One of the things many locals like best about living in Phoenix is that one can live in an urban setting while still being in close proximity to nature and the outdoors. We have so many beautiful hikes in the metro area that even if you hike frequently you won’t get bored. Here are some of the best spots, in no particular order!
Near the 303 freeway and Olive you will find the White Tank Mountain Regional Park, which is commonly just called White Tanks. It is the largest park area in Maricopa County with nearly 30,000 acres of beautiful scenery. Made up of rain-carved recesses and canyons of white granite, the area appears to have natural white “tanks” of water after flash floods fill them up. While there is no one main peak, the highest point is just over 4000 feet. You can reach the trailheads easily as the road is paved the whole way.
There are three main trails to enjoy at White Tanks: Waterfall Trail is 1.8 miles round trip, Waddell/Ford Canyon/Mesquite Canyon Trail Loop is a more challenging 9.9 miles and Goat Camp/Willow Canyon Trail Loop is 12.7 miles. Most paths in the park are considered “multiple use” so you will be hiking alongside mountain bikers and equestrians, but generally the trails are not overcrowded.
Waterfall Trail is a there-and-back hike rather than a loop and the even, broad path is accessible to most hikers. As you hike along the path you can see Hohokam petroglyphs on some rocks right on the trail. It does have an actual waterfall at the endpoint where you turn back, but the waterfall is dry except when there have been heavy rains. Even so, it’s a beautiful, scenic hike.
The Waddell/Ford Canyon/Mesquite Canyon Trail Loop is dotted with beautiful vegetation and craggy scenery. To me the scenery is at its glorious best during wildflower season which is in March and early April. Parts of the trail are flat and easy although the path does get more challenging toward the middle where it is unmaintained. Still, it’s easy to follow even where it’s not marked and there are warning signs letting you know that the trail is becoming more hazardous. As you hike you’ll find an abandoned dam, typical desert vegetation and a place where the trail tops out (although the view isn’t the point; it’s not nearly as impressive as some others in town).
The Goat Camp/Willow Canyon Trail Loop is the longest trail at White Tanks, more than 12 miles roundtrip. It ranges from flat and easy to moderate climbing intermittently so there is plenty of scenic variety to take in along the way. The lovely pools at Willow Spring are part of this hike so make sure to leave time to stop and enjoy once you reach them.
Because this is a large, hub of a regional park there are loads of guided activities through the Parks and Recreation Department. You’ll find everything from snake feedings and scorpion hunts (in season) to moonlight hikes and kids’ desert bingo at White Tanks; this is one of the things about this park that really makes it a standout destination and for a complete listing of upcoming activities for folks of all ages you need only check out the website. Enjoy White Tanks, it’s a wonderful day hike, evening adventure and more.
Camelback, Echo Canyon/ Summit Trail
Camelback Mountain is a two summit sleeping camel (one summit the head and the other its hump) in the center of Phoenix and one of the notable sights in town. It is 2,704 feet at its highest point and you reach the summit through stunning sandstone formations on the Summit Trail in Echo Canyon Park. This is a very steep hike for much of the way so if you are a novice this is not a good first time option; even at only 2.3 niles it is one of the more difficult hikes in town. The gradient is extreme enough that there are handrails along the way at times, and naturally for much of the year the heat makes the hike even more challenging.
Start this hike at the Echo Canyon parking lot (and make use of the facilities there, especially the water fountain if your bottle isn’t full!) and head into the canyon. Once you reach the top of the canyon there is a bench if you need to rest before the real climbing begins. The handrails appear as you press on and it is this portion of the hike that will likely begin to intimidate you, but press on to take in some incredible views! After about half a mile of handrails the trail kicks up the intensity another notch; this last half a mile or so should take you around an hour unless you are very fit and experienced. As you scramble up the crags and boulders you will probably see wildlife such as lizards and birds, and once you reach the summit you’ll want to rest and take it in for a bit. The summit of Camelback Mountain allows you to view Phoenix and its outskirts in every direction, and multiple mountains including the Superstitions and Four Peaks. The summit is the halfway mark of this hike but of course the way down is far less strenuous, albeit steep and a bit treacherous (you’ll be glad of those handrails again).
