Waterfall in the White Tank Mountains

The White Tank Mountains: Waterfall In The Desert

The oldest mountains in the greater Phoenix area, the White Tank Mountains flank the city in the west. Filled with ridges and canyons, the mountain range rises up to 4,000 feet above the surrounding desert.

Heavy, torrential rains cause flash flood areas the desert is notorious for. Though infrequent, these flash floods formed a series of depressions in this area in the white granite rock below called tanks, giving the mountain range its name.

A Visit to the White Tank Mountains Regional Park

Close to 30,000 acres make up the White Tank Mountains Regional Park, making it one of the largest in Maricopa County. One of the many nature preserves in and around Phoenix, the park offers great ways to experience the desert environment. Offering everything from easy strolls to strenuous hikes, many hiking trails crisscross the park in every direction,

The Nature Center: Sustainability in the Desert

But before hitting any of the trails, the best way to start a day trip to the White Tank Mountains Regional Park is a stop at the Nature Center. You’ll find plenty to learn about being eco-friendly here. The building and its surroundings offer one of the best examples of green, sustainable construction.

Built from recycled construction debris, the building’s rooftop is filled with solar panels that produce most of its energy. Even the parking lot is paved with decomposed, compressed granite. And if you examine the building, you’ll understand that its design help shield the windows from the summer heat, while its reflective roof coating reduces the heat inside.

Driving through the Park

After a stop at the Nature Center, we drove into the park. The scenic road took us into some of the most beautiful desert vistas, a world away from the city. We passed more trailheads that we imagined possible in this area. To make navigating the area better, the road is separated into different sections, with trailheads in all of them.

Besides hiking, most of the trails are great (and used) for mountain biking and horseback riding. Campsites offer the opportunity for overnight stays within the park’s boundaries. Most of the trails are multi-use, though the park also offers a few pedestrian-only trails.

view from the trail. photo by EGy
Desert view from the Waterfall Trail. Photo credit: Egyed Győző

The best-known and most popular trail in the White Tank Mountains is the Waterfall Trail. After all, who wouldn’t want to hike to a waterfall in the desert? Even if that waterfall is only seasonal.

The Waterfall Trail

A two-mile roundtrip hike (stroll really), the waterfall trail showcases different varieties of cacti and rocks, sometimes filled with petroglyphs. But most people hike it for the seasonal waterfall at the end.

The fact that we even call this trickle a waterfall speaks volumes about the desert environment. Most of the year, you won’t even see any kind of waterfall here. But if you go shortly after rain, you’ll see water falling down from the cliff. At least a trickle. Only after torrential rain, you’ll find it as a real waterfall, the kind you imagine when you hear the word.

Even without the actual waterfall, this is a pleasant hike, especially during the inter and shoulder seasons. If you happen to see the waterfall it is the icing on the cake.

Living in the Valley of the Sun, we knew we would only see the waterfall after rain. So, we drove out to the White Tank Mountains a few days after it rained.

It wasn’t the usual downpour, instead we had a slow rain that lasted all day, a type of rain we don’t see often in the desert, called female rain by the Diné. My brother was visiting, and we thought we could impress him with a waterfall in the desert.

After a full day of the slow rain we hoped we’d see water at the end of the trail. We were right. Though it wasn’t much more than a trickle, the waterfall that gave the trail its name was there, dropping from the high rocks into the small pool below.

Waterfall in the White Tank Mountains, Phoenix, AZ
The waterfall in the White Tank Mountains after a soft desert rain.

Walking the Trail

My brother, who was visiting us from Romania, had never seen rain in Phoenix and its surroundings. Last time he was here, the desert was its usual brown, with barely any patches of color. Now, since he was here when it rained, we wanted to take the opportunity and take him to see an unexpected waterfall in the desert.

We started out on a paved area of the trail, an easy stroll through some beautiful desert scenery people visiting Phoenix don’t expect to find.

