best trails in big bend

Five of the Best Trails in Big Bend, Texas

Before I started planning my West Texas roadtrip, I really didn’t know much about Big Bend National Park. But even the tiniest bit of research immediately made it clear that this was a park deserving of two or more days of exploration. There are so many trails to explore here. The ecosystems are varied and beautiful. And Big Bend is home to its namesake, the big bend of the Rio Grande. One of the life-blood rivers of the American Southwest. In short, this national park should be on every nature-lover’s bucketlist, and in particular, I would suggest checking out some of the best trails in Big Bend. Whether you want to take photos from the car, go on a family walk, or challenge yourself, there are options here for everyone.

How I Picked My List of Best Trails in Big Bend 

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

Generally speaking, I’m the kind of person who can enjoy just about any kind of trail. I love short jaunts out into nature. And I also enjoy the challenge of long, strenuous treks into the wilderness. And I know people who like only one or the other, or trails somewhere in between. Due to that, I think it bares some explanation as to how I came up with the following list of the best trails in Big Bend.

That all being said, NONE of these trails are the most strenuous trails in the park. These aren’t wild trails with rare views and long treks to see them. Rather, I’ve selected this short list for the following reasons:

(1) Accessibility

Many of these trails, but not all, are short and relatively flat. Thus, they can be walked by hikers of almost all skill levels. And while they are not accessible or even rated for accessibility, all of them have amazing views which can be enjoyed from the trailheads. And all trailheads are accessible by regular vehicles.

(2) Variety

Every single one of these trails will give you a different taste of the wide range of ecosystems and landscapes in Big Bend National Park. While there are three different canyon trails, every one is highly unique. One trail explores the desert on the way to a desert oasis, and one reaches the heights of the sky island of the Chisos Mountains. If you are an avid hiker, it would not be hard to get all of this variety in two days visiting the park. (Check out our itinerary for suggestions on how to do this.)

Boquillas Canyon Trail

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

Boquillas Canyon Trail is a very short 1.5 mile round trip walk from the trailhead to the interior of the canyon. I was particularly smitten with this route because of the spectacular colors that the Rio Grande takes on in this side of the park. These were the most vibrant of blues and greens. I only wish that I were a skilled enough photographer to have captured the majesty of the river here properly. The canyon itself is also lovely. The walls here are a warm, sandy color, and when contrasted with the water, it is a really breathtaking place. Thus, it’s placement on my Best Trails in Big Bend (non-exhaustive) list.

While the trail is short, there is a little bit of elevation gain. Not much, but if you aren’t feeling a walk up rocky steps due to the heat, physical limitations, or anything else, you can get some nice pictures from the river overlook up the road from the trailhead. There is also a tiny bit of trail finding that you will need to do on this little walk because it isn’t all that clear once you get down to the sandy beach area. Just continue walking up river. Turn around when you reach the wide beach. You should not need to wade in the water or push through plants.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

DO NOT SWIM in the water. Rivers are notoriously dangerous. They may look calm and inviting, but they are extremely powerful. Please also mind your children closely.

Also, please note that if there are people selling things along the trail, it is technically illegal to purchase them. If the little river border crossing is open, you might consider purchasing the art and keep-sakes legally and support the village on the Mexican side. You can inquire with the rangers about this at the visitor centers.

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

The big sister to Boquillas Canyon is Santa Elena.

I was impressed by this canyon from the car, miles away. You really won’t believe how otherworldly this place is until you see it. Even now, just remembering the feeling of approaching this place leaves me awestruck. The sheer, impressive nature of this place made me slap this trail onto my Best Trails in Big Bend list. Particularly if you visit during the Golden Hour… even without hiking the trail, this place will really take your breath away.

From the road and the trailhead, Santa Elena Canyon looks like a deep, straight cut through a massive ridge of gray stone. And when I say massive I mean… mountain sized ridge.

If you aren’t planning on doing the trail (or even if you are) you might consider stopping (SAFELY) to take pictures on your way in. This will be especially effective if you have a nice zoom on your camera.

The trailhead for the Santa Elena Canyon Trail is fairly well developed, with a toilet onhand. Parking spots, if I recall correctly, are in the sand, however, and this particular area is popular. Once you snag a spot, you will follow the trailhead map out across a sand bridge towards the river. This is a great access point to the pebbly beach. So, if you are looking for a nice spot to enjoy the Rio Grande, this is a great option.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

Do remember, however, that is not safe to swim in the river. No matter what you see other people doing.

In order to continue along the 1.5 mile round trip trail, you will cross a small tributary on your way to the pretty obvious canyon. And then you will find yourself climbing a fairly steep cliff with switchbacks and stairs. Although steep, this part of the trail is well developed, so if you have stamina, it should be doable, although challenging.

Once you have it to the top of the rise, you will follow a more wild trail along the cliffside above the river. Along the trail, you will see some beautiful but pokey plant-life. And then, you will head back down towards the water on a less developed incline. This will involve stepping down well-worn rocks. So, take your time if you aren’t used to hiking.

