Hiking trails in Phoenix - in the Sonoran Desert Preserve

How to Enjoy a Few of the Best Hiking Trails in Phoenix

I can’t think of many places I’d rather be in the winter than on one of the hiking trails in Phoenix. Home to South Mountain Park, the largest wilderness park within city limits in the US, Phoenix is one of the best hiking cities in the country.

And South Mountain is only one of many wilderness areas in the city. You’ll find more hiking trails in Phoenix, within the city boundaries you would think possible. From easy strolls among tall saguaros or riparian areas to strenuous climbs up steep mountain slopes, they are all easy access from the city.

Winter is the best time to experience these trails. When everywhere else is cold and grey, the desert comes back to life, and the perfect weather offers an opportunity to spend time outdoors.

Although Phoenix is one of the largest metropolitan cities in the country, when we get out on a trail, we can feel miles away from urban development. And this keeps us still in the city, year after year, even as it grows largest by the hour. The wilderness areas offer a respite from the concrete jungle and overcrowded shopping centers.

Hiking trail in the desert in Phoenix, AZ
Hiking trail in the desert in Phoenix

Trails in South Mountain Park

South Mountain Park Preserve is not only the largest in the city but also the largest wilderness area within city limits in the country. 51 miles of trails crisscross this wilderness comprising about 16,000 acres.

The Kiwanis Trail

One of the shortest and easiest in the park, the Kiwanis Trail is perfect for hikers of all levels, offering a perfect introduction to the desert mountain hiking to those new to this environment. The trail goes through a rocky canyon filled with Sonoran Desert plants and animals. Listed as moderate difficulty, the trail is one mile long, with an elevation gain of 480 feet.

The Desert Classic Trail

Serious hikers might want something longer even if not more strenuous. If that’s you, try the Desert Classic Trail instead. Pretty flat, with barely any elevation gain (270 feet), it is long enough at nine miles to make you feel like you are truly in the middle of the desert, miles away from the city.

The Hidden Valley Trail (via Mormon Trail)

One of the most popular trails in South Mountain Park, the 3.6-miles Hidden Valley Trail (via the Mormon Trail) is rated moderate, doable for most hikers. Though it gets steep in some places, it is generally flat, offering a nice stroll through the desert. At just over one mile, it is a short trail, though its elevation gain is 720 feet.

Take the Mormon Trail to the National Trail then to the end of Hidden Valley. At the West end of Hidden Valley, you’ll come across “Fat Man’s Pass”, and a smooth rock “slide”. Follow the wash trail to a small cliff and turn left, then you’ll walk through a natural tunnel. This exits the National Trail, then follow the loop back to the Mormon Trail. You’ll see a few petroglyphs along the way.

The Holbert Trail

For hikers who prefer a more challenging, vertical hike, the Holbert Trail offers the perfect choice. The trail climbs steadily to the higher elevations of South Mountain Park. For a great view of the valley, take the extension trail to Dobbins Lookout. Listed as difficult, the two-and-a-half-mile trail takes you up 1100 feet.

Camelback Mountain Trails

Camelback Mountain is one of the top hiking destinations in the country and it attracts visitors from around the world. The mountain is in the center of Phoenix, and at 2704 feet it’s visible from all areas of downtown. But it’s fame and popularity has a downside: it gets extremely crowded, especially in the winter. But I had to include it, given the fact that it’s such an iconic landmark for hiking trails in Phoenix.

Two trails lead to the top, both a hard climb, do not attempt unprepared. The difference is the trailhead you access them from. You have two choices, the Echo Canyon Trailhead and the Cholla Trailhead. They are similar in difficulty, the difference is in the views from the trails. And the Cholla Trailhead might not be as busy on weekday mornings.

With an elevation gain of 1,400 feet over 1,5 miles, both trails are strenuous, and you need to be prepared to hike them. I see more people getting rescued from hiking this mountain than from any other trail in the city.

Even in the winter, carry plenty of water, use sunscreen and wear a hat. And always stay on the trail. Since you have to deal with steep elevation gain, rugged terrain, harsh elements of the desert, the trail offers safety, at least from falling into rocky crevices. Know your surroundings and your strength. And don’t forget you are in the desert. Even when it’s not hot, it’s always dry (unless it’s raining, but that has other hazards).

