Peak seeking? Try the McDowell Sonoran Preserve!

McDowell Sonoran Preserve

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak are two of the most popular hikes in the Valley – they are challenging with over 1,000 foot change in elevation, 360-degree views of metro Phoenix and close to home to many valley residents.

But they also present challenges – crowded trails, lack of parking, weekly rescues and Echo Canyon on Camelback Mountain is so steep in parts that there are handrails.

As a Phoenix native having hiked these trails more than I can count, I will state with confidence and at risk of offending Camelback die-hards, that these trails are over-rated.

Did you know there are numerous other hikes in metro Phoenix that provide much of the same pros and fewer of the cons?

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale is home to numerous trails with an elevation gain of over 1,000 feet and a great alternative to Camelback and Piestewa.

The McDowell Mountains are contained within 30,580 acres of land that was acquired by the City of Scottsdale as a means to protect the Sonoran Desert outside of Scottsdale.

There are now over 215 miles of trail used for hiking, rock climbing and mountain biking. Dogs are allowed as long as they are leashed and you (our your dog) pick up their poop!

Here is a quick overview of a few of my picks. Please be sure to do additional research, as this is not meant to be a thorough guide. A good place to start is the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy website.

Tom’s Thumb

This is a well maintained and easy to follow trail. However, compared to other trails in the area, it is gravelly and can get slippery – like hiking on tiny marbles. It is also prone to erode in heavy rains to be sure to watch your step and beware of any trail closures after heavy rains.

(Source: Debbie Hendricks)
(Source: Debbie Hendricks)(Debbie Hendricks)

Tom’s Thumb Trailhead to Tom’s Thumb (4.8 miles round trip) or The Lookout (5 miles round trip). On a good day, you can see Cardinal Stadium from either of these destinations.

Elevation Start – 2,805 feet

Highest Elevation– 3,925 feet at Tom’s Thumb and 3,858 feet at The Lookout

Restrooms, lots of parking but NO water. Trail maps are available at the trailhead – please take one!

The Gateway

This is the main hub of the Preserve with a small visitor’s center, nature trails from short and easy to a network of loops and through hikes all over the Preserve.

This area is a different geologic formation than Tom’s Thumb so expect the trails to be rockier with larger, and sometimes looser, rocks.

There are three great hikes from this trailhead that will get your heart pumping!

(Source: Debbie Hendricks)
(Source: Debbie Hendricks)(Debbie Hendricks)

Gateway Trailhead to Windgate Pass - 7.8 miles out and back Elevation Start – 1,720 feet Highest Elevation– 3,040 feet

Gateway Trailhead to Bell Pass – 7.4 miles out and back Elevation Start - 1,720 ft Highest Elevation– 3,200 ft

Gateway Trailhead to Thompson Peak – 14.6 miles out and back Elevation Start - 1,720 ft Highest Elevation – 3,982 ft Restrooms, lots of parking, water and trail maps.


Probably the most similar to both Camelback and Piestewa Peak in most aspects of terrain, mileage to elevation change and a peak to kick back on with full 360-degree view of the Superstitions, Four Peaks and all of Metro Phoenix.

Sunrise Trailhead - 4 miles out and back Elevation Start - 1,880 feet Highest Elevation – 2,850 feet

No Water, minimal parking, a restroom or two. There are usually maps but I have shown up and they were out.