11 Great Winter Hikes in the Desert, in the Middle of Phoenix
Desert in the middle of the City
There is no better place to be outdoors in the winter than the desert. Especially the Sonoran Desert in the American Southwest.
Although it is one of the biggest cities in the US, Phoenix is a great place for hikers in the winter. You'll find more trails within the city boundaries that you would think possible, trails for hikers of all abilities.
From easy strolls among tall saguaros or riparian areas, to strenuous climbs up steep mountain slopes, you can find it all, with easy access from the city.
But do not attempt to go for even a short hike in the summer. With temperatures constantly over 100 degrees, it is far from safe to be out there. Wait for the winter, or late fall, when it is safe and pleasant. Still, don't forget to carry water, put on sunscreen and wear a hat. Even though temperatures are perfect, it is still a dry desert, and the sun is strong, especially midday.
The following spots are only a few of the easy access points from the city to some of the best hiking trails in the desert.
1. Echo Canyon Trail on Camelback Mountain
Camelback Mountain is considered one of the top hiking destinations in the country and it attracts visitors from around the world. Echo Canyon Trail is one of the two access points to the summit trail.
It is rated "Extremely Difficult", though most Phoenicians between the ages of ten and fifty hiked it at least once. It is definitely doable if you don't have health problems and are even a bit in shape. During the fall and winter months it gets very crowded, in spite of its difficulty level.
If you attempt it, be well prepared, carry plenty of water. You'll have to deal with steep elevation gain, rugged terrain, harsh elements of the desert. But if you make it to the top, you are rewarded with a beautiful view of the surrounding city. And even if you only hike a little into it, you'll have a great experience and beautiful views of the desert surroundings.
Be aware that in the winter months the parking lot may be full, and when it is, they close the gate. If you experience this, go out to town and come back later. Weekdays and afternoons are generally less crowded.
Trail head: 4925. E. McDonald Dr.
Difficulty: Strenuous/Extremely Difficult
Length: 1.2 miles
Elevation gain: 1,400 feet
2. Cholla Trail on Camelback Mountain
The Cholla Trail summits Camelback Mountain from a different direction.
Cholla Trail is similar to Echo Canyon Trail, it is just as steep, and strenuous. And just as rewarding.
Public parking is limited at this trailhead, and you might still run into great crowds.
Try to go on weekdays, when it gets less crowded. It also seems to get less hikers in the early afternoons. You can bike to the trailhead if you park a few street away, or carpool with friends, so you deal with less vehicles.
I haven't hiked Camelback Mountain in years, because of the crowds it attracts. Though it is a famous landmark of Phoenix, and a great hike, if you get frustrated about parking, or crowds, you have many other options for great desert hikes in the city.
Trail head: 6131 E. Cholla Ln.
Difficulty: Strenuous/Extremely Difficult
Length: 1.5 miles
Elevation gain: 1,420 feet
3. Kiwanis Trail in South Mountain Park
South Mountain Park Preserve is not only the largest in the city, but also the largest wilderness area within city limits in the country. 51 miles of trails crisscross this wilderness that encompasses about 16,000 acres.
The Kiwanis Trail is one of the shortest and easiest in the park, perfect for hikers of all levels. It offers a perfect introduction to desert mountain hiking to those new to this environment. The trail goes through a rock canyon filled with Sonoran Desert plants and animals.
Trail head: 10919 S. Central Ave. Park Entrance
Length: 1.0 mile
Elevation gain: 480 feet
4. Desert Classic Trail in South Moutain Park
For serious hikers, I mean those who want to hike long distances, the Desert Classic Trail offers the perfect challenge.
Trail head: 4502 E. Pima Canyon Road. Pima Canyon Trailhead, left.
Length: 9.0 miles
Elevation gain: 270 feet
5. Mormon Trail in South Mountain Park
One of the more popular trails in South Mountain Park is the Mormon Trail. It is listed as moderate/difficult, but it is feasible for most hikers. It gets steep in some places, but pretty flat in most.
You can take it to the National Trail then to one of the ends of Hidden Valley. At the West end of Hidden Valley you'll come across "Fat Man's Pass", and a smooth rock "slide". Follow the wash trail to a small cliff and turn left, then you'll walk through a natural tunnel. This exits the National Trail, then follow the loop back to the Mormon Trail. You'll see quite a few petroglyph along the way.
