wild mustangs that live in the mesquite flood plains, the trails offer
views of the Salt River and the Goldfield and Usery Mountains. Yoshimi Asada
Carroll of Gilbert recommends the 30+-mile maze for its scenic qualities
and customizable loop options.
|Sonoran Desert (Hawes) Trail System|
“Saguaro Trail Ridge Trail and the Granite Trail
Loop are my favorites,” Asada says. Every time I see Red Mountain north of the
Salt River I have to stop and admire! It’s so pretty and there are so many
trails connected, you can make it really long too.”
With several trailheads located just a few miles from Valley
urban centers, immersing in the untamed, volcanic terrain of the Superstition
Wilderness in Tonto National Forest is just a short drive away.
|Massacre Grounds in Superstition Wilderness|
quick introduction to the area, Dawn Harmon, of Scottsdale recommends a
“I love Second Water Trail in the Supes,” she says
about the 3.3-mile route with 480 feet of elevation gain that’s accessed from
the First Water trailhead near Apache Junction.
“I can’t wait to go back when there’s water, but regardless,
you get desert, a little canyon and bouldering and great views of Battleship Mountain
and beyond.” The trail is a popular
starting point for longer loops or backpacking trips.
While you’re in the neighborhood:
Located just outside of Lost Dutchman State Park, the
Massacre Grounds Trail climbs 1,069 feet along a ridgeline that was the site
of an 1848 altercation between Spanish miners and a band of Apaches. The 6-mile roundtrip hike ends at a scenic
overlook with views of Weavers Needle, Goldfield Mountains and the park’s “praying
hands” rock formation. Go after a rain storm and you’ll get to see the famous
Massacre Falls cascading over mineral-stained vertical cliffs. Historical artifacts (and not-so-reliable
folklore) about the massacre and the area’s gold mining history can be found at
the nearby Superstition Mountain Museum.
It takes bumpy drives on dusty roads to get to them, but for
those craving solitude or a hard-earned summit hike, these fringy favorites are
just the ticket.
Visible as an oddly-shaped behemoth jutting above the
Hassayampa Plain near Wickenburg, Vulture Peak Trail is a quirky
destination for hikers who enjoy a test of nerve. The 4-mile route ascends
1,180 feet including a strenuous 240-foot hand-over-foot scramble to get to the
summit proper. Worth it? Goodyear resident Pat Brouillet Matusiak
“Vulture Peak begins as a stroll through the saguaros of the
Sonoran Desert followed by a challenging hike to the saddle (3,420 feet),” she
says. While some hikers make the saddle the turnaround point, sure-footed,
agile trekkers can go for the prize. “Continue up the primitive trail to the
summit (3,660 feet) for amazing views.”
While you’re in the neighborhood:
|Drinking Snake segmentof the Black Canyon Trail|
Used since ancient times, the Black Canyon Trail that
runs between North Phoenix and the town of Mayer near Prescott, has been
repurposed into a stunning long-distance recreational route. The 80+-mile route
that passes through deep canyons, ghost towns, expansive grasslands, abandoned
mining outposts and creek-laced back country is divided into approachable segments
with multiple trailheads and access points. Whether done as a straight-through backpack
or short day hike, this re-claimed historic treasure makes for a satisfying
trip into what the Black Canyon Trail Coalition calls the “Arizona’s Outback”.
Allow me to present the most invisible Elephant in the Room you’ll
ever encounter: The Maricopa Trail. While many hikers have noticed the distinctive
trail signs (that’s a Harris’s Hawk in the logo), few understand the scale of
the epic route that circles the Valley.
|Maricopa Trail: Bronco-Spur Cross segment|
Most succinctly stated, the Maricopa Trail is a microcosm of
the Valley of the Sun.
Over its 317-mile course, the non-motorized recreational
trail connects 10 county parks, wanders through open desert and farmland,
tethers to suburbs and urban centers and passes by the canals, dams and lakes
that deliver water to the one of the largest and fastest-growing areas in the
|Maricopa Trail: Usery Mountains|
If you want a walking tour of the Valley’s diverse nature,
this is your hike.
In October of this year, the Maricopa Trail was honored with
Coalition for Recreational Trails
Award for “Engaging Public Sector Partners”. This
national recognition pays tribute to the many years of work by volunteers, land
management agencies public sector leaders and the Maricopa Trail + Park
Foundation for bringing the massive effort to fruition through a collaboration
|Maricopa Trail: South Mountain Park|
Phase I of the non-motorized route was completed in 2019,
but the trail is far from done.
|Maricopa Trail: sign at White Tank Mountain|
Phase 2 rolled out this year with designs for a spur trail
that will connect with the planned 70,000-acre Vulture Mountain Regional
Park in Wickenburg that’s on track to open in 3 to 5 years. The trail is a huge accomplishment that few
communities across the country can match. It’s like having an Appalachian or Pacific
Coast Trail in our own back yard.