Note: As of February 2021, the Cholla Trailhead is closed for maintenance.

Trails in Papago Park

Another one of the most recognizable spots in Phoenix, The Hole-In-The-Rock Butte is across from the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden. Hiking here is a family affair, following some of the easiest trails in the city, nothing strenuous or dangerous.

The Hole-in-the-Rock Trail

A short walk wrapping around the hole-in-the-rock, the trail offers a great view through the rock of the surrounding city. One of the most popular trails in the city for locals and visitors alike, it gets crowded, no matter when you go.

Trails in the Dreamy Draw Area

The trails in the Dreamy Draw area are some of my favorites. They offer great desert hike experiences, in an easy-access, central location.

The Nature Trail

One of the easiest trails in the Dreamy Draw area, the Nature Trail is a short loop, perfect for kids, offering a great desert experience. Though listed as moderate, the mile-and-half trail with an elevation gain of 180 feet, it was a favorite of my kids when they were young, kindergarten through elementary school age.

We almost always saw wildlife, mostly rabbits and coyotes, even an occasional rattlesnake. As long as you are quiet around them, and don’t startle them or step on them, rattlers don’t bother you.

In the spring the trail is a great place for desert flower viewing, and it offers great views of the Piestewa Peak.

The Dreamy Draw Loop Trail

The 3.7-mile Dreamy Draw Loop Trail is one of the most popular in the area. Listed as moderate, the trail has a few inclines and passes through rocky terrain. Best in early spring, when it’s a great place to see wildflowers.

The Piestewa Peak Summit Trail

A favorite of locals, the Piestewa Peak Summit Trail is well-known in hiking communities all over the world. Short, at a 2.2-mile out and back trail, it is steep, with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet, and it incorporates many switchbacks. The summit rewards those who make it though with a great view of Phoenix.

Trails in Phoenix Mountain Preserve

Phoenix Mountain Preserve comprises some of the easiest trails in the city. But easy doesn’t mean short or urban. This area, accessible from a few different trailheads in the city still makes you feel miles away from urban development.

Trail in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve
On the Trail in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

Trails at North Mountain

North Mountain once marked the northern edge of Phoenix, but now it is in a central location, miles away from the edge. It incorporates not only North Mountain but almost as much desert wilderness as South Mountain, all in the middle of the city.

The Charles M. Christiansen Memorial Trail

At over ten miles long, the Charles M. Christiansen Memorial Trail, Trail 100 is the longest in the North Mountain Preserve. Don’t let its length deter you though, you don’t have to walk it all. Relatively flat with an elevation gain of 790 feet, the trail an easy stroll, offering great views of Shaw Butte and North Mountain. During the spring, between February-April it offers opportunities for wildflower viewing.

This is one of my all-time favorite trails in town, though I’ve only hiked parts of it. Still, it’s beautiful and popular. But you can still find yourself alone on it in a few stretches.

Trails in the Sonoran Desert Preserve

The Sonoran Desert Preserve, comprising over 9600 acres, offers about 36 miles of trails in North Phoenix. It is my favorite spot to be on any of the hiking trails in Phoenix. You’ll find a trail for any level, from easy to difficult, taking you through some of the most beautiful desert vistas.

Sunset on a desert trail in Phoenix
Sunset on a desert trail in Phoenix

The Apache Wash Loop Trail

Starting at the Apache Wash Trailhead, the2.8-mile Apache Wash Loop trail is one of the easiest in the preserve. Following the Apache Wash, it offers a taste of the desert environment. It’s an easy trail with nice views and lots cacti and other desert vegetation, perfect to give you a taste of the Sonoran Desert. If you have more time, and inclination, you could continue and hike the whole extended Apache Wash Loop, altogether 5.6 miles long. Even the longer version is easy, offering beautiful desert vistas showcasing the variety of cactus species.

The Sidewinder Trail

Popular with mountain bikers, the Sidewinder Trail is the longest in the Sonoran Desert Preserve. You can access it from the Apache Wash Trailhead or from the Desert Wren Trailhead.