The entrance to Echo Canyon Parkway is east of Tatum Blvd. off of McDonald Drive. Parking is limited and at busy times can be hard to find so plan your hike thoughtfully and enjoy this amazing climb in the heart of the city!
Shaw Butte Trail
This is a fun quickie sort of hike; it’s a centrally located, moderately paced hike and a pretty serene trail. The hike itself is about 4 miles and gains in elevation by around 650 feet. If you’re looking for a solid, easy to reach, uncrowded place to hike, especially if you want to run for part of it, Shaw Butte Trail might be for you.
At the end of Central Avenue south of Thunderbird Road you will find the paved parking lot and visitor center that abuts the trailhead. It’s a great visitor center and there are good, clean bathrooms, water and staff. This trail does have two trailheads, the other on 15th Avenue just north of Peoria, but the more popular one that I am familiar with is the one on Central Ave. However the parking is not very plentiful and street parking isn’t allowed in the neighborhood, so it may be best to either go at a less common time, off-season, or to plan to walk a bit from where you park.
This is a low key hike, a nothing fancy sort of outing. The outset of the hike is over nearly flat ground and a good place to run if you like that sort of thing. The trail is mostly well-marked, and as you follow the signs up the service road towards the towers and then down again to the steel pipes you’ll happen upon the ghost of what used to be “Cloud Nine,” which was a very fancy place in its heyday back in 1960s Phoenix. Although there is some vandalism and graffiti at this sight, to me that adds to the way the burned out place interests you as you explore.
While you’re up at the towers you’ll have what is actually a decent view, albeit one rendered unusual by the presence of towers and satellite dishes. Also, you can get a panoramic view from various points just below the top of the mountain if you make your way down and around. You’ll see views of the downtown and midtown skyline, Lookout Mountain and humble Sunnyslope. You’ll also see even the Bradshaws in the distance. Eventually as you continue back down the mountain (through wildflowers at certain times of the year) you will come to the dam, and back to the parking lot.
This trail has comfortably wide paths, so even if you see other hikers it’s unlikely to be too close for comfort. You won’t be hiking in seclusion, but you’ll be amongst a friendly, low-key crowd if there is one. Especially if you live in the North Valley this is a great, less bustling alternative to Camelback and Piestewa. Give it a try!
Piestewa Peak summit trail (North Mountain preserve, formerly Squaw Peak), Phoenix Mountains Park and Recreation Area and Dreamy Draw Recreation Area
At the base of the popular hike up 2,608-foot Piestewa Peak you will find a large paved parking lot, and an unpaved staging area with hitching racks and a horse trough. Water and restrooms are also available here. The trailhead is wonderfully central, located just north of the parking lot in Dreamy Draw Recreation Area near 19th Street and Northern Avenue. Although peak can be crowded at times there are many miles of trails in the area and this remains one of Phoenix’s best hikes.
Originally the area surrounding and including Piestewa Peak was home to mercury mining and grazing operations; eventually the area became a touchstone for local preservation efforts. The numerous trailheads through the schist launch the hiker into the diverse, unexpectedly lush desert landscapes typical of the lower Sonoran Desert and provide both captivating views outward from the high points and quiet valleys filled with local flora and fauna. Take advantage of the picnic areas nestled into the surrounding beauty. You are guaranteed to see nearly all varieties of Arizona cactus as you hike the peak as well as other local plants like palo verde and mesquite trees as well as creosote and sage shrubs. On the fauna side of things you can run into anything from coyotes and foxes to owls, hawks and rabbits. Probably one of the biggest hazards to be aware of is the rattlesnake, especially when the weather is cooler and they come out onto the trail to warm up in the sun. There are also gila monsters in the area although I have never run across one. One special note in this hiking area is the children’s trail, called 220A. It’s a great way for kids to explore alongside you.
All trailhead parking areas and roadways are open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. For trailheads that close at sunset, closure will be sunset or 7 p.m. whichever, comes first. Though gated parking areas, restrooms and ramadas close at 7 p.m., the trails themselves remain open until 11 p.m. (of course if you didn’t walk there and the roadway is closed this might not do you any good). Enjoy this jewel of a hiking area in the heart of the city!
Phoenix Mountains Recreation Area (main Piestewa Peak access)
2701 E. Squaw Peak Drive
For hikes 6-10 visit our page on Top 10 Hikes in Phoenix numbers 6-10