McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking: Why I Both Love and Hate This Park

McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking- Is It Good?

McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking

(c) ABR 2020

No… in my opinion, McDowell Mountain Regional Park hiking is not good.

That being said, before I dive into the reasons why I don’t like this park, and I will briefly describe why you might actually enjoy hiking here.

Why You Might Like McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking

(1) There aren’t a ton of desert parks across the region that allows you to enjoy the natural beauty of the valley floor. Most have mountains, and mountains can have very different plant and animal communities.

(2) McDowell Mountain Regional Park hiking is perfect for beginners. There isn’t a lot of elevation gain in the park, so it’s a great place to build strength and trail experience.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking

(c) ABR 2020

(3) There are AMAZING views from the park! Even hiking through a wash, you can see some of the most iconic mountains in Maricopa county. This includes Weaver’s Needle and Four Peaks.

(4) There is plenty of very nice birding that you can do from Stoneman’s Wash, which isn’t a prohibitively long hike from the Pemberton trailhead.

(5) When the season is right, McDowell Mountain Regional Park hiking can provide a reprieve from the foot-traffic crowds. For instance, if I try to go to Dreamy Draw at 11am on a Sat in winter, I will struggle to find parking. The trails are absolutely full of people. In McDowell, you won’t need to fight for a parking spot and you can have some true solitude.

What’s So Bad About McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking?

Ok, so if there are all those reasons that someone might really enjoy hiking in this particular park, why do I dislike it? Let me give you some of my thoughts.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking

(c) ABR 2020

(1) It’s Boring On Foot

The park is flat, and due to this the hiking can start to feel boring. When I went most recently, I took one of the most difficult trails, and after an hour or so, everything just started to look the same. It just really doesn’t inspire me to keep going, or to keep coming back to see more.

(2) It’s No Fun to Dodge Mountain Bikers

There are SO many mountain bike riders enjoying the trails here that it becomes difficult to enjoy it as a hiker. The last time I went hiking here, particularly on the Pemberton Trail, I spent a good amount of time dodging out of the way of bikes. Technically, bikers are meant to yield to hikers, but they rarely do. I’m not particularly fond of having to be on edge while I walk around, constantly listening for bikes coming up behind me. Some come up so fast, especially around corners.

(3) Constant Noise

McDowell Mountain Regional Park hiking can actually be a pretty loud. There are a lot of things that you can do in the park, and some things that you can’t but which can impact your experience. For instance, when I’ve been out there I’ve heard gunshots while hiking- they are off in the distance. I’m guessing these are people shooting out in the national forest, which is allowed, but I don’t like hiking in the back-country while I can hear lots of shooting. With all of the events in the park there is often also a buzz of traffic, and last time I was there a small plane was circling the park as well.

A Paradise for Mountain Bikers

McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking

I know this isn’t a mountain biker 😛 (c) ABR 2020

All that being said, if you are a mountain biker, McDowell Mountain Regional Park is for you! The trails in this park are absolutely perfect for both beginners and expert mountain bikers. The relatively flat character of much of the land will give new mountain bikers the chance to get used to riding in a more rugged setting. For experts, there are plenty of rolling hills to enjoy, and Pemberton will give you a nice 15 mile trek across the desert. There is also a competitive, one-way track that you can use to pick up some speed and test your skills (no hikers allow- only runners, bikers, and horseback riders).

There are also some other cool resources for mountain bikers in the park. For instance, there is a bike wash at the trailhead staging area that makes for the perfect starting place for the Pemberton Trail. The trailhead area is also sized in such a way that makes it far more appealing for bike staging. You can actually park with room to set up your equipment.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking

(c) ABR 2020

The visitor center is also easily accessible from the Pemberton Trail, which makes it a nice stop for bikers that want to take a break either early or late into their loop ride. There are a plethora of trails that connect to the Pemberton, which makes it easy to adjust your trip time and length as well.

Finally, the substrate in much of the park is very nice for bike riding. The hardest place to ride will likely be through the washes, which can be quite sandy.

And Plenty of Other Things to Do

If you aren’t interested McDowell Mountain Regional Park hiking or biking, but you still want to check out the area, never fear. There are plenty of things to do in the park.


First, there is a lot of room for camping out here. While this might not be one of the most exciting places to camp, in the spring and fall coming out here to pitch a tent or park an RV will offer you a peaceful desert experience. It’s not far from the city, so for a relaxing weekend, it makes for the perfect reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Phoenix. With a wide-open sky, nightfall in the park will give you the opportunity to star gaze. Sunrise and sunset are beautiful, and as I said before, there are amazing views of some of the most famous mountains in the Valley.

Horseback Riding

This is also a potential spot for horseback riding, with the competitive track and relatively level trails. However, I am not a horseback expert by any means, so while I know that they allow for riding in the park, I can’t say how safe or fun it would be. In particular, I would guess that you would need to bring a horse that wouldn’t be put off by all of the bike riders at the very least.

