The Arizona desert is a beautiful place to explore with your family! Here are 3 Family Friendly Hikes in the Phoenix Area.
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There is no denying it, I love the desert. Over the years I have visited the Phoenix area quite a few times, as my parents and in-laws both have places down there. And each time I go, I fall more and more in love with the area. The desert is beautiful. SO so beautiful. I had a friend recently ask me why it was that I loved the desert so much, and I thought it was such an interesting question. I wonder how anyone could not love the desert? I think a lot of people see the desert as a one dimensional place…sand and cacti. But it is SO SO much more than that. I think anyone who takes a hike in the desert in spring will be blown away by all the cacti in bloom and the songbirds in song. Dreamy.
The desert is rich in flora and fauna…there are more cactus species that you can count, the desert has beautiful flowers, the wildlife is fascinating and you can’t beat the big blue skies and amazing weather. On a side note, every time I say I love the weather, I always get told, “just wait until summer”. I get it. It’s a bazillion degrees in the summer, but honestly, I am tired of our winters here in Alberta. So very tired of them, and would happily exchange our chinooks and cold winters for the heat. I would happily move from air conditioner to air conditioner to the pool, just like I move from furnace to furnace here. Give me the heat.
I also love the wildlife, even the creepy crawlies, as long as they stay away from me. I find them fascinating. My kids used to get freaked out by the idea of all the spiders, snakes and scorpions, but over time these just become a part of the landscape, and not to be feared as long as you are aware of them. Just don’t wear open shoes on hikes, don’t wear bare feet in rocks, don’t lift up rocks or put your hands in small spaces and you’ll be just fine. 😉 Over the years we’ve had the privilege of seeing scorpions while hunting for them with black light at night, we’ve also seen California King Snakes, Gila Monsters, geckos, tarantulas and other big creepy spiders. As well as bush bunnies, cactus wrens, hummingbirds, quail, doves and many other birds. Beautiful.
A scorpion seen under a black light
The best way to explore the desert is to do just that…explore. Go on hikes and get to know this beautiful ecosystem. When we go to Arizona we stay in the Scottsdale and Fountain Hills area, and from here there are many, many hikes to take. On our recent trip we went on quite a few hikes with our kids, and I wanted to share 3 of these great hikes with you. But before we get to the hikes, here are some desert hiking tips we have learned over the years.
Tips for Hiking with Kids in the Desert
- MOST important, bring water! Hiking in the desert is no joke. It is hot and the sun can be intense, even on cool days, so you need to bring enough water for everyone, including pets (most trails don’t recommend pets due to extreme heat). We make sure to have at least 1 litre per person, then bring extra.
- Bring snacks. Snacks provide energy on long hikes. We like to bring granola bars, trail mix, nuts and fruit.
- Wear proper shoes. Wear running shoes or hiking boots. Don’t wear sandals on desert hikes…you have to beware spiders, scorpions, snakes, cholla balls and cactus spines.
- Wear light coloured clothing. Dark clothing absorbs heat, and will make you feel hotter.
- Lather on the sunscreen. The sun is strong, and you will burn if you aren’t wearing it! Don’t forget to wear it on cloudy days too…you can still get burned when there is cloud cover.
- Wear a hat. With the sun beating down on you, you can burn your scalp!
- Bring sunglasses. Eyes can get sunburned too!
- Bring a fully charged cell phone. For emergencies and for taking pictures.
- Don’t forget your camera. The desert is SO beautiful.
- Bring tweezers. Those little cholla balls are so sticky…if you try to remove them by kicking them, or using your cell phone case, it won’t work. Ask me how I know. 😉
- Timing is everything! Consider doing hikes early in the day, before noon if possible. The desert gets very hot! And trust me, hiking with kids at the peak of heat in the day is NOT fun.
- Critters. Yes, there are critters. This is the desert, and it is home to spiders, scorpions, snakes, gila monsters, lizards, poky plants and many other things. But you don’t have to be scared! The desert is beautiful, and safe if you take the proper precautions.
Family Friendly Hikes in the Phoenix Area
Here are 3 hikes we took with our family. These are challenging, educational and fun!
1. McDowell Mountain Regional Park: The North Trail Self Guided Tour
McDowell Mountain Regional Park is a 21,099 acre Sonoran desert park located northeast of Scottsdale (about 4 miles north of Fountain Hills). This park has over 65 miles of hiking trails at different lengths and difficulties. We like to hike the North Trail Self-Guided Tour, which is a great hike to do with kids. It’s flat, simple and really fun! What I like most about this hike, is that it is a self guided tour. How it works is, along the trail there are 34 marker posts which correspond to a sheet given to you at the registration desk. Each point along the way gives information about the cacti in the area, the mountains, wildlife and desert trivia. This makes it fun for the kids because each little destination along the way encourages everyone to keep going! And this is important when trying to keep everyone happy and engaged while hiking, especially on a hot day!
North Trail Self Guided Hike Details
- Rating: Easy
- Type: The trail is a loop
- Length: 2.9 miles (4.7 km)
- Activity: Trail is for Hiking and Biking
Things To Note
- Address: 16300 McDowell Mountain Park Drive, Fountain Hills, AZ
- Hours: McDowell Mountain Regional Park is open 6AM to 8PM Sun to Thurs, and until 10PM Fri and Sat.