Then, much like the Boquillas Canyon Trail, you will have to do a bit of navigating. The bank of the river is a bit more lush, so there are think plants growing all over and the trail splits in some places. However, just continue walking down river until the trail ends were the water meets the stone walls of the canyon. At that point, there is no where to go but back the way you came.

Chisos Basin Trail

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

There are many trails in the Chisos Mountains, which range from relatively easy to long backpacking treks. The Chisos Basin Trail, unlike the other trails on this best trails in Big Bend list, is long and difficult. However, it offers an amazing on-trail experience and beautiful views of the valley. On this trail, you will hike up from the visitor center, across a wide, forested shelf nested between the sharp stone peaks of the mountains, and then up into the reaches of the Sky Island.

While difficult, most people can do parts of this trail. E.g. just take a stroll through the forest for 0.5 miles and then turn around. I went about 2.5 miles in and then came back, because I was a bit too exhausted from my trip to keep going.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

For skilled hikers wanting a more challenging day trip, Emory Peak is a great option. And of course, this is the place to be if you want to backpack in Big Bend. Of course, you will need to reference the National Park materials to plan out a trip like that.

And if you can’t or don’t want to hike, the drive up to the visitor center in the Chisos Mountains is spectacular. And there are some great look outs from the parking lot. It’s the perfect place for photography, contemplation, and just generally enjoying nature.

Ward Spring Trail

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

This 2.8 mile, out and back hike was my time to revel in the desert that is particular to Big Bend and West Texas. In some ways, it felt very much like my home in Arizona, but in other ways, completely unfamiliar. I think the key to really enjoying this trail is stopping to admire the little plants tucked here and there, surviving in the roughest conditions. For my list of the best trails in Big Bend, this is the only one that crosses the desert. And as it’s name would suggest, it does take you to a small, wild spring at the base of the mountains.

This trail is not accessible for all, and due to its length and ruggedness in parts, it isn’t for the novice either. That being said, for anyone who hikes regularly, it is an easy trail. The path leads from the road, through the desert up a gentle slop towards the Chisos. As you get closer, you will begin traversing the sides of rocky hills and dipping down into washes.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

The end of the trail is a wild patch of trees crowding around a small puddle of water in the desert. It won’t be the most spectacular thing you see… unless you appreciate how special and precious water is in desert landscapes. For me, all springs are sacred places. So, I think Ward Spring is well worth the detour from grander trails.

Closed Canyon Trail in Big Bend State Park

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

Although not in the National Park, Closed Canyon Trail still makes my best trails in Big Bend bucketlist because it is in the Big Bend State Park.

This short, relatively flat slot canyon trail is located along the 170, and has a nice parking lot at the trailhead. However, there are no restrooms available there.

From the parking lot, you will take a few switchbacks down into a shallow wash and then follow the streambed towards the slot in the stony wall of mountains to your left.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

Once you pass through the opening of the canyon, you will walk along the stone and sandy bottom. Take your time and marvel at the twists and turns in the stone. Check out the plants surviving in these harsh desert conditions. And take tons of photographs.

This trail isn’t long, so you can really take your time enjoying it. You will turn around when you see a steep drop off and a sign informing you that the trail has ended. Turn right on back around and take it all in from the other direction on your way out.

Please note that slot canyons are dangerous in rainy or wet conditions. Do not attempt this trail when there is running water or storms at the trail or nearby.

 Safety on the Trail

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Summiting Guadalupe Peak, The Texas Highpoint

One of the things that I love to do while traveling is check out the highpoints. Sometimes they are a challenge (or impossible for me) to summit, and other times they might be a cute hill in an out-of-the-way spot. In the case of the Texas highpoint, Guadalupe Peak is an attainable, but strenuous trek. For prepared hikers, this summit is well worth the upward hike. Trekkers will climb up from the desert landscape, into the forests of the higher elevations. And finally up to the top of Texas, where exceptional views await. Learn more about this hike here, along with need-to-know information about the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

guadalupe peak

On the Guadalupe Peak Trail

Desert Climb

The first section of the trail up towards the Texas highpoint takes you up from the desert. This part of the trail, unsurprisingly, is thus characterized by the open spaces and hardy bushes of the Chihuahuan desert. It’s a bit of a steep climb here, but there are some nice switch backs to help mitigate the upwards trek.

guadalupe peak

(c) ABR 2021

You will notice that there are two routes here. One is for horses, and the other is for hikers. Definitely stick to the one for whatever kind of adventuring you are doing. This will make you more safe and give much-needed space to other recreationists.

guadalupe peak

(c) ABR 2021

As I climbed upwards, I really enjoyed the stony cliffs and passages that popped up here and there on the trail. I found these little places to be challenging, beautiful, and a great break from the dusty character of the trail. That being said, you will want to be careful in some of these spots, particularly if you are riding a horse. Follow all signage and keep your eyes open for warnings.

