The Sonoran Desert is pretty undervalued by lots of people, so when I have the opportunity to show someone around, I really think hard about where I want to take them. For guests who doesn’t have a whole lot of time and/or who aren’t comfortable with longer hikes, the McDowell Mountain Regional Park: Scenic Trail is my go-to. It’s a moderate 4 mile hike, that is just long enough to immerse someone in the desert, and introduce them to our iconic biodiversity (like the saguaro). And there isn’t a ton of elevation gain, but the trail does go to the top of a hill for sweeping views of the McDowell Mountains and the sky-scraping heights of Four Peaks. On top of all that, it’s close to Phoenix-metro area, so it’s not hard to get to!
TL:DR – If you don’t have a lot of time and/or the desire for a long hike, the McDowell Mountain Regional Park: Scenic Trail is the perfect introduction to wild Sonoran Desert.
- 1 Need to Know
- 2 Getting There
- 3 Trail Sections (aka What to Expect)
- 4 Biology Take Away – The Life and Times of Saguaros
- 5 Safety Tips
- 6 Responsible Hiking Tips
- 7 Guide to Arizona
Need to Know
Trail Length: 4.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 357 feet
Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle
Managed by: Maricopa County Parks and Recreation
Facilities? Yes, at the trailhead
Vehicle Access: Accessible with any vehicle
The trailhead for the McDowell Mountain Regional Park: Scenic Trail can be found (unsurprisingly) in the McDowell Mountain Regional Park. Specifically, once you get to the park, you will want to follow the road past the entrance station, to a sign indicating the Trailhead Staging area. If you are driving north, this will be a right hand turn off the main park road shortly past the visitor center. You will know that you are there when you see a large, gravel parking lot complete with restrooms and picnic ramadas. Then, if you are facing the bathrooms, the scenic trail will start on your left, just past the ramadas. The park has great signage, so look for the signs for the trail and snag a map on your way in.
Trail Sections (aka What to Expect)
There are three sections to the McDowell Mountain Regional Park: Scenic Trail, by my estimation. If you want to get right up the hill for the best views, take the loop clockwise. This will make the first leg of your trip on the flat, wide Pemberton Trail. Enjoy the Sonoran Desert and do a little people watching, because this is the biggest loop trail in the park and it’s frequented by bikers, hikers, and horseback riders. You will hike on past the first turn off for the Scenic Trail and head north for about 1.3 miles until you get to the second branch.
Once you take this turn, you will begin making your way upwards. In all, you will gain about 350+ feet, so while the upwards trek may be a bit steep, the upwards slog isn’t horribly long. Once you make it to the top of the Lousley Hills, you will then follow the trail along the top of the rolling ridge for about two miles. From here, if you look to the east, you will see Four Peaks, which you can identify by its namesake crags. You will also catch some views of citrus farms (one of Arizona’s 5 C’s). To the West, check out the McDowell Mountains. There are also some great opportunities to enjoy the long and majestic lives of the iconic saguaros on the McDowell Mountain Regional Park: Scenic Trail which is complete with young, growing, old, and even dead members of this species.
After you traverse the hill tops, you will then head back down, and walk for about 1.2 miles down a wash back towards the Pemberton. Take a moment, while you are heading back, to note the different plants that can be found in the wash, where water runs when it rains. While there are some Sonoran plants that can be found both at the top of the hills and in these lower areas, you will also notice that there are more trees along this section of the trail. And be sure to give them a look if you aren’t an Arizona native; our indigenous trees are much different from the trees that grow in temperate areas.
Finally you will get back to the Pemberton, turn left, and walk about 0.2 miles back to the parking area.
Biology Take Away – The Life and Times of Saguaros
Besides the views, my favorite part of the McDowell Mountain Regional Park: Scenic Trail is the saguaros. The scientific name for these immense plants is Carnegiea gigantea, and they are rightfully the symbol of American deserts that we are all familiar with in their cartoon form. In real life, these rulers of the desert are more beautiful than you can imagine, but fragile too.
They grow from extremely small seeds, which might remind you of the mighty mustard. And when they first sprout, they look nothing like the plants that they will eventually become. As they grow, many young saguaros shelter in the shade of nurse plants. These are often bushes or small trees that might shade baby saguaro and provide them with a little protection from plant predators like rabbits. When the saguaro gets big enough, it might kill its nurse plant, or just outlive it.
