It’s the fifth most populous city in the US and located in the sweltering, sand-strewn bowl of the Sonoran Desert’s Salt River Valley, but Arizona’s capital city, Phoenix, boasts a wealth of scenic, challenging, and generally outstanding hiking trails that belie the area’s exploding urban development and vast metropolitan sprawl.
Whether you’re a visitor in town or a born-and-bred Phoenician, each of these thrilling day hikes offers a superb way to get out on the weekend, after work, or even on a lunch break, without having to put in too much mileage in the car. In a short distance, they pack a lot of views, abundant animal and plant species, and a whole lot more in the way of wildness than many would expect to find in the Valley of the Sun’s bustling epicenter.
In this article, we’re going to introduce you to ten of Phoenix’s best hiking trails, but before getting down to that we’ll first take a look at what you can expect from your hikes and a few important things to bear in mind when it comes to preparation, planning, and packing your backpack.
For those of you who’d prefer to skip straight to our pick of Phoenix’s top ten trails, you can do so by clicking here.
Many of the prep and planning measures required for a safe and enjoyable hike in the Phoenix area are the same as those that apply to hikes anywhere in the world, but as a hiking destination, Phoenix is just a little bit unique and, as such, calls for a few tweaks to the standard procedure.
For the most part, these hikes are relatively short, but also occasionally steep, rocky, home to some interesting (!) wildlife, and — out of winter months — sizzlingly hot! Despite their vicinity to a busy urban environment, moreover, all are located entirely within the vast, sun-scorched expanse of the Sonoran Desert and often veer several miles from the nearest point of safety. In short, the proximity to “civilization” shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to take a more lackadaisical approach in your prep and planning.
Average daytime temperatures in Phoenix in January are just over 67 degrees Fahrenheit and in summer months soar to over 100, sometimes well over 100. If that hasn’t made you reconsider and hop on the first plane to somewhere more brisk in its meteorological outlook, then read on for some insights into staying safe when the mercury in the thermometer is heading for the heights.
Taking care of your well-being while hiking in desert environments requires paying particular attention to your clothing (see below), carrying adequate water (we recommend 1 liter per hour of walking in summer, slightly less in spring and fall), and planning your hike so you will be spending as little time as possible directly under the glare of the sun when it’s at its fiercest…
Given that the sun is likely to be at its fiercest between noon and around 4 pm, the ideal solution is to get your hikes in either very early in the day or in the late afternoon. Additionally, do your research to find out the aspect of the trail you intend on hitting — that is, determining whether it’s mainly north or south-facing (north-facing trails are more likely to be in the shade in the early morning). Finally, try to find out if the trail features any natural sun breaks such as trees, caves, and bluffs, or any ramadas or covered picnic areas. If it does, then you can break your hike up into short sections between these points and make the most of the shade when you reach it.
As your most notable foe while hiking in Phoenix is likely to be the heat rather than the cold, we’ll focus on clothing that’s going to keep you cool and safe from the damaging effects of the sun.
Ever seen pictures of Peter O’Toole in the classic film Lawrence of Arabia? The costume designers did a good job and one that hands observant hikers a few tips for dealing with the heat in desert locations. While not attired in the ultralight, high-performing gear we find on the shelves of our outdoor stores today, these guys knew their stuff and made the best of what was available at the time. For the most part, “Lawrence” is clad from head to toe in a lightweight, white silks and fine linens, much like the desert-dwelling natives he meets on his adventures.
What, then, is the take-home for us, hikers living in the age of high-tech fabric technologies that is the early 21st Century?
For starters, ‘light’ is the way to go, both in terms of material weight and coloring. This means, most importantly, no cotton, and no dark colors that will absorb and attract the suns rays rather than reflect them. Secondly, while many of his adoring fans might have preferred to see O’Toole cutting about in the desert in a pair of hotpant-esque shorts and a teeny camisole, his character instead opts for full-body coverage, thereby not only thwarting the eager-eyed glances of his smitten female following but also the searing glare of the desert sun. The bottom line? Cover up and go light to keep cool and sunburn-free.
The ideal shirts for hiking in hot temps like those you’ll find in Phoenix almost year-round should satisfy three criteria: light, breathable, sun-resistant.
