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Where can you hike in the Sonoran Desert if you are staying at a Scottsdale resort? Of the 320 miles (515 kilometers) of hiking trails in Phoenix and Scottsdale Arizona, more than 60 miles (97 kilometers) are in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Hikers on trail
Hikers on trail
Photo: Scottsdale CVB

The Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau publishes a free Desert Discovery Guide, which you can download from their website. It lists Sonoran Desert trails and provides their degree of difficulty, from the easiest paved trails to extremely difficult rocky hikes.

Hiking information

The trail guide specifies entrance fees (if charged), elevation changes and trail obstacles, such as large rocks. For each hiking trail near Phoenix and Scottsdale, the booklet lists access points near the trailheads, with parking, hours open, trail lengths and availability of restrooms and water.

Especially helpful are the notes with highlights of each Sonoran Desert hiking trail. For example, an overlook on the Lost Dog Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve offers a view of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West.

McDowell Sonoran Preserve maps

An insert in the Scottsdale AZ guide features hiking trail maps for McDowell Sonoran Preserve. For each of the 31 Sonoran hikes, it lists the trail length, difficulty rating and change in elevation.

Cacti and wildflowers on rocky trail
Cacti and wildflowers on rocky trail
Photo: Scottsdale CVB

These Sonoran trails range from the shortest, Mesquite Canyon Trail at 0.2 miles (0.3 kilometers) long, one-way, to the longest hike in the McDowell Preserve, Tom's Thumb Trail, which is five miles (eight kilometers) in length, each way.

How difficult are the hikes?

Difficulty ratings include wheelchair-accessible (Bajada Trail), easy (Saguaro Trail), moderate (Lost Dog), moderately difficult (Prospector), difficult (Thompson Peak Rd) and extremely difficult (East End).

Trail elevation change is as low as 26 feet (eight meters) for the Mesquite Canyon hike to as great as 1,614 feet (484 meters) for the Thompson Peak Rd Trail.

Symbols indicate which hikes are only accessible from other Scottsdale trails.

Sonoran Preserve trails

A McDowell Sonoran Preserve trail map includes trailhead addresses, location of emergency markers on sign posts, hiking trail distances, scenic viewpoints, parking spots and warnings. For example, the Quartz Trail map notes the point beyond which you need a State Land Department Recreation Permit, along with the phone number to obtain one (602-542-2119).

Gila woodpecker on saguaro cactus
Gila woodpecker on saguaro cactus
Photo: Scottsdale CVB

In addition, the booklet features two detailed trail maps. The Gateway Area map shows trails in this area (e.g., Horseshoe Trail), scenic points, such as Gateway Saddle, as well as the location of the Gateway Amphitheater and an equestrian bypass trail for horseback riders.

The Tom's Thumb Area map shows distances and emergency markers for hikes, such as the Marcus Landslide Trail. The map also notes where water is unavailable and where horses and bikes can't go.

Desert wildlife

The Discovery Guide provides information about Sonoran Desert cacti and plants, including the giant saguaro and creosote.

It also describes Sonoran Desert birds, such as Gila woodpeckers and cactus wrens. Photos and descriptions identify animals that you can see in the Sonoran Desert (e.g., desert tortoises and western banded geckos).

Guided hikes

Several Scottsdale resorts offer easy access to Sonoran hiking trails. The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, for example, offers a hiking and kayaking program and a McDowell Mountains high traverse hike, in conjunction with Arizona Outback Adventures.

Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort, W Scottsdale and the Montelucia Resort and Spa are located near Camelback Mountain, another popular place to go hiking. The Sonoran Desert Discovery Guide provides information about Camelback Mountain hiking trails, including Cholla Summit, Bobby Rock and Ramada Loop.

Cholla Trail hikes from Sanctuary Resort

Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa offers guests a 2-to-2.5-hour Bike and Hike program every Saturday on Camelback Mountain's Cholla Trail. Participants bike to the trailhead from Sanctuary Resort.

A guide accompanies intermediate hikers on a walk to the Cholla saddle. Hikers can also book private guided tours to the Cholla Trail summit with Sanctuary's fitness staff.

Apache Trail hikes from The Boulders

The Boulders Resort offers regional learning adventures. Guests can view saguaro cacti from the Apache Trail or go on hikes to see Native American ruins and pottery artefacts.

Guides leading McDowell Sonoran Conservancy's monthly Discovery Hikes help hikers identify Sonoran birds and medicinal plants, and learn about desert geology, ecology and desert architecture.

Cacti and wildflowers in McDowell Sonoran Preserve
Cacti and wildflowers in McDowell Sonoran Preserve
Photo: Scottsdale CVB
Best time for hiking

The Discovery Guide includes information about Sonoran Desert weather. For each season, it lists high and low temperatures and amount of rainfall.

Climate information includes variation between day and night temperatures, as well as details on Sonoran Desert animals, plants and birds that you can see during the spring, summer, fall and winter seasons.

For example, the best time to see Sonoran Desert wildflowers is during spring (February 16 to April 30). Saguaro cacti bloom between mid-May and mid-June.

Favorite months for hiking in Scottsdale are February to April and November to January. During Scottsdale's hot summer months, it's best to start hiking when it is cool, as early as 4 am. One of the most popular hikes in Scottsdale is the climb up Pinnacle Peak at sunrise.


Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau