10 Best Hikes in Metro Phoenix

From mysteries of lost gold and trails leading to bits of history left behind, to summit views that will take your breath away, metro Phoenix is brimming with places to explore. You'll find streams, beautiful canyons, waterfalls, and spectacular views of the city and surrounding desert beauty.

You'll find all that and more hiking these, the 10 best trails the Valley has to offer.

Piestewa Circumference – Freedom Trail #302
Distance: 3.8 miles round trip
Level Of Difficulty: Moderate
Average Time: 1 to 2 hours

While Piestewa Peak is widely known for its ever-popular Summit Trail, the lesser-known Freedom Trail offers a closer look at and a more intimate experience with the desert landscape. Threaded around the base of the peak, this area holds some of the most abundant variety of desert flora in the preserve. Even better, part of this trail syncs up with the Nature Trail, which offers informational plaques detailing various flora.

The trail begins at the north end of the park and will immediately take you across a dry, rocky creek bed, before meeting up with the Freedom Trail Loop. Because this is a circumference hike, you can choose to take either direction. Something to consider, however, is whether you would like a steep climb at the beginning of your hike. If not, take a right at the intersection. At just under four miles, there are some mild elevation gains throughout the hike that typically conclude alongside one of several memorial benches. These are nice opportunities to stop and take in your surroundings: the Phoenix skyline, the peaks around you, or the splendor of a close encounter with some fantastic desert terrain.

Picketpost Mountain
Distance: 4.3 miles round trip
Level Of Difficulty: Difficult
Average Time: 3 to 4 hours

At just under 2,000 feet of elevation gain, this summit hike is one that will keep you coming back for more. It offers a brief jaunt on the Arizona Trail before ascending a series of switchbacks that, in less than one mile, have you looking down toward the Valley floor from 2,800 feet. From here, the trail gets a bit technical as it bends, hugging the cliff walls and crossing precarious ledges before entering a narrow ravine. This section will definitely test your courage (stay focused and just breathe!), and it should be taken with caution.

From the ravine, the trail begins an upward set of switchbacks and some fun boulder-hopping to the upper plateau and finally the summit. Be sure to stop and take in your surroundings as you ascend — it is amazing how quickly the views change. At 4,375 feet, the panorama is nothing less than incredible, from the neighboring Superstition Mountains to Four Peaks and Weaver’s Needle. Not to mention that on a clear day, you'll have a great view of the Catalina Mountains, just north of Tucson. Did we forget to mention that there is a mailbox on top of the mountain? It's a unique trail register for sure, but you’ve probably already heard about that.

Tom’s Thumb
Distance: 4 miles round trip
Level Of Difficulty: Moderate
Average Time: 3 hours

Located in the more secluded northern section of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Tom’s Thumb sits at 140 feet and can be seen throughout most of Scottsdale and the East Valley. Fun fact: This local landmark, previously called "the dork" by local climbers, has since been named for a patriarch of the climbing scene here in Phoenix, Tom Kreuser. But not to worry, you don't need to be a climber to enjoy the sheer wonder of this jutting protrusion.

Within the first half-mile, you'll ascend a steep series of switchbacks. The views are amazing and help in keeping the mind off the work you are putting in. You can look forward to stunning views of Bartlett Lake, Four Peaks, and the Cave Creek Mountains. At the one-mile marker, you are sitting at an impressive 3,680 feet. About a half-mile later, you’ll reach the saddle for another set of outstanding views. Then there's one more half-mile to the ridgeline and a proper view of Tom’s Thumb and its awe-inspiring proportions.

Camelback Mountain's Echo Canyon Trail
Distance: 2.3 miles round trip
Level Of Difficulty: Difficult
Average Time: 2 hours

Camelback Mountain should be hiked at least once in your life. Whether you live here or are just visiting the Valley, this summit hike offers some of the most sought-after panoramic views of Phoenix. Located in the middle of the city, this 1,264-foot climb is an intense taste of wilderness tucked within suburban limits, one that is sure to take your breath away in more ways than one.

That said, throughout much of this hike you will endure sections of scrambling and stair stepping. If this makes you a little skittish, know that handrails have been put in place for assistance if needed. At just under a mile, a false summit comes into view. Now while this may seem like a nasty trick after the cardio you've been putting in, the true summit is mere steps from this, and you will soon be atop the highest peak in Phoenix. Take it in, catch your breath, and enjoy the sights of metro Phoenix — from downtown and South Mountain to Four Peaks, the Superstition Mountains, and Chase Field. This is an absolutely outstanding approach to seeing the entire city.

Hieroglyphic Trail
Distance: 3 miles
Level Of Difficulty: Easy
Average Time: 1.5 hours

This short hike offers spectacular views of the magnificent Superstition Wilderness Area, as well as a prehistoric collection of Hohokam petroglyphs. Located at the base of the Superstition Mountains, this hike is perfect for beginner hikers, families, or anyone looking for a fun, easy hike. The trailhead is shared with the Lost Goldmine Trail, but make your way up a small hill and you will find two wooden signs marking where the trail forks. Stay left and continue toward the mountain.

At around a half-mile, South Mountain, Camelback Mountain, and Sombrero Butte will come into view. Continue another half-mile, and you will be entering Hieroglyphic Canyon; keep along this trail and within about five to 10 minutes you will reach a large rocky area with several small pools of water and scores of Hohokam petroglyphs. You may be wondering why this is not called the Petroglyphs Trail. It seems a misunderstanding on behalf of early miners and settlers is to blame. Hohokams inhabited Central Arizona approximately 800 years ago, leaving behind large numbers of petroglyphs that early settlers mistook as Egyptian hieroglyphics. Thus, your Hieroglyphic Trail.

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Sara Palmer is a local improviser, writer, teacher, and storyteller. You can commonly find her exploring the surrounding wilderness areas of Phoenix.
Contact: Sara Palmer