The first choice you have to make is whether to opt for full-length pants, shorts, or something in between. While shorts are the obvious choice, the same applies to your legs as your arms: coverage is crucial in order to protect your skin from the sun. Whichever option you ultimately choose, look for garments with the same qualities mentioned above for shirts — light, breathable, and sun resistant.
Boots or trail shoes? The obvious, intuitive answer to the question is to go for the latter option: trail shoes. Given the high temps you’re likely to encounter and the fairly easy-going nature of the vast majority of the trails, opting for a heavier, warmer hiking boot just doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever.
There is, however, a bit of a ‘but’…
Choosing a pair of highly breathable, lightweight hiking boots with a higher collar at the ankle might be a more attractive option for two reasons:
1. Most of the trails in the Phoenix area are quite sandy underfoot and not short on small pebbles which can easily gatecrash the interior of any shoe.
2. Snakes. Yeah, snakes… While we don’t want to put you off or indulge in any unnecessary scaremongering, there’s no denying that these slithery, venomous invertebrates are a factor well worth taking into consideration. Relatively speaking, snake bites are not very common considering the amount of traffic on Phoenix’s trails, but they do happen (the vast majority in late summer and early fall). Wearing a boot will not only give you a few added inches of protection around the ankle should you happen to tread too close to a snake but also offer a little more peace of mind while you’re out on the trail.
Deserts are, of course, notorious for their ability to sap your body of its fluids. Getting your hike on in such an environment only compounds matters, making it all the more important to ensure you take adequate water supplies to last the duration of your hike. While some of the hikes on our list have potable water sources at the trailhead or on the trails themselves, on others you won’t find a drop of the stuff from start to finish.
As a general rule, we’d recommend carrying 1 liter for every hour of hiking, though adding an extra half liter to that bare-minimum supply never killed anyone.
Proximity to the city often gives hikers in the Phoenix area a false sense of security. While most of the trails featured below are well marked and straightforward from a navigational point of view, there are still plenty of opportunities to take a wrong turn or veer off course, in which case you might find yourself left with an extra few hours of walking back to the trailhead or having to negotiate tricky terrain to get back onto the established trail. This being so, we’d recommend always carrying a trail map or, at the very minimum, a detailed route description on your phone.
The Phoenix area is home to a surprising abundance of plant, flower, and tree species. Some of the native tree and plant species you can expect to find on your wanders include saguaro cactus, barrel cactus, juniper, ocotillo, cholla, yucca, prickly pear, century plant, ironwood, and paloverde.
Just as abundant as its flora, Phoenix also boasts a very diverse array of fauna that adds a further element of interest to any hike in the area. Some of the species you might happen upon include the mule deer, grey fox, Gila monsters, Gila woodpeckers, Gambel’s quail, roadrunners, coyotes, tortoises, and multiple varieties of lizard, snake, and spider.
With the good-to-knows and planning logistics out of the way, let’s now get down to our selection of…
Pinnacle Peak Park is one of Phoenix’s top rock climbing areas, with dozens of granite boulders and outcrops peppering the pristine Sonoran landscape. The good news is that you don’t have to get your harness and helmet on to see the best the park has to offer; the bad news that to get to the very top of the tallest of its granite monoliths — the 3,171-foot Pinnacle Peak itself — climbing gear is a must unless your name happens to be Adam Ondra, Alex Honnold, or Sasha Digiulian.
On this hike you’ll have scenic views of the Cone Mountains, the Four Peaks, Granite Mountain, the McDowell Mountains, Tom’s Thumb, and down to the Troon North Golf Club and Four Seasons Resort. You’ll see plenty of wild Sonoran flora along the way, and are sure to catch sight of at least a few of its residents from the animal kingdom: antelope ground squirrels, roadrunners, mule deer, desert tortoises, bobcats, Gila monsters, desert tortoises, and/or cactus wrens.
This hike is very well marked, easygoing, and suitable for hikers of all levels of fitness and experience. From the trailhead at 102nd Way, the trail meanders gently westward towards the distinctive pinnacle, passing giant saguaros and cacti, before then veering north for quarter of a mile. Here, a sharp turn takes you due south to the high point of the trail at the aptly named Grandview, where those equipped with climbing gear can ascend the ridge to take on the peak itself.
