Whether you’re an extreme-sport junkie or a family with kids in tow, there’s a hike in Scottsdale for you.

By Jeff Ficker and Evie Carrick
Updated July 21, 2020
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Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

Some landscapes just beg to be explored on foot — and Arizona’s mountainous Sonoran Desert is one of those remarkable places. Here, the subtleties of spiny cacti and quick-footed wildlife — plus millennia-old geological wonders and panoramic desert views — are best spotted from your own two feet.

The Phoenix-Scottsdale area offers plenty of hiking options, from family-friendly paved trails to strenuous treks for elite athletes and extreme-sport junkies. But no matter your experience level or how fit you may be, the Arizona desert’s dry climate and extreme temperatures can be deceptively brutal. So, be sure to bring lots of water and sun protection on any hike, as most trails have little shade and can be brutally hot and dry.

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 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 that ends at an impressive 2,704 feet above sea level.

Pinnacle Peak Park

The unique granite formations of Pinnacle Peak in north Scottsdale — not to mention the towering saguaros, abundant wildlife, and spectacular views of Scottsdale and Phoenix — make this one of the area’s most picturesque hikes. The moderately difficult, but relatively short 1.75-mile trail is a great option for hikers who want a little challenge.

Tom’s Thumb Trail

Tom’s Thumb Trail is one of many within the 30,000-acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve — and it also happens to be a hiking favorite. The four-mile out-and-back trail is short, but steep and full of switchbacks. The views of the southern McDowell Mountains and Phoenix are well worth the effort, but you’ll want to bring more than enough water and plenty of sun protection on this grueling shade-free trek.

Piestewa Peak

This is one of the most popular hiking spots among Phoenicians. The moderately difficult trek up the Piestewa Peak Summit Trail takes less than an hour and rewards climbers with city views and up-close encounters with jackrabbits, lizards, palo verde and mesquite trees, and various types of cacti. It’s also not uncommon to see the flashlights of night hikers in the evenings and after dark.

Papago Park

This rounded, red-hued butte is a Phoenix landmark — though the real treat comes after a short, easy trek up the sandstone formation. The mountain's 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.

Gateway Loop Trail

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is home to over 200 miles of trails, but one of the most prominent (and popular) is the Gateway Loop Trail. You’ll find plenty of spring wildflowers on this moderately difficult 4.2-mile loop, and if you want to avoid the crowds (and the heat), plan on an early morning or evening excursion.

Scenic Trail

If you’ve got little ones in tow, the perfect place to hike is Scenic Trail in the sprawling McDowell Mountain Regional Park. The trail doesn’t have too much elevation gain, but it doesn’t skimp on the views either (hence the name). The 4.4-mile loop offers vistas of the Verde River and Superstition Mountains, and is well worth the park’s $7 entrance fee.

Go John Trail

Just north of Phoenix, in the town of Cave Creek, lies the 2,922-acre Cave Creek Regional Park, home to the Go John Trail. The 5.9-mile loop starts with long switchbacks that pass by desert trees and giant saguaro cacti. Around a mile in, you’ll be rewarded with views of downtown Phoenix and the Hieroglyphic Mountains. The trail is accessible year-round, but it’s hard to beat during the spring season, when the desert’s wildflowers start to pop.

Lost Dog Trail

This 4.2-mile out-and-back hike offers visitors a gradual incline along with views of the vast desert and rolling hills. Like most hikes in the area, there’s little to no shade, so plenty of water is a must. Dogs are allowed on the trail — but, as you might guess, must be kept on a leash to avoid any “lost dogs.”