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Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Best Valley Hikes Not Named Camelback Mountain


Black Canyon Trail: Gloriana Segment

I get 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.Which leads me to ask, is there a  difference between “best” and what first comes to mind?Clearly 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, and they often smell like laundry additives and cologne. Finding parking at these trailheads can be a door-dinging nightmare. Not big plusses per my rating criteria.
South Mountain Park

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 say.


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.”


Ask John 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 elevation gain.

City vistas from Lookout Mountain

“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 first-time experience.”




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.


Jill Diamond 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.

Go John-Overton Loop Cave Creek Regional Park


“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.




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 hiking options.

Valley Vista summit off Turnbuckle Trail


For Valerie Ryan of Tucson, there’s a trail in a new West Valley hiking hub 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.


Queen 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


For a quick introduction to the area, Dawn Harmon, of Scottsdale recommends a local treasure.

“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.

Second Water Trail in the Superstition Wilderness

“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 driving on bumpy, dusty roads to get to them, but for those craving solitude or a hard-earned summit hike, these fringy favorites are just the ticket.


Vulture Peak

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 thinks so.

“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 Southwest.

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 a

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 of stakeholders.

Maricopa Trail: South Mountain Park

Phase I of the non-motorized route was completed in 2019, but the trail is far from done.

Distinctive signs mark the 317-mile Maricopa Trail


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.






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