The trail continues southward before gradually turning west just before Owl’s Rest, from where you’ll have only 0.75 to the trail’s end point. More good news: there’s no way to make this trail into a loop so you get to enjoy all that epic natural, geological, and floral eye candy again on the way back!
Thunderbird Conservation Park has over 20 miles of colorfully named trails all located within a spectacular 1,185-acre preserve. This trail may not have the same isolated feel the other trails on our list are blessed with on account of its proximity to the city, but for a quick workout in an otherwise wonderful setting after a day at work, they don’t come much better than this without putting in some hefty mileage.
For our money, the best hike in the Thunderbird Conservation Park is a bit of a hybrid that takes in the best of the Arrowhead Point Trail, the Coach Whip Trail, and the Cholla Loop, giving you a total trail distance of just under six miles. On the way, you’ll find great views of the park itself and the city, which often feels a million miles away despite being, essentially, all around you! The other notable feature of this trail is its surprising abundance of wildlife — in addition to the usual suspects (rattlers, scorpions, and spiders) you might just happen to spot the odd coyote, fox, javelina, or even a member of the family of great horned owls who took up residence in the park in 2017.
From the Pinnacle Peak Road trailhead, head south and after 0.4 miles veer left onto the Arrowhead point trail, which climbs fairly quickly for 0.7 miles to the park’s high point at 570m/1,870 feet, where you’ll find a large American flag plugged into the volcanic detritus on the summit and awesome views back over the city.
From the peak, the trail starts off its descent bearing west before looping back around to 59th Avenue on the peak’s northwest side. Here, cross the pedestrian bridge and follow the Coach Whip Trail for 0.2 miles until reaching the turnoff for the Cholla Loop. Stay on the Cholla Loop for the duration of its very up-and-down, 3-mile arc around the park’s northern periphery until reaching the junction with the Coach Whip Trail just a few hundred yards from the parking lot and start point on Pinnacle Peak Road.
Tom’s Thumb Trail in Scottsdale is a short, steep, and far more secluded than many of the other trails in our list. Climbing nearly 1,400 feet in a little over two miles, it offers a decent test of fitness and stamina for even the more seasoned hiker.
From the trailhead just off North 128th Street, you’ll soon find yourself feeling a long way from the hustle and bustle of the city. If this trail has one unique selling point, this is it: (relative) serenity. There may be a few bikers whizzing by, but otherwise you’ll wend (or schlep, perhaps, given the trail’s steepness) your way up through a quiet, boulder-filled wonderland embellished with abundant flora in a setting that wouldn’t be out of place if picked up and dropped a few hundred miles to the north.
Don’t be fooled by the trail’s tame beginnings. After a half mile or so dawdling through desert flora and towering saguaros on sandy but relatively flat terrain, the trail takes a sharp turn toward the vertical as it climbs up to the adjoining ridge on a series of steep switchbacks.
From the ridge, things thankfully ease off, and after taking a right at the next fork in the trail, you’ll enter a boulder-strewn stretch amidst which a second turnoff to the right is slightly hidden amongst the rocks. The trail here narrows but remains fairly moderate for the rest of the climb up to the huge granite “thumb” which, we imagine, is nature’s age-old emoji giving its seal of approval to the epic scenery below and the views out across the McDowell Mountains.
For those seeking a bit more of a challenge — both physically and in terms of navigation — there are few better trails in the Phoenix area than the Superstition Wilderness’s Flatiron Summit via Siphon Draw. This is a tough hike that climbs almost 3,000 feet and will pose a true test of mettle for even the most tried-and-tested hiker. The trail itself is occasionally short on waymarking and tests the intrepid visitors with some uneven sections and even a short stretch of moderate scrambling near the top, so be sure to take your time and make sure of your footing and bearing along the way.
Those who choose to take on this hike are rewarded with an outing that provides a real sense of adventure and the sort of thrill you wouldn’t expect to find quite so close to the city. At times it’s airy, scary, and damn sweaty (the trail is exposed to the sun for most of the day), sure, but the sense of achievement and 360-degree views you’re compensated with on the top make it all worthwhile.