Winter in the desert
Winter in the desert – Phoenix

The Dixie Mountain Loop and Summit Trail

Starting at the Desert Vista Trailhead, the 4.6-miles long Dixie Mountain Loop Trail takes you around the mountain it is named for, offering great views of Dove Valley, and gorgeous wildflowers in early spring. The loop gives you access to the Dixie Mountain Summit Trail, considered the most difficult one in the preserve.

The Desert Wren Trail

Starting at the Desert Vista Trailhead, the Desert Wren Trail is a flat trail that connects to a few others in the preserve. The hardest part of this trail is at the very beginning since here you’re climbing at a steep angle. But this doesn’t last long, and before you know it, you’re on level terrain. The trail offers great views of North Phoenix.

Hiking in Phoenix
Hiking on a desert trail in Phoenix seems to take you miles away from urban development

Other Hiking Trails in Phoenix

These preserves within the city limits include over 41,000 acres and over 200 miles of trails, with over forty access points. You’ll find something for any level of hiking, from difficult summit hikes to easy walks through riparian areas.

The best time to hit a trail in Phoenix is in the winter, though late fall and early spring work, too. No matter if you’re here to spend your whole winter, or a few days, you’ll have fun on a trail. And you might fall in love with this environment as I did years ago.

Sunset in the desert in Phoenix
Sunset in the desert in Phoenix

Safety on the Desert Hiking Trails in Phoenix

No matter what trail you choose or when you go out hiking in the desert, you need to understand your surroundings to stay safe.

The desert environment is extremely dry, with unpredictable weather patterns. Always watch the weather when you go out. It is not always hot, but it is always dry, even when the weather seems perfect.

You need to stay hydrated to avoid health issues. Always carry water, and make sure you have enough for the whole hike. A good rule of thumb is to turn around when your water is half gone. If you’re on a roundtrip trail, try to be at least at the half-past point when your water is half gone.

Wear proper shoes, sunscreen, and a hat. Even in the winter. The sun is still strong, even if it’s not hot.

Stay on the trail. It is easy to think you’re safe trailblazing in the desert environment. After all, you can see for miles, you think you can’t get lost. In fact, it is easier to get lost in the desert than anywhere else. The cacti look the same in every direction, so does the landscape after a while. It can be very hard to get back on the trail once you get off it. I am speaking from experience.

Watch out for rattlesnakes. They are harmless if left alone, but when startled, they might bite. And their bite can be deadly. Chances are, you’ll see one – or a few – while hiking in Phoenix. When you do, stay back and quietly walk around them. They are beautiful, so if you stay safe, you’ll enjoy an encounter.

Try not to hike alone, especially if you go on a longer trail. And always carry a phone.


  1. What are some short, easy trails in Phoenix?

    The Hole-in-the-Rock in Papago Park, close to downtown Phoenix is one of the easiest while most spectacular trails in the city. Easily accessible, it is extremely popular, and tends to get crowded.In South Mountain Park, the Kiwanis Trail is a good choice for an easy hike.The Nature Trail is the easiest trail in the Dreamy Draw area. Reach 11 in North Phoenix offers an easy stroll through a riparian area.The Apache Wash Loop trail in the Sonoran Desert Preserve is also great for beginners.

  2. What is the best time to hike in Phoenix

    Winter is the best time to be outdoors and hike in Phoenix, any time of the day. Early spring offers a prettier spectacle, since wildflowers bloom in the desert. Later in the spring, in April and early May, you can still hike in the early mornings and late afternoons, but it is getting a bit warmer. However, if you want to see the cacti in bloom, this is the best time. In the summer, you need to stay away from the trails in Phoenix. Late fall starts to be pleasant on the trail again.

  3. A few musts: safety tips on Phoenix trails:

    Always carry water. Even in the winter. Temperatures might be perfect, but it is still dry in the desert.Don’t forget the sunscreen and a hat. Always wear good hiking shoes. Most trails, even the easy ones, get rocky in some areas, so it pays to hike in good shoes.Stay on designated trails. Be aware of rattlesnakes, especially in early spring.

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Hiking trails in Phoenix
Hiking trails in Phoenix Arizona
Hiking Trails in Phoenix AZ
Hike the Sonoran Desert in the winter
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