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A West Texas Itinerary for Hikers and Adventurers

Texas is not known by many to be an ideal roadtrip destination, due to its vastness and the flat natural of its large, central plains. However, West Texas will surprise anyone with that stereotype about the state. Here there are rolling hills, vast mountains, glittering rivers, and one of the world’s most biodiverse deserts. There are plenty of things to do in West Texas, but we’ve tailored this West Texas itinerary for hikers and nature lovers in particular… with a dash of history and culture on the side as well.

 

Day 0: Travel to El Paso, TX

Since El Paso, TX is the big city of West Texas and a unique destination in its own right, I would suggest planning your West Texas itinerary from here unless you are driving in from some other area of Texas and would like to jump onto the loop from your hometown. El Paso has its own international airport, the El Paso International Airport (ELP), so you may consider flying into there. For me, coming from Phoenix, I opted to drive over, which is about a 6 hour drive.

Day 1: Hiking in Guadalupe Mountain National Park

west texas itinerary

(c) ABR 2021

If you want to attempt the summit of Guadalupe Peak (8750 ft), I would suggest being flexible with Day 1 and Day 2. This will allow you to see which day will have better weather for your summit attempt. Even for a smaller summit like this one, you should always avoid bad weather days for safety’s sake.

It’s about a two-hour drive from El Paso, TX to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. So, take the morning to rest a bit before setting off your West Texas itinerary. Make your first stop the visitor center, where you can learn more about the park, chat with the rangers, and get the low down on any safety concerns that you need to keep in mind.

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Your Guide to Phoenix Tiki Bars

Until recently, I wasn’t aware of Phoenix tiki bars. But they not only exist, they are super fun, really delicious, and even a little bit historic. Whether you are a local exploring your own backyard or are visiting Arizona, give these special bars a gander! They are all a little different and can cater to all different kinds of travelers.

(Special thank you to Amanda for some additional information that I’ve added and corrected throughout this post; although now I have to obsess about getting a tiki mug from Undertow. :P)

Bikini Lounge

phoenix tiki bars

(c) ABR 2021

The Bikini Lounge is a very special place, and you might not know by looking at it. Having been opened in the late 1940s, this little bar is said to be the oldest continuously operating bar in Phoenix. Although it wasn’t always a tiki bar in the sense that it didn’t used to sell the tropical drinks that tiki bars are known for, I think this venerable bar is a piece of tiki and Arizona bar history. If you are in town and you are looking to experience some Arizona tiki bars, you must visit the Bikini Lounge.

The Bikini Lounge is a self-described “dive bar” and I do think that that is fitting, although it is very comfortable and welcoming. There are no windows in the bar, but the décor uses traditional tiki motifs and lots of black-light paints. As much of a shy bar-goer as I am, I was a little worried by the dive bar descriptor, but I was really delighted by the dark and cool interior of Bikini Lounge. Also, the bartender that we met while there was unassuming, but she made a mean drink and she was friendly and kind. Taken together, I think this humble tiki bar has won a special place in my heart.

phoenix tiki bars

(c) ABR 2021

In terms of the drinks at this bar, you can get all the classic tiki drinks. They are fairly simple, and I don’t think that I noticed a signature cocktail, but they were all very very tasty. Furthermore, I think the Bikini Lounge is the most affordable option of the bars that we visited while doing “research” for this post. You can also get beer here, and snacky snacks, but no meals.

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Elephant Mountain Loop Trail: Escape the City at Spur Cross Ranch

Elephant Mountain Loop trail is another trail that made the 2021 #ILoveArizonaHikingChallenge and it has been one of my favorite day treks in the Phoenix-metro area for years. While the official maps say that this hike is 6.5 miles in length, I usually clock in at about 7 miles by the time I finish. Along the way, you will get to see Cave Creek (the actual creek), the majestic Elephant Mountain, and some of the most vibrant and biodiverse Sonoran Desert landscapes in the area. 7 miles is quite a challenge for anyone who doesn’t regularly do longer hikes, however, and the lack of shade will also add to the challenge of this trail. That being said, if you are ready for a long loop and the weather is good, this near-city trail is not to be missed.

You Will Love the Elephant Mountain Loop Trail if You Are Looking for a…

bear mountain loop trail

(1) Beautiful and Challenging Trail

Due to its length, the need to navigate across several trails, and the elevation gain, the Elephant Mountain Loop Trail is a challenge. Further, this trail is very exposed, making it dangerous in the summer months. That being said, if you are physically fit, have the right gear, and the weather is good (not too hot and not too cold/rainy), this is a beautiful trek.

Your reward for all of your hard hiking will be amazing views of Spur Cross and Elephant Mountain. You will also see Cave Creek, and the Tonto National Forest beyond.

(2) Biodiversity

elephant mountain loop trail

(c) ABR 2020

You will see some of the most amazing Sonoran Desert biodiversity on this trail. In the spring, in particular, you will get to marvel at the flowers of many different species of plants, including cacti and annuals. Among the plants, many different kinds of birds will play. Reptiles scitter underfoot. And once in a while, you will also catch a glimpse of a mammal here or there.

