Hiking at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I grew up in a desert but I had never seen a saguaro cactus.  That’s because these iconic plants – which have been immortalized in westerns and Wile E. Coyote cartoons alike – are native to the Sonoran Desert, an area that stretches from Mexico into southern California and Arizona.  At the edge of this unique landscape is Scottsdale.  This vibrant mid-sized city just northeast of Phoenix makes for a great destination for a getaway, offering a well-rounded slate of things to see and do in an upscale yet laid-back desert environment.  So whether you’re looking for shopping and dining, arts and culture, outdoor adventure or just a place where you can relax by the pool, Scottsdale has something for everyone.

My first trip to the city coincided with the tail end of COVID-19 pandemic so outdoor activities were still on the top of my list.  We made it a road trip, found a beautiful vacation rental with an even more beautiful pool and plotted out a handful of hikes en route and within Scottsdale.  While there is no shortage of incredible places to hike in and around the city, one place in particular topped my list.

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is an expansive desert conservation area spanning 35,000 acres that can be reached from Scottsdale in under 30 minutes.  It’s considered one of the largest urban parks in the United States and is home to countless plant and animal species, scenic views that go on for miles and tons of hiking trails for every interest and intensity.  Since the preserve is so large we decided to pick trails in different areas with hopes of spotting a saguaro or two.  Read on for more details!

Tom’s Thumb

This 4.4 mile trail to the base of Tom’s Thumb is rated as difficult despite its relatively short distance.  That’s because the first mile of the trail follows a steep incline up short, rocky switchbacks in full morning sun.  Thereafter the trail becomes more varied with the occasional patch of shade as you continue through a landscape of desert brush, cacti and the occasional flowering saguaro.  Towards the end the trail inclines up again through large granite rocks that lead to the trail’s namesake rock formation.  The trail took about 2 hours total out and back and is well maintained with frequent signage and clean restroom facilities at the trailhead, an added bonus

Where I Hiked
Trail: Tom’s Thumb Trail
Distance: 4.4 miles
Location: 33.694579, -111.801692
How to get there: Head north on AZ-101 to Pima Road, turn right on Happy Valley Road then right on Ranch Gate Road and a final right on 128th street to reach the parking lot and trailhead.

Granite Mountain

There are several moderate options from the Granite Mountain trailhead at the northeastern part of the preserve, which doesn’t disappoint if you’re interested in spotting saguaro cacti.  In fact, the area is home to tons of desert flora and fauna (and so many saguaros!).  One option is the 3-mile Scenic Trail that rewards hikers with beautiful views toward the east or the longer 6.1-mile Granite Mountain Loop Trail that travels around the base of the mountains.  We sort of took a hybrid approach, beginning on the Bootlegger Trail, skipping the scenic view and instead continuing counter clockwise on the east side of the Granite Mountain Loop for a total of 2.9 miles.  You’ll also find clean restroom facilities at the trailhead along with awesome educational displays that provide fun facts about saguaros (did you know saguaro cacti can live for 150-200 years and that their arms don’t even appear until between 50-100 years?!).

Where I Hiked
Trail: Bootlegger Trail to Granite Mountain Loop
Distance: 2.9 miles
Location: 33.770717, -111.788141
How to get there: Head north on AZ-101 to Pima Road, turn right on Dynamite Boulevard, which turns into Rio Verde Drive and the left on 136th Street to reach the turn in for the parking lot and trailhead on your left.


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