A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking in Phoenix, Arizona

In this comprehensive guide, Whitney breaks down what you should expect when hiking in Phoenix, gear you need, and trails she recommends for beginners or first time Phoenix visitors! 8 min read.

Wave Cave, Superstition Mtns
Photos from Whitney Kerr @wildnfree_whitneyd

Once you’ve stayed and played in Phoenix, it’s likely you’ll want to come back as soon as possible. For those of you who are planning a trip or are new to the area, my number one recommendation is GET OUTSIDE.  Within an hour’s drive of the city, you can experience many different mountain ranges and landscapes. Let talk about what your options are and how to prepare.

What to expect when you’re exploring

The variety of views and terrain in Phoenix is surprising. From paved paths and cityscape, to rock paths and straight up jagged climbs — the topography will keep you on your toes, sometimes literally.  As you venture elsewhere in Arizona, you’ll find sand and dirt paths, creeks and rivers, while in Phoenix you will most likely be hiking on rock albeit sharp, smooth, or gravel. The seasonal temperatures can vary greatly from comfortable hikes in 50 to 70 degrees, to summer highs well over 100, and shade is always sparse. It’s important to pay attention to seasonal weather forecasts, heat warnings, and other safety precautions before hitting the trails at any time of year.

What many people don’t expect is the delightfully surprising beauty of the desert. In winter and spring, the Phoenix landscape is a mix of browns, greens, and pops of color with leafy brush and vibrant palo verde trees. During the months of March through May you will likely catch some purples, yellows, pinks, and reds from cacti and ocotillo blooms. Regardless of the time of year, sunrises in Phoenix provide a soft and calming blue haze over the land, while sunsets can give you a sky of fire in a 360-degree view.

McDowell Mtns at Sunrise
McDowell Mountains at Sunrise

Hike smart and be prepared

A hydration pack is really a must-have for hikers here. This is helpful because it’s likely you will need more than a bottle of water for your hike. The thin, dry air often dehydrates visitors before they even feel affected. That combined with a cardio workout and physical exertion can put you in a bad situation if you’re not properly prepared. Additionally, a hydro pack will leave you with your hands completely free to catch yourself if you trip or slide on a rock, or just want to snap a quick picture on the trail. The bladder within your pack is what will hold your water while you are hiking. I have used several brands, and I now regularly use a 2L and 3L Deuter Streamer which are absolutely leak proof. The full width top makes for easy cleaning, and the cap that covers the valve prevents excess dust or bacteria from getting into my system. The lining within the bladder and tube prevents the weird plastic-like taste I have experienced with other brands.

Hydropack with Deuter bladderThe right type of footwear will protect your arches and provide you with great grip thus ensuring a safe and enjoyable hike. When I first moved I was hiking in my Nike running shoes. I cringe at the thought now, knowing how easily I could have injured myself not having a great grip on the rocks. Since wearing the proper footwear, I’ve also noticed the strain on my ankles and knees has lessened, since there is greater pressure on these joints while coming back down a mountainside. I’ve worn a mix of Columbia and Merrell hiking shoes, and am slowly adopting mostly Merrell’s that have a vibram sole into my closet. The rubber of a vibram sole I’ve found provides the best grip and support for me. You should try on several styles to see what feels best on your own feet, and keep in mind that in Phoenix heat you will likely want a shoe that breathes well and dries quickly. 

Being knowledgeable about basic map navigation and topography direction could help you on a trail that’s not well marked. Many of my recommendations (to follow) are well traveled paths that are maintained and marked, but as you grow more comfortable in your Phoenix or Arizonian adventures you may find yourself in unfamiliar back country, and should know how to get yourself back out. The AllTrails app is a great source, as well was many Facebook groups that can provide insight from locals. My favorites are Arizona Hiking, and Women Who Hike Arizona. If you are hiking alone, tell someone where you will be and when you expect to finish your hike. Often times cell phones will die because they are searching for signal in the mountains, even on urban hikes. My motto is prepare for the worst, hope for the best – especially if you are alone.


