Outdoors in Phoenix: 10 Easy-Access Sites Into the Desert


Although temperatures reach 120 degrees in the middle of the summer, and it is a dry heat, there is plenty of vegetation and wildlife in the Sonoran Desert. Even if you live in the middle of the city in Phoenix, in the winter and early spring months you have plenty of opportunities to spend time outdoors.

The city has preserved quite a few wilderness areas, where hikers, mountain-bikers, and horse riders enjoy a few hours or up to a day feeling far from the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life. With more than 180 miles of trails in the untouched desert, Phoenix is one of the best hiking cities in the US. The mountain parks and desert preserves are scattered throughout the city, easily accessible from many different places.

1. South Mountain Park Preserve is the largest park in the city, and one of the largest in the country, with about 16,000 acres of wilderness. There are two entrances to the park, and you can drive through it on a scenic road to enjoy the views. Hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders of different abilities can find a stretch of the extensive 51 miles of trails. You not only have the opportunity to see desert wildlife, but also numerous sites of rock art of the Hohokam scattered through cliffs in the park.

2. Camelback Mountain and the surrounding Echo Canyon Recreation Area is the best known preserve in Phoenix, located close to the center of the city. It is the busiest, and most crowded, especially in the winter and spring, when the weather is perfect. Everyone who lives here and likes to hike, summits it at least once, and just about every visitor to the city walks its trails. You'll never find yourself alone in here, but if you avoid the weekends, and early afternoons during weekdays, you might see fewer visitors.

3. Papago Park is one of the most recognizable landmarks of Phoenix, with its unique sandstone buttes. Its desert trails are smooth and easy to walk on, and it includes a few recreation facilities, like exercise course and fishing ponds. The Phoenix Zoo, as well as the Phoenix Botanical Garden are part of this preserve. Another landmark, visible from just about every point of the park, is the while pyramid tomb of Arizona's first Governor, George Wiley Paul Hunt.

4. Dreamy Draw Preserve and Piestewa (Squaw) Peak is an easy access park, right off the freeway. Formerly Squaw Peak, and still better known by this name by locals, the peak in the park has been renamed in 2003 after Lori Piestewa, a Hopi soldier, the first Native American woman to die in combat serving in the US Military. Once inside the park, you can enjoy some solitude and quiet in some of the valleys, where even the hum of the close-by freeway disappears. You might have the opportunity to see wildlife, even a rattlesnake. One of them was laying across the trail once when I was there. While my hiking hiking companion and I were trying to figure out how to get around it, the snake slowly started slithering away. All we had to do was wait for it to cross. Rattlesnakes are harmless if left alone, but be aware of them at any time while you are hiking in the desert. If you see one, make sure you don't startle it.

5. North Mountain Park has an extensive trail system as well. In the recent years they built a Visitor Center here, worth the stop before heading out to any of the trails. Learn about the desert life through educational displays and pick up brochures about the surrounding trails. You have a choice of shorter or much longer trails to enjoy that all start at or go by the visitor center. You can stay on flat surface hiking through the valleys or climb one of the peaks in the park. The trails are great for mountain biking as well, just look out for hikers if you bike.

6. Shaw Butte is part of North Mountain Preserve, accessible from the main entrance, as well as from another, lesser known, entrance, which gets you closer to the butte. The short hike to the top is worth it for the view of the surrounding city, as well as South Mountain and the Estrella Mountains in the distance.

7. Lookout Mountain Preserve is not far from North Mountain, but lower in elevation and less popular. You can often find your self alone there, and have a better chance of spotting wildlife. You might be able to see quails, roadrunners, and hares, even coyotes.

8. Reach 11 Recreation Area is a flat area of the desert, in the Northernmost part of the city. Though not as spectacular as the mountain preserves, it is an easier walk, especially if you are just looking for a quick stroll with younger children. The well-maintained trail system reaches a pond, where a family of ducks live, and is always filled with frogs. The surrounding area is full of vegetation because of this little oasis. We see rabbits, hares, little desert rats and an occasional coyote. Because of the nearby waters the vegetation is different here, the desert is greener, enjoyable in its own right.

9. Deem Hill Recreation Area is located in the NorthWest part of town, and its main characteristics are the black lava rock formations. While hiking the trails here you can enjoy great views of Phoenix area, the Hedgepeth Hills, and the Hieroglyphic and Bradshaw Mountains. It seems to have more vegetation than some of the other areas, with lots of saguaros and other varieties of cacti, and lots of desert wildflowers when they are in season.

10. The Sonoran Preserve is the newest addition to the desert preserve in and around Phoenix, started in 2009, located just North of town.

There are even more wilderness sites in and around Phoenix, I chose only the better known ones. No matter where you are in Metro Phoenix, you are only a few minutes away from an access point into the wilderness, however small or extensive.

During the winter months there is no better place to be in Phoenix than in the surrounding desert. However, in the hotter months, especially in the summer, avoid hiking, or do it in the very early morning hours. Always remember to carry water. It is a dry heat, which makes it feel less uncomfortable, but you get easily dehydrated. Don't forget a hat and sunscreen, no matter when you hike, you are still in the desert. Wear comfortable hiking shoes, since you will most likely encounter rocky areas, unless you plan to stay on well-developed trails. Enjoy the desert for all its beauty.

Emese Fromm has been living in Phoenix for over 20 years. Her work has appeared in publications like InTravel Magazine, Travel thru History, TravelLady, and she blogs about her travels at https://travelsfrommaz.wordpress.com