One way or another, keep your eyes peeled while hiking and consider taking notes on the plants and animals that you see along the way.

On the Trail 

elephant mountain loop trail

Cave Creek (c) ABR 2020

I always take this loop in a counterclockwise direction, so that’s how I will describe the trek.

When you get started on the Elephant Mountain loop trail, you will be on the Spur Cross trail, leaving from the main Spur Cross Ranch parking lot. (Please do not try to sneak into the park. I’ve seen people on AllTrails talking about that, and it’s not cool. Maricopa County Parks and Rec gets most of its funding for maintaining trails and keeping people safe from entrance fees. Do your part and pay to enter. It’s affordable, just bring some cash and small bills.)

The Spur Cross section will take you down towards the creek, and allow you to cross. My favorite time to visit is when there is a little bit of water flowing. This is also a really great place to enjoy the biodiversity of this area, as you will get to enjoy the habitat of the dry desert and the wet riparian area of the creak. As I always say, there is nothing more beautiful than water in the desert. After you cross, you will be hiking up into the foothills. Be prepared for some very open, arid lands at this point. Again, don’t do this trail in the heat, and DO wear sunscreen! And practice safety near the water for yourself and any kids in your party.

Sonoran Hills

elephant mountain loop trail

(c) ABR 2020

About 0.4 miles after you cross Cave creek, you will follow signage onto the Tortuga trail, which will continue to take you through the foothills.

Now, the transition from the Tortuga trail to the Elephant Mountain trail is a little confusing. So, be sure to keep your eyes peeled. (I’d also suggest bringing along some downloaded maps to track your progress). 0.7 miles from the Spur Cross junction, you will take the right-hand trail (heading north), and then there will be a small trail on the left hand about 0.2 miles further down. Most of the trails thus far have been wide, but Elephant Mountain is not maintained quite like Spur Cross or Tortuga. So, don’t expect the trail to be that wide. There is signage, however, so don’t be confused by spider trails.

Elephant Mountain

elephant mountain loop trail

(c) ABR 2020

Once you get onto the Elephant Mountain trail, the scenery will change a little bit as the soil becomes a little bit of a darker red, and you head down into a dry wash. This is a very interesting part of the trek, and really beautiful, if stark.

After you pass the junction with TR 252, you will start hiking upwards towards the pass in the mountain- between the head and body of the elephant. This is the most elevation gain at any one point on the trail. So, if you get winded, this will be the hardest part of the hike. (Although there are plenty of uphill climbs scattered throughout.)

When you reach the pass, stop to take pictures. This is the highest part of the trail; enjoy it. The views here are beautiful. This is also a great spot to stop for a snack and a bit of a rest.

Hiking Home

elephant mountain loop trail

(c) ABR 2020

From the pass, you will start hiking downwards onto a part of the trail that is surrounded by chollas and saguaros. As far as the saguaro go, they are massive and beautiful! If you are not used to cholla, however, exercise some extra caution. The pods from these cacti are covered in long and very sharp spines. If they stick you, you will need to use a stick (or bring a comb) to remove the pod. Once the pod is out, you can pull out the individual spines. These little pods lay around on the ground under the plants but you can also brush them off the plant if you run into them. So, just watch out for these guys. Don’t step on the pods or run into them! It’s easier than you might think.

Eventually, you will run back into the Spur Cross Trail, and you will take the trail to the left (heading east). This is a pretty long stretch through the desert. You will follow the hills, walk up and down them, and following the contours of the land. You will know when you are getting close to the trailhead when you see the creek again. (Before that, you will see both junctions with Tortuga). Once you cross the stream, you will head back up one final hill, pass the entry booth, and be back at the parking lot.

Pat yourself on the back and consider a rehydrating treat.

Need to Know Information

(c) Maricopa County Parks and Rec

Trail difficulty: Difficult

Trail length: 7 miles

Elevation gain: 1,335 ft

Entrance fee: $3.00 per person

Toilets at the trailhead: Yes, porta-potties

 How to Get There

Spur Cross Ranch, where the Elephant Mountain Loop trail is located, is in northern Phoenix-metro. You will need to get to Cave Creek Road, and then take Spur Cross road north. Spur Cross Road will end at the parking lot for Spur Cross Ranch. The final stretch of the road is a well-maintained dirt road that you can easily navigate with a car. I am unaware of public transportation that will get you all the way to the park.

Staying Safe

Remember, when you are on the trail, you are responsible for your own safety. This guide is not a guarantee of your safety; you must determine what you are physically prepared to do, insure the weather is safe, and bring needed supplies.

Chillin’ with Cholla

For the Elephant Mountain Loop trail, one particular safety issue that you might not be super familiar with if you aren’t from Arizona is safety around chollas! Chollas are very common on sections of this trail, so if you’ve never dealt with these plants before, give this a read.

