Ford Canyon Trail is one of the two exceptional, long hikes in the White Tank Mountains, and in my opinion, one of the best trails in Buckeye, AZ. I love this trail because it provides access to some of the most beautiful parts of the White Tank Mountains, including their namesake. It is also very fun, with the trail taking hikers up the stoney-bottomed, Ford Canyon, for which it is named. Nestled in one of the most biodiverse mountain ranges in the Phoenix-Metro area, this long trek is an escape into the wonders of the Sonoran Desert.
That being said, with a round trip of 10+ miles and some scrambles, this isn’t an easy trail. It takes skill and strength to do this trail, so come with me in this guide to see if this trail is for you. And if it isn’t at the moment, enjoy the pictures of this lovely corner of the Sonoran Desert.
Is Ford Canyon Trail Right For You?
I’ve hiked nearly every trail in the White Tank Mountains regional park, and this loop is hands-down my favorite and one of the best trails in Buckeye, AZ. Ford Canyon Trail allows you to explore the stone tanks on foot. It stays interesting with its scrambles and climbs up massive boulders and abandoned dams. The way down is also full of sweeping views of the mountains and city alike. There is also so much variety on this trek. It makes for a day full of wonder.
BUT, the entire Ford Canyon loop that I describe below is more than 10 miles long. It involves almost constant upwards hiking for the first half of those miles. And it includes a section with hard navigation and scrambles. For those reasons, I would not suggest this route for less experienced hikers, I would advise against doing this hike unless you are traveling with an experienced partner(s).
How do you know if your friend is experienced? They should have plenty of long distance hiking experience, and they should help you prepare for the trail. This includes helping make sure you have enough food and water, and the right clothing for the conditions. They should also consider the weather and advise on when would be the best time for you both to head out. They should also be willing and ready to turn around if you need to. (These are all things you should also do for yourself.) Like any short or long hikes in the White Tank Mountains (and elsewhere) you need to take care of yourself first.
If you are in the boat of wanting to do this trail, but not having the skill or stamina for it, I WOULD suggest doing the bottom of Ford Canyon, up until the trail starts to get very steep and hard to follow. (There were signs warning about this when I visited in 2022). This will allow you to enjoy the beautiful canyon, without the very long trek or dangerous portion of the trail.
What to Expect on Ford Canyon Trail
When I hiked Fort Canyon Trail, I made a loop of it by taking Ford Canyon Trail up, and then Willow Canyon and Mesquite Canyon back down. Taken all together, this route was about 11 miles round trip. I would suggest parking at the picnic site #7, so that you can come out of the mountains right at your car. You can take the Waddell trail north to the Ford Canyon Trail from there.
Waddell Trail Segment
If you follow my route as described, you will be starting out your trek on the Waddell Trail. This is about a mile of flat, desert hiking. It does intersect with several official and not-so-official trails. So, while this part of the trail is flat, navigating can be a little challenging. This is particularly hard when you run into routes that aren’t on the map, and it isn’t clear which way is the right one. AllTrails is particularly good for this, so if you have the ability to use it, I would suggest it. I believe in this early section of the trail, you will have signal, so even the free version could work. (Note: Back in the mountains you will lose signal completely, so don’t rely on it).
For views of the mountains in the dawn, I really enjoy Waddell as it takes you north along the base of the White Tanks.
Ford Canyon Segment
The Ford Canyon Trail is the longest segment of this trek (7.7 miles), and will be taking you uphill. Furthermore, there are parts of this trail that Maricopa County classifies as Hazardous.
From Waddell, you will hang a left onto Ford Trail. There should be signage unless the trails have been damaged before you come. You will start walking up into the mountains now. And true to its name, the route will take you up via Ford Canyon.
Here, you will notice that the canyon has humongous stones at its innermost depths. This stone floor allows water to flow down through mountains, and in some places it creates basins or “tanks” where water is collected during the monsoons.
As you work your way up, the trail is fairly tame, and for anyone not wanting to do the whole loop, this is the section that you might do – just to check out the canyon. The incline isn’t horrible and the views are pretty impressive.
