As spring makes a quick appearance in Arizona, the days for camping and hiking are perfect (and numbered).
Luckily, there are tons of places in the Valley where you can take advantage of the natural beauty, gorgeous weather, and off-the-beaten path hikes. Here are just 10 of our favorites:
10. Usery Mountain's Wind Cave Trail The 1.6-mile trail is fairly easy; it's the most popular hike in the area. There are few rough spots where you have to navigate over some big rocks, but the gentle grade (only 820 feet) and long switchbacks make, at least the first half, a big piece of $6 cake. The second half begins to climb up the rock's face toward the cave. (In the morning it's almost completely in the shade, which is a nice refresher.) And to top it off, along the way, hikers can trot along to the soothing sounds of nature -- the wind rolling over the desert floor, bees buzzing, birds chirping ... the occasional round of gun shots (thanks to the shooting range, of course).
9. Pinnacle Peak Pinnacle Peak trail is for tourists -- the well-manicured trail is lined with an almost unnatural variety of desert plant species, which are all labeled, and is heavily traveled by people...in jeans. (Note: If you can hike in jeans, you're not really hiking.) The trail head features a concession stand-type information booth and fancy bathrooms, too. The good thing is that most of the "tourists" stop before the trail gets difficult, so the runners, which there are a lot of, and the more serious hikers can continue in relative peace. The 4-mile round trip hike takes a little more than an hour.
8. Nature Trail at Piestawa Peak The nature trail can be a little trickier than it sounds, but when in doubt, hikers can always find a perch and look around for the informational plaques -- they are bright turquoise and can be spotted from a decent distance. They indicate the general direction you want to head and pass along useful trivia information. As you march along the path, read about teddy bear cholla (the jumping cholla's fuzzy-looking cousin), saguaros (they grow an arm after 75 years, not 100), and ocotillo (this is a succulent, not a cactus). If you're like us, by the end, you'll be wishing for more plaques.
7. Desert Foothills/Telegraph Pass/National East Phoenix's South Mountain is known for its extensive trail system; even if you start at the same place every time you go hiking, you can end up taking five different trails to the top. The mountain's Desert Foothills Trailhead provides an easy start -- a wide, paved, flat surface. But it quickly breaks off into two directions: up to Telegraph Pass Trail and flat along the Desert Classic Trail. Telegraph Pass is steep, but easy enough because it's rather short. About halfway up, there's a small turnoff where you can see a few petroglyphs. Once you reach the top of Telegraph Pass, which dumps you out next to Summit Road, you can head left toward National West Trail or right toward National East Trail. Either completes a 15.5-mile loop.
6. Dreamy Draw Trails Dreamy Draw Trails is part of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, northwest of Piestawa Peak, and is perfect for a whimsical wander through the desert. Get there by taking the 51 to Northern Avenue and heading east. After the gate, the road will twist around for a bit until you reach the large parking lot that is heavily populated with all walks of life...and we mean all of them. Take the stairs from the parking lot, past the ramada to the wide, paved sidewalk that runs along the east side of the lot and heads north for almost two miles. Walk along the path, and you'll come across many tiny entries into the park along the east side. Just pick one and start trekking.
5. Picacho Peak Fair warning, Picacho Peak is not for the faint of heart. The trail's a mere 4 miles, but the hike will kick your ass. But if you're in for a challenge, pay the $7 at the gate and go nuts. The hike's Hunter Trail leads to Sunset Vista Trail, which takes hikers to the top of the mountain. Fair warning: The hike involves a little cable climbing on a system created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1932 to service a light beacon on the summit. The light beacon is no longer there, but a number of stretches still have the 78-year-old trail supports. Picacho Peak takes about three to four hours, and the summit is 3370 ft. Our hiker's tip: Bring gloves. And Kleenex.
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4. Go John Trail It's hard to pay for hiking, but sometimes it's unavoidable (and the $6 entrance fee here is totally worth it). Such is the case with Cave Creek Recreation Area, home to a number of moderate to easy trails, picnic areas, campgrounds, a nature center, and a ton of plants and animals. Go John is a 5.8-mile loop trail that overlaps the shorter, but more popular Overton Trail, which hosts many horserides and mountain bikers. It's moderately difficult due only to the length; it took about two hours to complete the loop.
3. Lookout Mountain The mountain offers a three-mile circumference trail or a one-mile summit trail (or a combo of the two if you're feeling ambitious). We went for the summit. Start on #308 and take a left at the fork to follow #150 to the top. Just a few steps after the turn, your ass will haul up some rocky switchbacks that don't let up. After reaching the saddle, things get steeper, and light scrambling is required. Keep on the trail by following the white spray paint marks on the rocks. Unless you're in super-duper great shape, the summit trail will get your heart pumping for a healthy 20 to 30 minutes straight. It's perfect if you're short on time and want to make the most of your outing. Not to mention, the view is fantastic. Aptly named, the mountain sits alone, north of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve and west of Shadow Mountain. With the other mountains so far away, a 360 degree view of the valley is unobstructed.
2. Quartz Ridge Trail Also known as Trail 8A in the Phoenix Mountain preserve, Quartz Ridge Trail begins at a teeny, tiny trailhead located on the northeast corner of 32nd Street and Lincoln Drive in Phoenix. It's an up and back two-mile jaunt with great views that takes about an hour, depending on your fitness level. The surrounding slopes are littered with white boulders of quartz. This trek is just one entryway into the vast spider-webby system of trails that makes the Phoenix Mountain Preserve such a gem. The hike starts with a hefty warm up of a relatively flat, wide trail that spans at least half a mile. The remainder is a quick, steep jaunt to the ridge, where the tangle of hiking trails to the north are visible. It's a great social hike as you can easily keep a conversation going throughout most of the walk. The traffic is always light, and dogs are welcome.
1. Sunrise Trail at McDowell Mountains The McDowell Mountains may be in the middle of the city, but when you're at the top, you can still soak in a good dose of landscape and seclusion. The mountain's Sunrise Trail is one of the more popular trails and cuts through the south area of the range. The trail's 4.4 miles long with a 1,300 climb in elevation, which loosely translates to a seriously awesome hike. In this area, all things begin or end at the Lost Dog Wash Trailhead; get there with a good pair of shoes, and you're ready to hike.