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Monday, November 27, 2023

Cloudburst-Cone Mountain Loop


Storm view from the Cloudburst trail

IMPORTANT NOTE: Please stay off wet trails to avoid damaging them. These photos were taken before the storms hit --on dry trails. 

 Funny thing about mountains; they’re rain makers.  The phenomenon isn’t unusual or magic, it’s something called orographic precipitation which is basically rain produced when warm moist air rises and cools over mountain ranges.

Granite boulders on the Cone Mountain trail

The process is fascinating to watch, it rolls out as if trapped in a sort of real-time time-lapse. Clouds rapidly build over peaks to the break point when they drop their payloads.
Granite sculpture on the Hackamore trail

This amazing weather event is easily observed in the mountain ranges that circle the Valley where the massif-borne rain flows down foothills into ephemeral streams and washes in gentle sheets or roiling deluges.  
Storm brewing over the Cloudburst trail

Higher elevations around the Valley like in North Scottsdale and Cave Creek where mountains reach to a cloud-summoning 4,000+feet get the lion’s share of water.
Preserve trails are well marked and maintained

Phoenix gets the dregs.  While Phoenix is situated at around 1,100 feet, north Valley locations like Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve rise to over 2,500 feet, and that makes all the difference in terms of taking the edge off city heat islands and soaking up residual mountain rain.  
Brown's Mountain viewed from Upper Ranch trail

The extra height also accounts for the occasional coating of winter snow that frosts saguaros in picture postcard splendor.  The fascinating workings of elevation and mountains on the desert landscape beg to be ogled, and the Cloudburst Trail feels like a purpose-built platform for the mission.

The aptly named hiking trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve gives front-row-style access to the spectacle of rain-making mountains in action. 

Early morning sun on Upper Ranch trail

The 0.9-mile trail coils along the base of 3,061-foot Cone Mountain with flat topped Brown’s Mountain standing at 3,253 feet high to the east.  The twisting singletrack in the preserve’s north region overlooks a gorgeous expanse of desert that abuts the hilly terrain of Tonto National Forest.

Stunning skyscape on the Cloudburst trail


There are numerous ways to access the route but using it as leg in a loop around Cone Mountain adds panoramic vistas and interesting geology to the mix.

Maps available online and at the trailhead show multiple ways to weave the Cloudburst trail into a day hike. 

Unobstructed views on the Cloudburst trail

One option is to create a loop hike using Upper Ranch, Cone Mountain, Hawksnest, and West Express trails for a moderate 5.3-mile trek.  Each leg of the route works a different facet of the preserve’s many characters.  The West Express and Hackamore trails bump up against bizarre granite formations and cross paths with powerlines that oddly mimic wiry tendrils of ocotillo cactus.
Loop hike circles Cone Mountain

The Upper Ranch and Cone Mountain trails showcase the preserve’s two distinct peaks and views of iconic Pinnacle Peak and western ranges. 
Looking west from Cone Mountain trail

But, on days when rain is in the forecast, it’s Cloudburst that outdoes itself.  Traversing a shelf-like edge hanging over acres of saguaros, the trail has unobstructed views of churning clouds rising among layers of misted ridges and peaks.
Powerlines flank the West Express trail

The route is easy to pick out or customize using maps available online or at the trailhead. Here’s one option. From the Brown’s Ranch trailhead, begins with a short walk on Brown’s Ranch Road to the Upper Ranch Trail.  Follow Upper Ranch 1.2 miles to emergency marker UR5 and turn left at the Cone Mountain connector.

Gathering storm on Upper Ranch trail

Hike 0.2-mile, turn right onto Cloudburst at emergency marker CN3. Follow Cloudburst to emergency marker HW33 and continue 0.1-mile to West Express at emergency marker HW35. Follow West Express 0.4-mile to emergency marker WE17 and turn onto Hackamore. Follow Hackamore to the Cone Mountain junction at CN5, hike back to Upper Ranch and backtrack to the trailhead.

CHEAT SHEET emergency marker breadcrumbs: TRAILHEAD, UR1, UR2, UR3, UR4, UR5, CN3, HW33, HW35, WE17, HT3, CN5, UR4, UR3, UR1, TRAILHEAD.

REMINDER: Please stay off wet trails.

LENGTH: 5.3 miles

RATING: moderate

ELEVATION: 2,508 – 2,713 feet


Brown’s Ranch Trailhead

30301 N. Alma School Pkwy., Scottsdale.

From Loop 101 in Scottsdale, take the Pima/Princess exit 36 and go 6.5 miles north on Pima to Dynamite Road.  Turn right and continue 2.7 miles to Alma School Pkwy., turn left and drive 1 mile to the trailhead. The preserve is open sunrise to sunset daily. There are restrooms at the trailhead.

McDowell Sonoran Preserve

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