Eventually, however, you will come on signs warning you about the hazardous section ahead. For experienced hikers, I don’t think you will find this all that challenging. I was scared of this section because I have not seen Maricopa County give such stringent warnings before. But I found that taking my time and navigating carefully, it wasn’t too hard. There is a little bit of scrambling, and some points at which it is easy to lose the trail. You won’t want to lose the trail, as that would be the easiest way to get into a difficult spot – either up a large boulder or after clawing your way up loose, desert gravel. If you take your time and follow the trail, however, you should be ok.
This section isn’t particularly long either. And the ascent up the canyon will become considerably easier once you climb up and over the abandoned dam. After this, you will be following the route of the water, hiking up step after step of the smooth stone that forms the based of Ford Canyon.
The elevation gain will get more severe when the trail finally takes you up and out of the canyon. Here you will be pushing yourself up scrubby, dessert hills on steep switchbacks.
For all its variety and challenge, this path up into the mountains is one of the best hikes in Buckeye, AZ.
Willow and Mesquite Canyon
You will turn off of Ford Canyon Trail – another left – on to Willow Canyon to begin your descent. Combined with Mesquite Canyon trail (which you will meet further down), this trail is a more typical Phoenix hiking experience. That means you will be surrounded by the rocky upper reaches of the mountains, hiking on trails that can be slick with loose rocks and dirt on top of the hard surface of the mountains themselves.
These trails include steep downhill sections and switchbacks. And they can get very busy with hikers and bikers. So, be sure to be polite and careful. (Uphill hikers have the right-of-way! And please let faster travelers moving in the same direction pass you.)
Also, don’t forget to stop and appreciate the views while working your way down. From Willow and Mesquite, you can see the White Tank Mountains stretching off to the north and south. And you can also see the massive expanse of the city to the east.
If you parked at Picnic Site #7, you will come out at the base of the mountains to your car. (Just make sure not to walk past it on accident, as Mesquite Canyon trail continues past the picnic site). Congratulations, you just finished the best (in my opinion) of the long hikes in the White Tank Mountains.
Need to Know Information
Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle (2023) or an Maricopa County annual pass for $85
Address: 20304 W. White Tank Mountain Road, Waddell, AZ 85355
Safety on the Trail
It is always important to stay safe on the trail. But even moreso when you are planning to be hiking long distances. Ford Canyon Trail, unless you are a trail runner, will take you many hours to complete (likely at least half the day). And that means that you will be exposed to a lot of sun and weather. Do no attempt this hike in summer. And come prepared. Besides food, water, and good clothes for the conditions, you will want to protect yourself from the sun. Wear a hat, regularly apply sunscreen or wear a sun shirt and pants.
The desert is also full of prickly plants and animals that can be dangerous. Respect them, their home, and yourself by staying away from the plants and wildlife. For instance, if you see the rattlesnake, do not approach or try to hurt them. If there are other hikers nearby, you might consider warning them but the best thing to do it keep your distance.
If you need to use the restroom while hiking (a particular concern in the long hikes in the White Tank Mountains, since you will be out for many hours), please remember that Ford Canyon Trail is an active waterway when there is rain. Use the bathroom as far from where you think water will be flowing as is safe. If you use toilet paper, back it out with you. If you go #2, make sure to bury it.
These are only a few things to consider while trekking Ford Canyon Trail. This guide is not a guarantee of your safety. Take care of yourself and be prepared.
More Hikes in White Tank Mountains
There are other long hikes in the White Tank Mountains (e.g. Goat Canyon), that are also among the best trails in Buckeye, AZ. But if you are looking to explore the White Tank Mountains without spending the whole day on Ford Canyon Trail or others, there are also exceptional short hikes in these mountains as well. My guide to the shorter trails of this regional park include the Waterfall Trail, Black Rock Loop, and Ironwood Trail. If you were to do all there, you would get to experience the beautiful flatlands of the park, as well as one of the White Tanks’ most famous canyons.
More to Do In Arizona
After living in Arizona for more than 30 years, I have many guides on hiking and culture across Arizona. Check it out for your trip in my Guide to Arizona page.
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