Trail head: 8610 S. 24th Street
Length: 1.1 miles
Elevation gain: 720 feet
6. Holbert Trail in South Mountain Park
If you want a more difficult, more vertical hike, you have the option to take Holbert Trail. It climbs steadily to the higher elevations of South Mountain Park.
The extension trail leads to Dobbins Lookout, where you are rewarded with a great view of the valley.
Trail head: 10919 S. Central Ave. The Park entrance.
Length: 2.5 miles
Elevation gain: 1,100 feet
7. Hole-in-th-Rock Trail in Papago Park
Another one of the most recognizable spots in Phoenix, The Hole-In-The-Rock Butte is across from the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden.
The Hole-in-the-rock Trail is a very short walk that wraps around the hole-in-the-rock and offers a great view through the rock of the surrounding city.
It is another very popular trail for locals and visitors alike.
Trail head: 625 N. Galvin Pkwy. The Papago Visitor Center
Length: 0.2 miles
Elevation gain: 200 feet
8. The Dreamy Draw Nature Trail
The trails in the Dreamy Draw area are some of my favorites. They offer great desert hike experiences, with less crowds.
One of the easiest trails in Dreamy Draw area is the Nature Trail. It is a short loop trail, perfect for kids, and it offers a great desert experience. You might see wildlife, mostly rabbits and coyotes, even an occasional rattle snake. As long as you are quiet around them, and don't startle them or step on them, rattles don't bother you.
In the spring it is a great place for desert flowers. The loop trail also offers great views of the Piestewa Peak.
Trail head: 2421 E. Northern Ave
Length: 1.5 miles.
Elevation gain: 180 feet
9. Piestewa Peak Summit Trail
The Piestewa Peak Summit Trail is a favorite of locals, and well known in hiking communities all over the world. It is short, but steep, and incorporates many switchbacks. The summit rewards those who make it with a great view of Phoenix.
Trail head: 5994 E. Squaw Peak Drive
Length: 1.2 miles
Elevation gain: 1,200 feet
10. Charles M. Christiansen Memorial Trail at North Mountain
This is the longest trail in North Mountain Preserve, but it is not extremely difficult. The trail offers great views of Shaw Butte and North Mountain. Between February-April it is a great place for wildflower viewing.
Trail head: 12950 N. 7th Street. North Mountain Visitor Center
Length: 10.7 miles
Elevation gain: 790 feet
11. Lookout Mountain Summit Trail
Lookout Mountain is mostly known only to locals, and it gets fewer hikers. If you want some solitude in the desert, in the middle of Phoenix, this is one of the best places for it.
The trail goes up to the top of Lookout Mountain, where you have a view of the surrounding area of the city.
Trail head: 15600 North 16th Street
Length: 0.6 miles
Elevation gain: 474 feet
You'll Find Many More Trails to Hike in the Desert in the Middle of the City
I only highlighted a few of the trails that criss-cross the Sonoran Desert in Phoenix, Arizona. You'll find many more, some starting from the same trail heads I mentioned.
Another access point for easy, flat trails is the Reach 11 Recreation Area in North Phoenix. You'll even be able to hike to a riparian area (a pond in the middle of the desert).
Deem Hills Recreation Area, in Northwest Phoenix, West of I-17 off Deer Valley Road, also offers lots of hiking opportunities. You'll walk on black rocks and enjoy a variety of desert vegetation.
You'll find easy, flat trails in the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area, with access from a few different points on 7th Street, Central Ave, 7th Ave. These trails offer a glimpse into the desert life around ponds and river channels.
The Sonoran Preserve, on the far Northeast side of Phoenix offers a variety of trails, from easy to difficult, through beautiful desert vistas.
All of these preserves within the city limits include more than 41,000 acres and over 200 miles of trails, with over forty access points. You'll find something for any level of hiking, from difficult summit hikes to easy walks through riparian areas. Considering that in the late fall, winter and early spring the weather in Phoenix is perfect, there is no excuse to not take a walk, a hike in the surrounding desert. If you do, you'll fall in love with this environment, just like I did years ago.