Some settings scream out to be explored on foot, and Arizona’s rugged Sonoran Desert is one of them. From your own two feet, you can observe the intricacies of spiky cacti and quick-footed fauna, as well as millennia-old geological treasures and panoramic desert panoramas.
Hiking choices abound in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, ranging from family-friendly paved routes to challenging excursions for elite athletes and extreme-sport fanatics. However, no matter how fit you are or how much experience you have, the Arizona desert’s dry climate and severe temperatures may be deceivingly harsh. Bring lots of water and sun protection with you on any trip, as most routes have little shade and can be extremely hot and dry.
1. Camelback Mountain
This red sandstone and granite mountain’s kneeling camel profile is the city’s most beloved image — and a tough, must-climb destination for hikers. The Echo Canyon Trail, which starts at the “camel’s head” (you can even see the eyelash), and the less-crowded Cholla Trail both ascend the mountain. This challenging climb concludes at an astonishing 2,704 feet above sea level, thanks to steep, rocky terrain and slick parts.
2. Pinnacle Peak Park
Pinnacle Peak in north Scottsdale, with its unusual granite formations, towering saguaros, plentiful fauna, and stunning vistas of Scottsdale and Phoenix, is one of the area’s most scenic treks. Hikers looking for a little challenge can consider the moderately difficult but short 1.75-mile trek.
3. Tom’s Thumb Trail
Tom’s Thumb Trail is one of many within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve’s 30,000 acres, and it’s also a popular hiking trail. The trail is only four miles long, but it is steep and full of switchbacks. The panoramas of the southern McDowell Mountains and Phoenix are well worth the investment, but this strenuous shade-free hike will require lots of drink and sun protection.
4. Piestewa Peak
Among Phoenicians, this is one of the most popular trekking places. Climbers will be rewarded with city vistas and up-close encounters with jackrabbits, lizards, palo verde and mesquite trees, and several species of cacti on the moderately tough Piestewa Peak Summit Trail, which takes less than an hour. In the evenings and after dark, it’s not uncommon to see night walkers with flashlights.
5. Papago Park
This circular, red-hued butte is a Phoenix landmark, but the true reward awaits those who take the short, simple hike up the sandstone formation. The mountain’s unique “holes,” created over millions of years by water erosion, were important sites for ancient Native Americans, particularly Hole-in-the-Rock, a natural formation through that you can assess the city.
6. Gateway Loop Trail
The Gateway Loop Trail is one of the most influential (and popular) trails in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, which has over 200 miles of trails. On this moderately challenging 4.4-mile loop, you’ll discover plenty of spring wildflowers, and if you want to beat the crowds (and the heat), go early in the morning or late in the evening.
7. Scenic Trail
Scenic Trail in the expansive McDowell Mountain Regional Park is the ideal hike for families with small children. The trail doesn’t have a lot of elevation rise, but it’s not short on views (hence the name). The 4.4-mile loop is well worth the park’s $7 entrance charge, with views of the Verde River and the Superstition Mountains.
8. Go John Trail
The Go John Trail is located in the 2,922-acre Cave Creek Regional Park, just north of Phoenix in the community of Cave Creek. Long switchbacks pass past desert trees and large saguaro cacti as the 5.9-mile loop begins. You’ll be rewarded with vistas of downtown Phoenix and the Hieroglyphic Mountains after about a mile. The trail is open all year, but it’s especially beautiful in the spring when the desert’s wildflowers bloom.
9. Lost Dog Trail
Visitors can enjoy a gentle rise as well as vistas of the huge desert and undulating hills on this 4.2-mile out-and-back trip. There is little to no shade on this trek, as on most in the area, so bring lots of water. Dogs are permitted on the route but must be kept on a leash to avoid “lost dogs,” as the name implies.