Columbia & Merrell Hiking Shoes & Sunglasses


Since it’s 2017, let’s assume the majority of adventurers will likely want to take some pictures of your Phoenix hikes. The iPhone and Samsung phones take amazing images. I also carry my GoPro Hero Session 4, which I have a love and hate relationship with. The camera quality on this little guy is great, but with no back screen I am often guessing at what I may or may not be capturing. I do not recommend this style of camera if you are selective about your photo composition. GoPro does have both retired and new release cameras that include a viewing screen. For the best quality photos, remember to not over-edit the saturation or lighting. Often times this will leave your images looking grainy and/or fake. The best time for pictures is in the early morning or late day without harsh sunlight.

Let’s finish up with the obvious: sunscreen and sunnies. If you didn’t know previously, Phoenix is nicknamed the Valley of the Sun, getting only about 8 inches in rain per year. You can practically trip and fall on sunscreen and sunglasses here in Arizona, and trust me, you will want to use it. If the sun is anywhere high in the sky you are likely exposed and need to protect your skin and eyes. My favorite shades come from Abaco, a Floridian company. The lenses are polarized for UV400 protection, which fight glare and sharpen your view.

First time visitors and intermediate level hikers: all under 10 miles, significant elevation

*Data provided on behalf on my own tracking in conjunction with the AllTrails app.

The trails in this preserve give a great feeling of escape, with surprising city views around the corner. Piestewa is one of the most well-trafficked, and also the second highest peak in Phoenix. This one is not for the faint of heart, but a great challenge. Completing Freedom Trail along with the summit trail will give you a bit of reprieve from the crowds. This trail is approximately 1850 ft. in elevation and 5 miles total.

Piestewa Peak, Phx Mtns
Piestewa Peak, Phoenix Mountains

The McDowell Mountains are approximately 30 minutes outside of the city. One of my favorite hikes in the McDowells, this is the perfect workout trail that gives you a great rolling warm up before you hit the switch backs that will take you up to the saddle. When you reach Bell Pass you’ll be able to see on both sides of the mountain. This trail is approximately 1800 ft. in elevation, and 8 miles round trip.

The Superstition Mountains are approximately 45-60 minutes outside of the city. These are two separate hikes, but the trailheads are so close to each other you might as well do both! Peralta Trail offers beautiful views of Gold Canyon, and is about 1300 ft. in elevation and 5 miles roundtrip. The Wave Cave is about 950 ft. elevation and 3 miles roundtrip.

About 20 minutes south of the city, you will find this trail in South Mountain Park. The lookout is reachable by car, but what’s the fun in that?! Lace up and hit the trail, which is about 1100 ft. in elevation, and 4.5 miles roundtrip.

Peralta Trail, Superstition Mtns
Peralta Trail, Superstition Mountains

Recommendations for families and beginner level hikers: all under 5 miles, minimal elevation

The trails below are very well groomed and mostly flat. There are also many nature walks or paths in the surrounding mountain area that are enjoyable for families with all levels of walking capability.

Fairly flat terrain with trails that link to many different others in both areas. Trails are well marked and maintained.

Fairly low incline within the canyon that leads to a short climb and then hike back along the ridge. The ridge line may get your heart rate pumping but is not difficult, though is not a marked or maintained path.

Beautiful views of the Superstition Mountains along a well maintained and marked path. The wide “stairs” will give you a bit of elevation, and a chance to look out over the desert without a lot of investment in a climb.

Portions of dreamy draw are paved, and the dirt paths are well maintained. This can be great for beginners who would like to warm up on solid ground, but there are plenty of other trails leading you into the Phoenix Mountain Preserve that provide various levels of difficulty.

Dreamy Draw at Sunset, Phx Mtns
Dreamy Draw at sunset, Phoenix Mountains

Many hiking locals abide by the Leave No Trace (LNT) rule, which means no litter, including apple cores and banana peels. There are a variety of reasons why this is a beneficial practice no matter where you’re hiking. If you’re new to hiking or coming to Arizona to learn more, I recommend looking into this as a means for trail etiquette. Your fellow hikers will thank you! You can find me venturing around State 48, and on Instagram at @wildnfree_whitneyd, and if this has inspired you to visit Arizona, please let me know. Happy hiking!

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