Chollas are a kind of cactus that can be found throughout Central Arizona, and among locals, they are known for their painful, sharp, and very “sticky” pods of spines. These pods can grow into their own cactus plant, and sometimes get nutrients for themselves by killing small mammals that get stuck with a pod. If that’s not enough to tell you to be wary of these plants… I don’t know what will.

Cholla Safety
elephant mountain loop trail

Teddy bear cholla (c) Wikimedia Commons

For the rest of us, the best thing that you can do is WATCH WHERE YOU STEP. Chollas drop their pods all over and these can roll down hill and gather along and in the trail. Also, keep a respectable distance from the cholla plants themselves. Attached pieces of the cacti can come off if you rub up against them on accident.

If you do get a pod stuck in your clothes, shoes, or skin, don’t panic and DON’T grab them with your fingers. I always bring a comb on the trail with me as a tool to remove pods, but if you don’t have one handy, you can use a rock or stick to pull off the pod. Then you can pull out the spines individually.

That all being said, chollas spines have a painful chemical on them and tiny backwards facing spines that make them hard to remove from your skin. If you have a really bad run in with a cholla, you may consider checking in with your doctor or going to urgent care.

Please, the best thing to do is avoid getting these in your skin!

Help Prevent Wildfires

elephant mountain loop trail

(c) ABR 2020

Wildfires are becoming more and more common in the arid desert that makes Elephant Mountain loop trail so spectacular. And while you might think fires are common in the desert, this isn’t the case for the Sonoran Desert. In fact, our plants (like the charismatic saguaro) aren’t adapted to fire. When they burn, they die, and their seedlings don’t resprout easy afterwards especially not when boxed out from exotic grasses. We lose saguaros, agaves, cacti, and more to fire. When the Sonoran Desert burns, it turns into grasslands. We lose our beautiful desert.

Many wildfires are started by people, and that means that we can play a role in preventing them and protecting the desert and its communities.

Tips for Doing Your Part

elephant mountain loop trail

(c) ABR 2020

Camping and shooting in Spur Cross Ranch are not allowed, so I am not going to cover those here, but in terms of what you might do here- here are some things you might not be aware of.

For instance, parking your vehicle over or near dried grasses can start a fire. Any small spark can lite grasses and then those fires can rapidly grow. Only park in designated, graveled areas. Spur Cross has plenty of space and if it is full, check out some other areas. Cave Creek has a ton to offer!

If you are towing, please also check your chains. Dragging chains spark off of the ground and cause fires. In one case, a guy driving down one of our highways with a dragging chain caused 30 fires! Either make sure the chain is too short to drag and/or you can purchase a cover to prevent sparks.

Learn More About Phoenix-metro and Arizona

If you are looking for other hiking options in the Phoenix-metro area, check out our post on short by beautiful hikes in near Phoenix. Or for an alternative, challenging trail, give Bear Mountain near Sedona a look.

For information on other attractions, food, and events in the Phoenix-metro area, give our Guide to Phoenix a look. And for more information on our home state, see our Guide to Arizona.

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Bear Mountain Trail: Hiking the Skyline of Sedona, Arizona

Sedona is…the Arizona capital for overtourism, but it’s still worth visiting from time to time. It’s beautiful, and there are a multitude of amazing trails that you don’t want to miss. One of my personal favorites (so far) is Bear Mountain Trail, and I’m not alone as this is a trail that made it’s way into the 2021 #ILoveAZHikingChallenge list.

You will get some mind-boggling views of Sedona from the mountain, whether you make it to the summit or not. And Bear Mountain itself is a really cool, stony formation that’s a delight to walk up (even if your thighs are burning). That all being said, this is not an easy trail, and it can be dangerous if you let the “vacation spirit” get you thinking no bad can happen in Sedona. If you are in shape and/or ready to listen to your body, ready for a challenge, and respect the heat, definitely give this one a try.

When to Hike Bear Mountain Trail

(1) You are ready for the challenge

bear mountain trail

(c) ABR 2020

This trail isn’t like most of the trails that crowds of people flock to throughout the city and the surrounding landscape. It’s very difficult. You will be getting a lot of elevation gain. The trail isn’t always a maintained path- you will need to climb boulders and do some trail finding further up the mountain as you traverse the stony face of the mountain. There is very little shade and no water along the way. Furthermore, there isn’t much to do at the base of the trail. So, unless you are properly outfitted, physically ready for a challenge, and have good weather, Bear Mountain Trail probably shouldn’t be at the top of your Sedona bucketlist.

(2) You are looking for some amazing photos of Sedona

bear mountain trail

(c) ABR 2020

I’ve done quite a few hikes in Sedona and visited the town many many times over my lifetime, but I have never seen views as good as the ones I captured on this trail. I am seriously still shocked by the beauty of the pictures that I captured on Bear Mountain.

(3) You want to marvel at the geology

I don’t know the first thing about geology, I can admit that, but even so, Bear Mountain feels really special and it’s super fun to explore it (from the trail!). Besides the mountain itself, which is amazingly beautiful and sort of strange in a delightful way, you can take a peek at many geological wonders of Sedona from the trail.