Learning and Exploration
McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking

(c) ABR 2020

McDowell Mountain Regional Park has a lovely little visitor center. So if you are new to the Sonoran Desert, this is a good park to learn a little bit about the environment. If you have kids, this is also a wonderful resource to teach them more about the plants and animals of the area. If you stop off here before hitting the trail, you will get some good ideas for what to look for while you are out and about with the kiddos.

Maricopa County offers a variety of interpretive experiences that are perfect for the curious among you. During the day, they do guided hikes, and they also have star walks with fair regularity. It’s a great way to learn more and ask those pressing questions that you’ve had burning!

Finally, McDowell Mountain Regional Park has a bunch of events throughout the year. Whether you like competing in bike races and the like, or you just like spectating, it’s a great place to spend the day.

Keeping the Desert Alive

McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking

(c) ABR 2020

While McDowell Mountain Regional Park hiking is not my cup of tea, there is one other very important reason to love this park.


What do I mean by that? First, connectivity is an ecology/conservation term that refers to connections across a landscape. Animals use many different elements of the world around them. For instance, a relatively flat area might be perfect for hunting, while mountainsides might make for the perfect nesting spot. An animal with these preferences will need both, and they need a way to travel between them. If we, say, build a road right between the two, and our little animal has to cross that road, it can make it impossible to use both. In the long-term, this can cause many animals to disappear from our desert parks, when they become entirely surrounded by the city.

In nature, sometimes groups of animals might move out of an area or die (like in the case of a flood, fire, hurricane, disease, etc.). When that area is connected to a larger network of habitat, that species can return over time, when other individuals discover that there is space, food, nesting spots, etc. there. In order for them to find there way back into an area, however, that place must be connected to other habitats.

In short, when a place lacks connectivity, its biodiversity will suffer. This is because there are less resources for local animals, they are forced into closer proximity to humans, and new animals can’t find their way into the area.

Phoenix Connectivity
McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking

(c) ABR 2020

This is a very big challenge faced by desert parks in Phoenix, because the city has grown around many of the original parks. Camelback Mountain and the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, for example, are little islands. Unless an animal can pass through miles and miles of city, they have no way to move from either of those to other parks or the surrounding desert.

In the case of the McDowell Mountains, the City of Scottsdale protected the mountains themselves. However, development is already taking place in all directions surrounding the park. The McDowell Mountain Regional Park helps to connect the city’s massive preserve to the Tonto National Forest.

But this connection is tenuous, because it depends on development in Rio Verde and Fort McDowell Indian Community.

Regular people can make a big impact when it comes to things like this, wherever you live, by picking developments that include habitat corridors and natural spaces that other species can use to travel through our human landscapes.

How to Get There

There are basically two ways to get to McDowell Mountain Regional Park. From northern Phoenix, you would take Dynamite Blvd. east until it becomes Rio Verde Drive. You will then hang a right on Forest road and another right on McDowell Mountain Road. Finally you will take one last right, into the park, shortly after a brown road sign.

From the south, you will want to head into Fountain Hills. From Shea, the largest east-west road in this suburb, you will turn north onto one of several roads including Palisades Blvd., Saguaro Blvd., or Fountain Hills Blvd. Saguaro and Palisades will require a turn north onto Fountain Hills Blvd. eventually, and this road will then turn into McDowell Mountain Road. Follow this road north until you see the brown park sign, and then turn left into the entrance.


16300 McDowell Mountain Park Dr.
MMRP, AZ 85268
(602) 506-2930 ext. 3

Need to Know

McDowell Mountain Regional Park Hiking

(c) ABR 2020

Entrance Fee

$7.00 per vehicle

(Maricopa County Parks, which protects a ton of land in the county, supports its parks through entrance fees almost exclusively. So, please don’t enter these parks illegally. These fees are massively important.)

Park Hours

Sunday thru Thurs.: 6 a.m. – 8 p.m. / Friday thru Saturday: 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. / 365 days a year

Visitor Center Hours

Summer (05/06 – 10/07)
Monday thru Saturday: 7 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Sunday: Closed

Winter (10/08 – 5/05)
Sunday thru Saturday: 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.

For more information on the park, check out the Maricopa County Parks and Rec website.

Want to learn more about Arizona? Check out our in-depth Arizona guide! We are both lifelong Arizonans and our posts on our home state are constantly growing.

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  1. Looks beautiful! Thanks for the great info. I’m going to have to check this place out.

  2. I’ve been to Phoenix several times (my brother lives out there) but I’ve never heard of this park. It doesn’t sound like a great place to hike, but if I ever go with my mom, who prefers hiking on flat ground, maybe I can take her here lol. But if I ever want to learn how to mountain bike, it seems like it would be a great place for beginners!

    • waitingforrain28

      There might be quieter parks to go with your mom, with the bikes coming as fast as they do. But yes, I have been thinking about starting to go out mountain biking there soon!

  3. Lived in Phoenix for 2 years (just moved) and absolutely loved going to this spot. Great for moon shoots too! Early morning, all day in the winter or in the evening, it is such a beautiful walk.

  4. Very detailed and honest guide. We just returned from a trip to Tucson and loved hiking in the desert. Can’t wait to plan a return trip to Arizona!

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