Phoenix Hikes: McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Thompson Peak McDowell Mountains

Over the weekend, I headed up to the McDowell Mountains Sonoran Preserve.
The McDowell Mountains are a beautiful mountain range covered in the typical vegetation of the Sonoran Desert. Ocotillo, Mesquite, Palo Verde, Cholla Cactus, and of course Saguaro. This was my second time to Scottsdale’s 30,000+ acre preserve. With over 130 trails to hike, there is a lot of ground to cover! I decided to do a bit of trail running this time, taking only a small Osprey pack that I had recently found at a local thrift shop. The inclines of the trail really kicked my butt, forcing me to spend a good amount of time walking to catch my breath. I began at the Gateway trail head and followed the Gateway Loop trail East. Instead of taking the whole loop, I turned onto Bell Pass Trail.

McDowell Mountains Preserve Map

This trail climbed and climbed, finally ascending a wonderful pass after which it is named. Views from the pass were stunning. I descended the Northern side of Bell Pass and turned onto a short side trail. This led me to Thompson Peak Rd. Thompson peak has radio towers on its summit and this “road” services them. The ridiculously steep ascent makes it easy to see why they needed to pave the way for vehicles. Even still, the pavement is old, cracked, and washed away in places. I honestly can’t imagine driving a vehicle up or down it. Ignoring the signs of exposure to radio waves and whatnot, I completed the climb and rested at the peak under the towers. I silently enjoyed a beautiful view of Northern Scottsdale, munching on a granola bar. The way back to the car was long and my spurts of running were short. I ended up covering a total of about 15 miles of trail; I’d consider that a pretty good day.

Edit on 4/21/2015:

Since this trip, I have been back to the McDowell Mountains several times. I recently discovered the Northern part of the park when I climbed Tom’s Thumb and The Lookout. When my parents visited last May, we went on a short jaunt along Bell Pass Trail. To our thrill, the saguaros were in full bloom. This icon of the Sonoran desert really produces some amazing flowers. And in bunches too! Like with all cacti, the irony of something so harsh producing something so beautiful is incredible to me. On this particular trip we didn’t venture all that far, it was already above 100 degrees, but we did enjoy the solitude of the preserve and the desert. Whether planning on a lengthy hike, or a quick trip, the McDowell Mountains Sonoran Preserve has something for everyone. It is honestly my favorite getaway in the Phoenix area. I enjoy the trails and the atmosphere of the quiet desert. While harsh at times, the desert is also a very delicate ecosystem; one of extreme contrasts and beauty!

Saguaro Bloom McDowell Mountains

How to get there:

The McDowell Mountains are located in Northern Scottsdale. Take the 101 North and and get off on E Raintree Drive (exit 36). Turn left onto Thompson Peak Parkway and right onto E McDowell Foothills Drive.


The preserve is free to the public. The main access areas are the Gateway and Tom’s Thumb. The Gateway is the easiest of the two to get to.

Park Map:

While they do give you one at the visitor center, you can also print off your own here.

Written by Jake G

I’m a 26 year old who loves to hike, bike, backpack, and explore the outdoors. I’m a Midwesterner who currently resides in sunny Arizona. I hope to inspire others with my adventures and maybe give some advice for your future vacations. Follow me as I travel around the country and...
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