By Jeff Ficker
January 20, 2015
Niebrugge Images / Alamy

Some landscapes just beg to be explored on foot. Arizona’s mountainous Sonoran Desert is one of those remarkable places, where the subtleties of spiny cactus and quick-footed wildlife hiding from the sun belie a diverse and richly complex ecosystem. Not that the immense scale of the desert won’t awe you. One hike up any of the trails below, and you’ll be confronted with mammoth, millennia-old geological wonders and panoramic views.

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The Phoenix-Scottsdale area offers numerous hiking options, from family-friendly paved trails to strenuous treks for elite athletes and extreme-sport junkies. (For the record, my own hiking preferences fall squarely in the former.) Whatever your athletic prowess, it’s important to exercise extreme caution when hiking the Arizona desert. The dry climate and extreme temperatures can be deceptively brutal, and more than a few visitors (and even residents) have underestimated their physical toll. Be sure to bring lots of water on any hike; it really is a matter of life and death.

Camelback Mountain

The kneeling camel profile of this red sandstone and granite mountain is the city’s most beloved icon—and a challenging, must-climb destination for hikers. Two summit trails ascend the mountain: the Echo Canyon Summit Trail, which starts at the “camel’s head” (you can even make out the eyelash) and the less-crowded Cholla Trail. Steep, rocky terrain and slick patches make this a difficult hike.

McDowell Sonoran Preserve

With more than 100 miles of trails, this 30,000-acre preserve offers a variety of hiking experiences. Trailside volunteers can help you select from the six trailheads and multiple routes, from the popular Gateway Trail Loop and scenic Fraesfield to challenging Tom’s Thumb. If you’d like to learn more about the Sonoran Desert and its unique ecosystem, join one of the guide group hikes.

Pinnacle Peak Park

The unique granite formations of Pinnacle Peak in north Scottsdale make this one of the area’s most picturesque hikes—not to mention the towering saguaros, abundant wildlife, and spectacular views of Scottsdale and Phoenix. The moderately difficult, but relatively short (1.75-mile) trail is great option for most hikers. Experienced rock climbing should bring the gear.

Piestewa Peak

This is one of the most popular hiking spots among Phoenicians. The moderately difficult trek up Piestewa’s Summit Trail takes less than hour and rewards climbers with city views and up-close encounters with jackrabbit, lizards, palo verde and mesquite trees, and dozens of types of cactus. Late evenings, it’s not uncommon to see the flashlights of night hikers.

Papago Park

This rounded, red-hued butte is a Phoenix landmark—though the real treat comes with a short, easy trek up the sandstone formation. The mountain unique “holes,” which were formed by water erosion over millions of years were important sites for ancient Native American people, especially Hole-in-the-Rock, a natural formation through which you can survey the city.