Need to Know

bear mountain trail

(c) ABR 2020

Trail difficulty: Hard

Trail length: 4.9 miles

Elevation gain: 1,975 feet

Toilet at the trailhead: Yes

Entrance fee: Red Rock Pass $5.00, US National Park Annual Pass; Red Rock passes can be purchased at the trailhead

Trail Experience

bear mountain trail

Doe Mountain (c) ABR 2020

The trailhead for Bear Mountain Trail is the same as Doe Mountain (another good hike, and not as long). But for Bear Mountain, you will need to cross the highway in order to get your journey underway. (Look both ways!) After crossing the street you will have a couple minutes to warm up on the flattest part of the trail. You will dip down into a creek bed and cross a lovely little field before starting to climb up the mountain.

Red Rock Cliffs

bear mountain trail

(c) ABR 2020

The first upwards part of the hike sticks in my head because this is where the red rock really shines through. The lower part of the mountain is very red, from the dusty dirt of the trail, to the stones surrounding you. This section of the trail is a pretty steady climb, and there are a few sections where you will need to do a little bouldering. (ALWAYS wear good hiking shoes on the trail!). I’d also say that this part of the trail will be one of the most difficult for people who are uncomfortable with heights, as there are a few cliff sections.

Up the Stony Mountain

bear mountain trail

(c) ABR 2020

When you reach the top the final red cliff, you might be tempted to think that you are getting close to the summit. But that isn’t the case. The trek upwards, across the tan stone of the upper mountain and through the juniper forest is much longer than first section of elevation gain. Because the stone of the mountain IS the trail for several parts of this section of the trail, you won’t always be able to follow a trail as you might be used to if you haven’t done a ton of hiking in different environments. You will need to keep your eyes peeled for paint blotches on the stone, to guide you.

bear mountain trail

(c) ABR 2020

Be sure to take your time on the trail for both safety reasons, and to take pictures! But of course, know that you should turn around if you feel yourself getting too tired or it’s getting too hot.

Being Kind on the Trail

Also, because Sedona is suffering from overtourism, please be extra courteous while visiting here. (Be courteous everywhere, but it’s especially important in places overcrowded with visitors). On the trail, that means, letting people pass you who are hiking faster. Yield to people hiking up. Always pack out your trash! And when parking, do not create your own parking spaces. If there isn’t room for you, come back later.

How to Get There

Stay Safe on the Trail

I ALWAYS have a section about safety on the trail with my hiking guides, because I think the most important thing you can do while in nature, is protect yourself and others. Accidents do happen, but you can stay out of a lot of trouble by being prepared.

Many people look at Sedona like the Disneyland of the desert, and with the vortexes and beautiful mountains, it definitely feels magical. But that doesn’t mean that you can expect to be unprepared on the trail and always stay safe. Luckily, there are some things you can do to make sure that you have a great time, without mishaps.

(1) Bring food and water.

bear mountain trail

(c) ABR 2020

One time, while hiking Camelback Mountain, I heard someone tell a man that he was so “strong” for refusing water on the trail. Lol. No.

Not drinking water while hiking anywhere, let alone in the desert, isn’t strong, it’s stupid. And believe me, you might feel ok while you hike, but if you get dehydrated during the day, you are going to have a killer headache at night. Plus, you put yourself at higher risk for heat exhaustion or weakness on the trail.

Make sure you have enough! A single 8 oz. bottle isn’t enough unless you will be hiking 1-2 miles on flat ground. (It DEFINITELY isn’t enough for Bear Mountain trail- you should be bringing 3 liters AT LEAST for this one).

It’s always smart to couple your water in-take with some salt as well to keep your electrolytes in good balance. Bring some salty snacks like chips and jerky for this, and you can bring some sugary snacks for little boosts in energy too.

(2) Wear the right clothes.

bear mountain trail

(c) ABR 2020

Always wear good, sturdy shoes while hiking. This will help you be more sure-footed on the trail, and protect your feet from injury. People have gotten stuck on the trail because they left for a hike with flip flops on. Athletic shoes are a step up from that, but the soles don’t tend to have a good grip and cholla spines can go right through the softer material of a running shoe.

Remember, the last thing you want to get hurt while you are away on the trail, are either of your feet.

(3) Stay on the trail.

The best way to get lost is to leave the trail. Sometimes this can be accidental, but please please don’t do it willfully. Getting lost is dangerous for you, but it also puts rescuers at risk, so if it does happen to you, you don’t want it to be because you decided to explore off the trail. Furthermore, walking off the trail does damage the environment. You might think there isn’t much damage that you can do, but remember that other people might follow your tracks and following other people’s spider trails make them more established.

Just don’t do it. There are thousands of miles of trail in Arizona. There is plenty that you can see while also being responsible.

(4) Let people know where you are going.

Whether you are hiking solo or with friends, let someone who will be at home know your plans. They should know what trail you are doing, when you plan to leave and when you plan to come back. You might also let them know what vehicle you are driving, and what you are wearing, just in case. Check in with them when you leave and return.

