After four days of eating barbecue brisket sandwiches, drinking prickly pear Margaritas, and lazing by a pool, I do what anyone who’s begrudgingly agreed to go on a sunrise hike in the Arizona desert would do: frantically Google just how much trouble I’m in for. How far? How steep? What if you’ve accidentally skipped leg day for, say, the last six years?
But all the research in the world can’t stop the van filled with fit journalists and fashionable Instagram influencers from rolling up to my cushy Scottsdale resort at 5:00 AM, with the sun still low in the sky, bound for the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
The preserve encompasses more than 30,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert and has several access points, but a 20-minute drive from Old Town Scottsdale (or a half hour from downtown Phoenix) brings you to the Gateway Trailhead. The park is open from sunrise to sunset all year, but early spring is the best time to visit, when the desert is covered in colorful wildflower blooms and temperatures are mild.
For the wildly out of shape, a group hike can be an exercise in self-flagellation, where you’re more focused on being unable to breathe than the supposedly breathtaking views. But a few minutes into the hike, and after a few dozen confirmations with our guide that the terrain isn’t going to change dramatically around the next bend, it becomes clear that this is actually going to be enjoyable.
The gently sloping, crushed granite trail is soft and forgiving, and the ever-changing plant life along the way allows for frequent stops to admire red-blossomed ocotillo, spiny cholla, and towering giant saguaro cacti. A slender trail runner with jacked calves jogs past and quickly disappears into the mountains, and not far behind us, an elderly couple with trekking poles and binoculars is walking at a leisurely pace. All of us are enjoying the same blush pink sunrise over the desert.
It’s rare to find a park where those in peak physical condition can challenge themselves, and those with limited endurance are still rewarded with epic views for their efforts. With seven trailheads and more than 200 miles of trails — many of which are also accessible to mountain bikers and horseback riders and are dog-friendly — the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is truly for everyone.
Locals could come here every weekend to explore a new section of the preserve and always experience something new. You can also join free, steward-led guided hikes or educational talks year round. But if you’re short on time in the Phoenix area and just want to spend one perfect morning hiking the desert, these are the trails you should choose from — no matter your abilities.
As the name would imply, the popular Gateway Trailhead offers the easiest access into the preserve. Anyone looking for a low-impact walk, including those with strollers and wheelchairs, can enjoy the Bajada Nature Trail, a half-mile flat loop that’s close to the parking lot but cleverly designed to still feel immersed in the desert landscape. Signs along the way educate visitors about the desert flora and fauna and keep kids engaged.
If you’re up for a slightly greater challenge, you could hike the relatively flat 1.7-mile Horseshoe Loop or the 4.5-mile Gateway Loop, which has an elevation gain of 650 feet. Despite the relative ease of these trails compared to some of the more intense hikes below, you’ll still have intimate access to the giant saguaros and potential glimpses of scurrying jackrabbits and swooping red-tailed hawks.
Lost Dog Wash Trailhead
The Lost Dog Wash Trailhead is the other most popular access point to the preserve and also has trails for all levels. The Kovach Family Nature Trail is another half-mile flat loop with educational signs emphasizing how communities of plants, animals, and humans all depend on each other to survive and thrive. The Ringtail Trail is an easy 2.4-mile loop with minimal elevation change that’s doable for children, and it could be walked quickly if you have brunch reservations to make in town.
Should the cacti start to feel monotonous, Lost Dog Wash has two trails with unique human history to view along the way. The gradual four-mile out-and-back Taliesin Overlook trail looks down at Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Taliesin West home, which like many of Wright’s creations, was designed to blend into the natural environment. The slightly steeper, four-mile loop Old Jeep Trail has some loose rocky terrain and passes through a WWII-era plane crash site and ancient Native American tool-making sites.
The Sunrise Trail East is only four miles out and back, but the 1150-foot elevation gain feels significant, especially under the desert sun. Take a cue from the trek’s name and arrive while it’s still chilly and the sun is just starting to show itself. If you make good time, you can arrive at Sunrise Peak — one of the only peaks in the park you can summit — in time for stunning views of the morning light washing over the McDowell Mountains.
Tom’s Thumb Trailhead
Lest you think the McDowell Preserve is just for beginners, note that serious hikers can still get their fix at the more isolated Tom’s Thumb Trailhead. You’ll work up a sweat climbing the very steep, 5.1-mile out-and-back trail to Lookout Viewpoint, a cliff considered the best viewpoint in the entire park. Besides the view, you’ll also get to see flora that only grows at this higher elevation along with diverse geological features.
If it isn’t a real hike for you unless you hit double-digit mileage, embark on the Tom’s Thumb East End Loop. The 11-mile loop is very difficult — not only because of its longer length and 2,500-foot elevation gain but also because you’ll have no choice but to be out in the desert when the sun is at its highest. Even though this northern section of the park is cooler than the rest and receives more rainfall, make no mistake, this is still Arizona. Make sure you’re well-provisioned to take on the sun (note there’s no water at this trailhead) and depart from the trailhead as early as possible.
You’re not likely to encounter very many other hikers compared to the other trails, but you will see plenty of undisturbed desert wildlife and one of the only natural springs in the preserve. You’ll also see the eponymous Tom’s Thumb, a massive granite dome that’s one of the highest points in the McDowell Mountain range and a favored destination for rock climbers equipped with the proper gear. The views look to the east, a rather undeveloped part of Phoenix, allowing you to feel like you’re more remote than you actually are and enjoy a sublime moment of solitude.