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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Pima Wash Trail


South Mountain Park

Hohokam petroglyphs on the Pima Wash Trail

Classic Arizona trails earn their reputations by being stalwart passages into some of our most beloved parks, forests and wilderness areas

Whether they are feral and remote or tame paths just steps from suburbia, these legacy routes (think: Humphreys Peak in Flagstaff, Cabin Loop on the Mogollon Rim and Bell Rock near Sedona, Peralta Canyon Trail in the Superstition Mountains and the Thumb Butte trail in Prescott) never get old.  Pima Wash Trail in South Mountain Park in Phoenix falls into the tame, nearby category and serves up a delightful trek for homegrown hikers and visitors alike.

View from the Dirt Road Trail

Located in the park’s eastern edge adjacent to a golf course and rows of trim homes and shopping centers, the trail is a mainstay in the Pima Canyon trailhead mix of routes.  Newly renovated and outfitted with restrooms, picnic tables and interpretive signs, the trailhead has plenty of parking and is designed to blend in with the surrounding desert hills. 

CCC structures on the Dirt Road Trail

Pima Wash Trail is often done as a loop hike using the Dirt Road and National Trail to tie it together.  To better appreciate the hike, start by reading the trailhead signs that describe the wildlife, vegetation and history you’ll encounter along the route. 

Petroglyphs above Pima Wash 

The short, easy loop is packed with interesting sites and is an ideal choice for keeping young kids engaged.  Begin on the Dirt Road Trail which starts at the trailhead ramadas.  The wide route heads up the edge of Pima Canyon overlooking a rugged wash.  Views of East Valley landmarks including Red Mountain and Four Peaks emerge on the horizon as the trail climbs higher into the canyon.  At near the mile point, a set of native stone buildings sit off to the left of the road.
Desert vegetation on Pima Wash Trail

These were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a government work program established by President Roosevelt in the 1930s.  The intricate masonry walls and arches blend easily into the natural environment and are fine examples of the many CCC-built structures, trails and other features within the park. 
Pima Canyon trailhead blends into the landscape

Just beyond the stone buildings, the road meets the National Trail junction.  Veer right and follow the trail a few yards to the Pima Wash Trail where the route ducks into a sandy, water-ravaged corridor.  Alternately staying in the cliff-bound wash and the ledges above it, the return leg of the loop tops out at a scenic point with a bench where Hohokam petroglyphs are etched into boulder outcroppings and views of the jumbled channel of Pima Canyon give cause for pause.  Vegetation in the wash is dominated by mesquite trees, brittlebush and cacti, but if you have a keen eye, you might spot a rare Elephant Tree.  While they resemble Palo Verde trees (Parkinsonia aculeata), the Elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) is a frost-sensitive tropical species in the torchwood family of plants that produces and aromatic sap similar to frankincense and myrrh. 

A petroglyph panel on Pima Wash Trail

Found in northwestern Mexico and American southwest deserts, Central Arizona, where the tree is a protected species, marks the northern limits of its habitable zone.
The route is signed and easy to follow

The squat trees are characterized by its serpentine, branching trunks that resemble elephant legs.

Young branches and bark are smooth and reddish in color but turn dull green and flaky grey with age.  Because of its close proximity to suburbia, the Pima Canyon recreation area draws the crowds, especially on weekends when many people use the Dirt Road Trail as an outdoor treadmill for speed hiking or power walking.

Interpretive signs enrich the hike experience

However, for those who prefer a more leisurely walk off the beaten path, the Pima Wash Trail offers a less busy meander through classic Sonoran Desert terrain inhabited by myriad critters including Harris Antelope Squirrels, rock squirrels and Turkey vultures. 

LENGTH: 3.2-mile loop as described here

RATING: easy-moderate

ELEVATION: 1,338 – 1,566 feet


Pima Canyon Trailhead. 4800 E. Pima Canyon Road, Phoenix.

From Phoenix, go east on Interstate 10 to the Elliot Road exit 157. Turn right at the bottom of the offramp and continue a few blocks west to 48th Street (major stop light intersection). Turn right onto 48th St and continue to Pima Canyon Road on the left and follow the signs to the trailhead.

FACILITIES: restrooms, water, covered picnic ramadas.

Dogs must be on leash at all times and owners must clean up after their pets.


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