You might also consider getting a GIS locator for extra safety. AllTrails is also a great tool for navigating the trail.

(5) Only hike in good weather.

bear mountain trail

(c) ABR 2020

Not too hot and not too cold. But seriously, it gets super hot in Sedona, just like most of the rest of Arizona. It is no joke. Don’t be caught out on the trail when it is 90 F or more. I will discuss heat further in the following section, but just keep in mind that people die from heat exposure in Arizona every year.

Storms are also of concern in the desert. We have monsoons here and those can include flash flooding and dangerous amounts of lightning. Bear Mountain Trail would leave you vulnerable to lightning strikes. It is also very steep in many places, so even hiking in just the rain could be dangerous as it would make the trail more slippery.

Take the Heat in Arizona Serious

bear mountain trail

(c) ABR 2020

I grew up in Arizona, and I always take the heat seriously. But even so, I had a run in with heat exhaustion on Bear Mountain Trail, so I think this guide is the perfect place to discuss it in more detail. This story is a tale of mistakes, so these things can happen even when you have the best intentions. That’s also why I’d like to share this with you all.

A friend and I left the trailhead early in the morning, probably around 6a, planning for the heat. But we took our time on the ascent, and we had dogs with us. So we lost a lot of time during the coolest part of our day. By the time we turned around, things had started to heat up, and we were all starting to run low on water.

It got to the point that the dogs started running ahead of us, just so they could lay down in the shade. And that got me really worried. Dogs are far more at risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke than humans. So you really need to ideally not take your dogs when it is hot. Or really really make sure that you have enough water for them and keep them cool.

In any case, at that point, my hiking buddy also started needing to sit down in the shade to rest as we kept hiking down. And while I understood the need for rest, I also knew that the longer we spent on the trail, the hotter and hotter it was going to get. Without water and losing both shade and what coolness there was in the morning, we were not in a good situation.

What to Do

bear mountain trail

(c) ABR 2020

We were lucky that her husband was able to hike up to us with water so that everyone could rehydrate and make the last leg of the trip. But even so, by the time I made it to my car, I was feeling sick to my stomach and exhausted.

We were all at risk. We should have (1) not brought the doggies along, it was too long of a trail and too hot of a day. If it’s too hot for humans it is WAY too hot for dogs. (2) We all needed more water- we should not have run out. (3) We needed to leave earlier to make sure that we didn’t end up being out so late so that it was so hot. There was no intention for us to get in a dangerous situation. We had good shoes, we did have water, and we even left early. But with a little more planning and extra caution for our furry friends, we would have ended up with a much more pleasant experience.

More Arizona Travel Tips

Arizona is our lifelong home. If you want more tips for visiting our beautiful state, check out our Guide to Arizona. And if you are looking for more hiking inspiration, consider our guide to beautiful lake hikes near Phoenix-metro.

Planning your next trip? Save this for later on Pinterest.

Three Special Lake Hikes Near Phoenix, Arizona

Few people associate the desert of Central Arizona with lakes, but they are more common than you think. They are also more beautiful, rugged, and man-made than you might think as well. But whatever your knowledge on Arizona’s lakes might be, one thing is for sure, there are some amazing lake hikes near Phoenix, Arizona, that you just might need to put on your bucketlist.

This handy little guide will give you the scoop on three of my favorite trails that you can hike to explore different lakes. All of them have their own unique character, and every trail has it’s own draws. No matter your level of hiking experience, give these trails a gander. If you haven’t done all (or any) of them, they are worth checking out. And if none of these look quite challenging enough for you, you might consider some drier alternatives, such as Tom’s Thumb or the LV Yates trail.

Palo Verde Trail #512 at Bartlett Lake

lake hikes near phoenix

(c) ABR

The Palo Verde Trail (#512) at Bartlett Lake is a Tonto National Forest trail that follows the western shore of the lake. It’s fairly flat, such that the cumulative elevation gain is quite small. However, you will be hiking up and down along the contours of the shore, so it isn’t quite as easy as it might look at a glance. With a general lack of shade, this particular trek is best suited for the cooler months in Arizona- winter, late fall, and early spring.

I’ve hiked this trail a few times in the past, and while I wouldn’t say that it wins points for being the most unique of the three options, it’s my favorite Bartlett trail. I really enjoy trekking through the Sonoran Desert foliage, while also staying near the water. There is still something magical about saguaros on the beach. And the view across Bartlett is really spectacular as well. The Four Peaks crowns all the surrounding lands, and at times there is even snow on the ground here.