- Fees: There is an entry fee required when you enter McDowell Mountain Regional Park
- Washrooms: There are portable outhouses available at the trailhead
- Interpretive Centre: There is a Nature Centre located near the entrance of the park. It’s worth visiting to be able to see some of the wildlife from the area, which is on display (think rattlesnakes, scorpions, lizards, tarantulas).
2. McDowell Sonoran Preserve Trails: Lost Dog Wash Trail
The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is part of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, and includes the McDowell Mountains, more than 30,000 continuous acres and over 180 miles (~290 km) of trails. This preserve has 5 major trailheads that connect to make up the 180 miles of hiking trails, and you can start a hike at any of these trailheads. You can take short hikes, some even less than a mile long, or you can take much longer hikes, hiking as long as you want. What we liked about this area was that we were able to choose a hike we thought would suit us, and if we found it too hard along the way, or if we wanted to keep going, we had options to make it shorter or longer. For our first visit we chose to hike the Lost Dog Wash Trail.
How the hikes work is, each trail is made up of segments divided between emergency markers, and each segment is labeled with the trail length, so you can plan your route length according to these segments. On the day we visited we opted to do a 4.1 mile long hike, and it was great! We went early in the morning, but it was HOT. The kids grumbled a bit, but they finished the hike and were VERY proud of themselves! And on this hike a gila monster and tarantula were spotted! Amazing.
Lost Dog Wash Trailhead Hike Details
- Rating: Moderate to Difficult (the shorter the hike, the more moderate; the longer the hike, the more difficult)
- Type: The trail is a loop, with options to do smaller loops, or join additional trails
- Length: The loop we hiked was 4.1 miles long (6.6 km)
- Activity: Trail is for Hiking, Biking, and Horses
Things To Note
- Address: Lost Dog Wash Trailhead: 12601 N. 124th Street, Scottsdale, AZ
- Hours: Open from sunrise to sunset.
- Fees: There is NO entry fee required.
- Washrooms: There are washrooms available at the trailhead. As well as water, a directory, shelter and seating.
- Family Passport: This is a fun activity for the family! At the trailhead you can get a passport (one for each kid), which has a scavenger hunt that teaches about the flora and fauna in the area. Once you complete a trail from each of the 5 trailheads, you will get a stamp in your passport. When you finish all 5 trailheads (not all in one day!), then you will get a gift, like a bandana or a water bottle. We will definitely try to visit all 5 trailheads over time as we visit again.
3. Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
Located in central Arizona, near Payson (10 miles north of Payson on Hwy 87), Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is a must see! It is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. The bridge stands 183 feet high over a 400 foot long tunnel that measures 150 feet at its widest point. There are three hiking trails, a picnic area, and a group use area.
There are 4 small hikes in this area:
- Pine Creek Trail is about half mile long and leads to the Pine Creek natural area.
- Waterfall Trail is about 300 feet long and ends at the waterfall cave.
- Gowan Trail is about 2200 feet long leading to an observation deck in the creek bottom.
- Anna Mae Trail is about 500 feet long and leads to Pine Creek Trail and The Natural Bridge. This was our favourite!
All the hikes are not long in length, but they are a bit treacherous. At points it can be steep and the ground is uneven, so definitely go slow and wear proper shoes. Once you get to the bottom of the trail, you will find yourself in the waterfall cave area. If you’re really feeling adventurous, you can explore this area under the bridge, but you have to scramble up and over large boulders and water. This is the most interesting and fun area to explore, but be very careful, as it can be dangerous.
Scrambling at the bottom of the Anna Mae Trail
Our favourite trail was the Anna Mae Trail, which had, what I think was, the most spectacular view of the waterfall cave, and the best boulder scrambling. I highly recommend this trail…just be prepared for the somewhat steep and rocky descent…but we all (including my parents and our 7 year old) did it with no problems.
Tonto Natural Bridge Hike Details
- Rating: Moderate to Difficult
- Type: The trail are not loops. You hike there and back on the same trail.
- Length: There are 4 trails, and all are less than a mile long.
- Activity: Trail is for Hiking only.
Things To Note
- Address: Payson, AZ (10 miles north of Payson on Hwy 87)
- Hours: Park and Facility are open 9AM to 5PM. Trails are open 9AM to 4PM.
- Fees: There is an entry fee required to access the park. $7 for 14+, $4 for 7-13, under 7 free
- Washrooms: There are outhouses available at the trailhead. Don’t worry, they are kept very clean and stink-free!
- Pets: Pets are not allowed on the trails.
- Weather: Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is quite far north, so the temperature is much cooler here…it can be almost 20 degrees cooler than Scottsdale. The temperature here can range from 54 to 93 degrees F, so be prepared and have a coat or sweater with you just in case. We *may* have come unprepared and ended up shopping at the gift shop for long sleeve shirts 😉
- You may get wet. When we were here the waterfall was active and water was constantly dripping from the stone, so when you are under the bridge area, you are likely to get wet. I left with wet shoes and a damp sweater.
- Visitor Centre and Historic Lodge. You can get facility information here, and visit the gift shop.
- Check ahead! Before you visit the area, you may want to call and check to see if there are any trail closures, especially if it has been rainy. High water levels could close the trails.
The Arizona desert is a beautiful place to explore! There are endless trails all over the state, and I can’t wait explore more when we visit again! Have you hiked in Arizona? What trails do you recommend? Any favourites?
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