From the final parking area inside the Lost Dutchman State Park, the trail sets off on the well-marked Siphon Draw Trail, gradually climbing into a large, slide-rock basin. At this point, things turn steep in a hurry and the trail markers, inexplicably, all but vanish (keep your eyes peeled for the cairns!). Over the next mile, the “trail” throws in a few sections of scrambling on its way to the summit outcrop, where you’ll face a 10-foot, full-on climb to reach the top.
If you happen to have enough gas in the tank after this ascent — and plenty of daylight — after veering right to tick off the Flatiron Summit, you can retrace your steps on the ridge and then turn right instead of heading straight back down the way you came. Doing so will lead you past a collection of curious hoodoo rock formations and through stretches of slightly overgrown, pathless desert brush to the top of Superstition Peak, where the views in all four directions are simply outstanding, taking in the Flatiron Summit, Apache Junction Valley, and the unmistakable Weavers Needle protruding 1,000 feet from the valley floor.
Apache Wash is littered with dozens of little trails (both established and well-marked and less so) that veer off and intersect with the main loop around this peaceful little haven in the Sonoran Preserve.
Our pick of the bunch begins by wending gently through a small cactus forest before gently gaining height to offer hikers outstanding views over Desert View, the Sonoran Preserve, and downtown Phoenix. This is a lightly trafficked trail that’s best hiked from September to March, but even in summer months, you’ll find the odd hiker, trail-runner, or mountain biker zipping along its dirt paths.
From the parking lot at the trailhead, head west on the Ocotillo Trail for 0.5 miles until reaching the Ridgeback Trail. Here, turn right and head north until you reach the junction with the Sidewinder Trail and then head west again. Stay on the Sidewinder trail until you regain the Ocotillo Trail and follow that, due east, back to the trailhead.
The 2,707-foot Camelback Mountain is one of Phoenix’s most distinctive and iconic landmarks — right up there with the Sonoran saguaro, ASU’s “A-Mountain”, and the less endearing Tovrea Castle. The trail to its summit is one of the most heavily trafficked in the Phoenix area, if not the state of Arizona as a whole. Despite its popularity, this trail is certainly not to be underestimated. It’s steep, involves sections of sustained scrambling, and every year at least a few would-be summiteers are airlifted off the mountain by helicopters after getting lost, benighted, or suffering serious injury.
From the trailhead at Echo Canyon Recreation Area — where we should add, there’s very limited parking given the trail’s popularity — the route up to the 2,707-foot peak is laid out before you, though from this angle the distinctive “bumps” on the camel are less visible. The trail starts off due south, climbing gently on easy terrain and wending through a cluster of boulders that look like giant crumbs of gingerbread spilled from a tea party in the heavens. After around 0.3 miles, the trail turns ever so slightly serious, with a series of switchbacks zigzagging up the ever-steepening flanks.
At the end of the switchbacks, the trail levels off slightly, continuing with a more gradual ascent toward Echo Saddle at 1,692 ft — a good spot to take a little breather before the resumption of hostilities a short way ahead. With sections aided by handrails and some stiff stair climbing, the trails ascends sharply to the second saddle, where you’ll find great views of South Mountain, before then all but disappearing for the last quarter of a mile of scrambling up, through, over, and between boulders on the final stretch to the summit. From here, you’ll have uninhibited, sweeping views of Phoenix and the Salt River Valley in its entirety. More importantly, you’ll have earned yourself some serious downtime and the chance to kick back and take it all in before returning on the same route.
Wildflowers, buildings of historical interest, and eye-catching desert scenery abound on this very accessible, easygoing trail near Scottsdale. With just over 100 ft of elevation gain, this is one of the gentler hikes on our list and pretty much the ideal choice for those looking to take in some awesome desert and mountain scenery (Brown’s Mountain, Cone Mountain, Pinnacle Peak, Cholla Mountain, and Granite Mountain included) without the high exertion entailed on some of our other featured hikes. This area was used for ranching from the mid-1800s until the mid-1950s and various remnants of the old ranches and farming equipment lend the area a curiously antiquated feel.
From the trailhead, follow the well-marked Brown’s Ranch Trail north, passing the Chuckwagon Trail and crossing the power line road. Continue to Brown’s Ranch junction, from where a short diversion north-east (right) will lead to the ruins of the former ranch.