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Tom’s Thumb Trail: One of the Best Hiking Trails in Scottsdale, AZ

From almost anywhere in west Phoenix/Scottsdale, there is a particular rock formation that you can see in the McDowell Mountains- Tom’s Thumb. And if you’ve seen it, you may have asked yourself, how can I get up there to visit? Well, the answer is simple! Just take on one of the most popular hiking trails in Scottsdale, the Tom’s Thumb Trail. While not long, this is a steep hike up into the mountains of the Sonoran Desert, so it’s no proverbial walk in the park. But the views from this trail are out of this world. And of course, Tom’s Thumb itself is an amazing formation that’s well worth the hard hike.

tom's thumb trail

(c) ABR 2019

I’ve been on this trail a few times over the years, and I’ve always enjoyed this trek and been challenged by it. I would only suggest this for intermediate hikers, rather than beginners. The path is steep, has a slippery substrate, and is an unforgiving climate. But give this guide a read to see if it might be for you. This is a very special trek, close to the city, and one of the most unique trails in the area.

What Makes Tom’s Thumb Trail Among the Best?

tom's thumb trail

(c) ABR 2021

There are two things that I absolutely adore about this particular route from among the hiking trails in Scottsdale. (1) Great views. (2) Seeing Tom’s Thumb up close.

The western side of the McDowell Mountains is kind of unique when it comes to the Sonoran Desert of Central Arizona. This is because it has a somewhat more… grassy characteristic to it. In fact, there are parts of the trail named after this arid “prairie.” Grasslands (not patches of grass) can encourage wildfires, which our native, Central Arizona plants are not adapted to. That being said, there are some native grasses, and areas of Arizona that are considered grasslands. So, I think you can safely enjoy this landscape.

Also, the Tom’s Thumb Trail will take you up to the towering rock that can be seen from the city. It is both fascinating and awe-inspiring to see this massive formation. And while the thumb is the most famous of the huge rocks up in this part of the McDowell Mountains, there are plenty of huge, mysterious stones to marvel at from the trail.

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Two Beautiful But Short Hikes In Phoenix, Arizona

Hiking is one of the mainstays of Arizona, and unlike rampant partying, it’s a part of our tourism product that I fully approve of. There is an endless plethora of trails throughout the state, and even after having lived here for more than 30 years, I’ve only scratched the surface. But perhaps, you are in town for a conference. Or visiting a friend in the city. And you don’t have the wiggle room to commit to a full day hike, but you still want to get out and take in the exotic, natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert. Or maybe you are just getting started hiking. Whatever, the case, if you are searching for some good, short hikes in Phoenix, Arizona, this is the post for you.

short hikes in phoenix

LV Yates Trail (c) ABR 2021

Today, I present to you two hikes, appreciated by both myself and others in the hiking community here. The first is the LV Yates trail in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, which is a great escape in the city. And the second is Blue Point to the Ovens, which is located just outside of town in the Salt River section of the Tonto National Forest. Both are about 3-5 miles and relatively easy in terms of elevation gain. I hiked both recently thanks to the #ILoveAZHikingChallenge 2021 which is a three month hiking challenge based on stewardship of some of the Sonoran Insiders’ favorite trails.

If you have just a few hours to spend hiking, consider giving one of these short hikes in Phoenix a try.

LV Yates Trail (#8)

short hikes in phoenix

LV Yates (c) ABR 2021

 The LV Yates Trail (#8) stretches from a northern edge of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, south. It’s one of the perfect short hikes in Phoenix for exploring the Sonoran Desert characteristic of the Valley of the Sun. While this specific trail doesn’t cross all the way to the other side of the park, it does interlink with trails that do. So, this is a great area to visit if you’d like to tailor your trek a bit- you could make a lollipop, a loop, or a shuttled one-way hike. However, this guide is going to focus on the out-and-back route that includes the #8 trail only. If you’d like to see what other options there are, check out the City of Phoenix map for the park.

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Spending a Weekend in Fort Davis, Texas

Why Spend a Weekend in Fort Davis?

Spending a weekend in Fort Davis, Texas is the perfect way to explore and experience the central region of West Texas. There is a long and storied past here, and it has something for everyone. Need I say more?

Perhaps, if you aren’t sure why you should be interested in visiting this corner of the world- yes. Well, if nothing else, Fort Davis is home to the aptly named Fort Davis National Historic Site. So, if you are like me and you are trying to visit as many national park units as possible, this little town is a must-stop. If you aren’t on that quest, but you enjoy traveling in ways that allow you enjoy nature and culture/history around the world, then Fort Davis has a great mix of the two.

weekend in fort davis

(c) ABR 2021

If you aren’t interested in either of those… well, why are you here?! But seriously, even if you prefer to just relax when you travel, and perhaps you want to sample some wine and do some people watching- Fort Davis has you. The Veranda Historic Inn was super relaxing with its beautiful building, caring owner, and steady provision of tea/cookies. And you’ve got Chateau Wright just outside of town!

So, in short, the only thing you won’t get here is a white sand beach holiday. So… what are you waiting for? Let’s plan your weekend in Fort Davis.

Where to Stay – The Veranda Historic Inn

weekend in fort davis

(c) ABR 2021

I loved the Veranda Historic Inn, and I think you will too. I would 100% suggest that you book a room here when you visit Fort Davis.

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