The Waterfall trail in the White Tank Mountains. photo by Egyed Győző
The trail starts out with a short paved area. Photo credit: Egyed Győző

Desert Vegetation after Rain

Everywhere we looked, the desert was green and full of life. Even the normally bare rocks had enough vegetation growing on them to look green.

Desert vista in the White Tank Mountains.
The desert was green a few days after the rain.

The giant saguaros, symbols of the Southwest and the Sonoran Desert, filled with water showed off their true shapes at their best. This amazing cactus expands like an accordion during rain while it fills up with water. Since it stores all this water, it can live through long periods of drought, though in the dry season it gets skinnier with its thorn-filled ribs closer to each other.

photo by EGy
Saguaros in the White Tank Mountains. photo credit: Egyed Győző

Reaching a height of up to 40 feet high and living around 200 years, saguaros grow slow. They take about 20-50 years to reach the height of three feet (one meter). Their growth depends on their location, sun, and rain at the site they live in. They may grow their first side arm around the time they are between 75-100 years old, though some never grow any. So, generally, if you see a saguaro with at least one of its characteristic arms, it is at least 75 years old.

Saguaro and desert vegetation on the trail in the White Tank Mountains.
This saguaro might be around 100-150 years old.

Ironwood, palo verde, different varieties of cholla and hedgehog cacti dotted the landscape. Flowering brittlebush added splashes of yellow to the landscape. And thanks to the creosote bush the unmistakable scent of the desert after rain surrounded us.

Ancient Petroglyphs in the White Tanks

Petroglyphs abound in the White Tank Mountains, most of them the work of the Hohokam, ancient people who lived in the desert in and around Phoenix.

Ancient petroglyphs on the Waterfall Trail

The Waterfall at the End of the Trail

An easy stroll, the Waterfall Trail is only one mile long, so we were at the end of the trail in a short time. In the shadow of high granite rocks, we found water in the desert. A small pool formed at the bottom of the seasonal waterfall.

photo by EGy
We reached the end of the trail. photo credit: Egyed Győző

Even without the water, the rocks are spectacular, worth the short hike. During a warmer day, the area offers some shade and cooler temperatures.

And even if I wouldn’t call this water running down the rocks a waterfall in any other area, in the desert, it deserves its name.

photo by EGy
The waterfall. Photo credit: Egyed Győző

If you go… FAQ

Where is the White Tank Mountain Regional Park?

The White Tank Mountains and the park are west of the greater Phoenix area in Arizona, about an hour’s drive from the city.

How to get to the White Tank Mountain Regional Park?

You can reach the park from highways 101 then Northern, or from the new highway 303. Follow the brown signs from either highway. Or follow your GPS to their address at 20304 W White Tank Mountain Road, Waddell, AZ, 85355

Opening hours, entry fees

The White Tank Mountain Regional Park is open from 6 am to 8 pm Sunday – Thursday and till 10 pm Friday and Saturday. You’ll need to pay a fee at the entrance gate, per vehicle, depending on what type of transportation you use. For a passenger car, it is $7/day.

How to get to the Waterfall Trail in the White Tanks?

Follow the main road into the park, till you reach Zone 6, where you’ll see signs for the Waterfall Trail parking lot. Picnic tables are also available at the entrance.

How long is the Waterfall Trail?

The entire trail is one mile to the waterfall, for a roundtrip of two miles. The first part of the trail is paved, wheelchair accessible. The rest is still an easy, packed trail, a stroll through the desert.

What else is there to do in the White Tank Mountain Park?

Besides hiking, the White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers opportunities for camping, picnicking, horseback riding, mountain biking.

Things to remember when hiking in the desert

No matter the season, always carry water when hiking in the desert, wear a hat, and sunscreen.

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On the Waterfall Trail in the White Tanks
Hiking the Waterfall Trail in the White Tank Mountains, Arizona
Hiking in the White Tank Mountains - The Waterfall Trail

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