From the ruins of the ranch, most hikers choose to turn around and return to the trailhead on the same route, but those who are feeling a little more adventurous can easily extend their hike by a few miles. One of the most enjoyable add-ons is to take the second right onto the Maverick Trail after crossing the power line road and then complete the loop of Cholla Mountain on the Cholla Loop trail.
Mormon Loop Trail is a well-trafficked, highly scenic hike in South Mountain Park and Preserve that rewards those taking it on with epic views of the buttes of the Papago Park, Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak, and the Superstition Mountains. One of the trail’s highlights is the opportunity it offers for sightings of wildlife and plant species, including cholla, saguaro, barrel cactus, juniper, coyotes, lizards galore, the fairly ubiquitous diamondback snake, and abundant bird species. As a bonus, the trail is dotted with a number of petroglyphs, adding an element of historical intrigue to an area already blessed with plenty of the natural kind.
From the trailhead, the trail ascends gradually for 0.3 miles before then developing into a series of steeper switchbacks. Before you even reach the 0.5-mile marker, the views behind you to Piestewa Peak, Camelback Mountain, the Papago Peaks, and downtown Phoenix are already outstanding. From there, the trail becomes a little more grueling until arriving at a fork where the Mormon Loop Trail veers left and the Mormon Trail turns off to the right. Take the Mormon Trail (right) and continue until reaching the intersection with the National Trail. Continue on the National Trail for just over a mile and then return to the Mormon Loop Trail by heading north and then west. From here, the trail completes its loop back to the trailhead on easy ground, allowing you to take in and enjoy the panoramic views as you go.
If you’re that type of hiker who heads for hills and trails for a bit of solitude and to get away from it all, this trail most probably won’t make it onto your top ten list of favorite hikes any time soon — the summit route is second only to the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail in terms of its number of annual visitors. If, however, you’re partial to a spot of scrambling and strenuous stair climbing on a trail that’s as challenging as it is scenic, then this is one not to be missed. It’s only a 3.8-mile round trip to the summit and back, but on the way you’ll teeter on the edge of airy cliffs, climb steeply through and across the walls of towering rock formations on narrow staircases, and ascend a total of 1,250 feet to a point from where you might well still be able to see your car. In short, it’s short, steep as hell, and at no point less than breathtaking in every sense of the word.
The trail description for this one is easy. From the trail, point yourself north and from there just keep going up and up until you hit the 2, 608-foot summit, which will be visible from the parking lot below, daring you to take it on!
Located just minutes from downtown Phoenix, Papago Park offer city-weary hikers a small oasis and serene slither of nature that at times feels a million miles away from the noise and hustle and bustle of the metropolis. The park’s Double Butte Loop, however, is not only a great option for those with less time on their hands and who want to get in a good workout while enjoying some pretty desert scenery, but also an entertaining and decently challenging hike in its own right, regardless of its proximity to the city.
There are a number of ways to see the park, but the pick of the bunch has to be the Double Butte Loop Trail, a 2.3-mile hike that encircles the iconic, 1,285-foot Papago Buttes and offers plenty of opportunities to extend your hike with various connecting trails.
From the trailhead, head northwest on Double Butte Loop West, flanking the Papago Golf Course on your left and passing the small, russet knob of Little Butte on your right after 0.5 miles. A further 0.7 miles down the trail you’ll veer east under East McDowell Road and begin the arc around the buttes. On the west side of the buttes, you have a choice of returning on Double Butte Loop East or on the Vigilante Trail. While both trails have their merits, we’d recommend staying on the former and continuing south to the trailhead. From here, a simple and worthwhile extension to the hike can be made by joining the Vigilante Trail just after the parking area and continuing southwest along the south perimeter of the golf course.
The Valley of the Sun has a lot more in store than just the offerings of the big yella’ fella in the sky. And, contrary to popular belief, Phoenix and its suburbs are far more than just an urban sprawl of concrete and glass surrounded by miles of arid desert. Dotted around the city like little oases, there are dozens of hiking areas replete with the type of scenic views, natural features, wildlife, and a general feeling of wildness you’d more readily associate with some of the world’s more popular hiking destinations. And the best part? From downtown Phoenix, you can reach all of them without spending any more than 30 minutes in your car…bonus!
Sam Hardy is an outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for survival skills. He writes about the great outdoors and his favorite equipment here.