Young saguaros are just a single column (they are called columnar cacti for a reason!), and when they grow their first arm they are about 50 years old. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot otherwise guess the age of a saguaro by its height or number of arms. They grow at different rates depending on the amount of water and nutrients that they get.
Saguaros Are Important to People and Animals
Flowers and fruits grow from the top of the arms, and fruiting in particular happens during the heat of the summer. Saguaro flowers are white, and their fruits are a bright red color. O’odham people traditionally harvested these fruits for healthy foods and to make the wine that is and was used in seasonal celebrations (particularly those to call in rain). They still harvest them now and you can join in the harvest via some events (but know that it is not legal to harvest saguaro fruit on your own). Doves, bats, and many other species also rely on these fruits every year.
Besides food, saguaros are also the home to many bird species. Woodpeckers will carve out holes in the flesh of the saguaro, and the plant will create a dry scar which we call a “boot.” Birds can then build nests in the boots and enjoy a relatively cool and safe place to raise their babies.
When a saguaro dies, the flesh will rot away, revealing a woody skeleton. The ribs of the skeleton could be used for a variety of purposes, including as a building material, but importantly, to create saguaro fruit harvesting poles!
Saguaro were threatened by poaching in the past, when they were stolen from the environment to be sold to buyers. They are now threatened by climate change and associated wildfires. These iconic cacti aren’t adapted to fire, and thus, they are known to die if they are 30% burned. Although, they may look alive for up to five years after they are damaged. So, it’s really important to care for any fires that you start, and consider helping us address climate change together, for the sake of our saguaro family as well as ourselves.
I ALWAYS include safety tips on all of my hiking guides, because I want everyone to have a good time. Believe me, getting heat exhaustion or having to be rescued is not enjoyable.
(1) Go prepared!
Bring some snacks, and more water than you think you need. Also, please wear good hiking shoes to keep you from slipping on the trails and protect your feet from all the rocks and pokey things.
(2) Check the weather.
Central Arizona has two weather related issues that should be of most concern for this trail. First is the heat. During the summer, do not attempt this trail during the day- only in the early morning and evening. Otherwise, you risk getting heat exhaustion, stroke, or even dying. It’s seriously no joke and people die every year on our trails because they underestimate the desert heat. The second thing is our thunderstorms, which come with intense rains, flooding and lightning. Avoid hiking during any monsoon or thunderstorm here.
(3) Let someone know where you are.
Make sure that someone you know knows what trail you are on, and check in with them when you leave for your hike and when you get back to safety.
(4) Watch out for the pokey stuff!
Most of our plants will poke you, so be careful. The cacti of most concern are called Cholla. Cholla has pods that are covered in extremely sharp spines that fall to the ground. And these can sit along the sides of the trail. If you happen to get one of these on your shoe, use tweezers, a comb, or a stick to remove them. Do not grab the pod with your hand. If the spines get in your skin, it will be a bit painful as they have a pain inducing chemical on them. They can also be hard to pull out. Once you get the pod off with a tool of some sort, you can pull out the spines individually with your fingers. It’s best to just watch where you are stepping and keep your distance from any cacti.
Responsible Hiking Tips
It’s very important that when we go out to enjoy nature that we take care of it. Otherwise, we are not protecting the trails for the people that come after us and the plants and animals that call these places home. There is always more that you can do to take care of the land, but here are some tips.
(1) Learn more about Leave No Trace Principles and use them while you are out exploring.
(2) If you want to take pictures with a saguaro while on the McDowell Mountain Regional Park: Scenic Trail, please be sure not to stand too close to their base. If you do, you can actually damage their shallow root systems. I would suggest standing about 5 feet away just to be safe. These guys are many decades old (the tall ones are likely older than you). They are also endangered, and they are essential to our Sonoran Desert Ecosystem. The O’odham people consider saguaros to be people, and I think that’s a great way to go. Please respect our plant friends.
(3) Stay on the trail. The desert looks “empty” to people who are new to it. But besides our variety of plants and animals we are also home to many microscopic communities. In fact, we have something called bacterial crusts, which are tucked away in the soil and can be killed if you walk on them. (Did you know that Arizona is the third most biodiverse state in the United States!)
Guide to Arizona
Interested in exploring more of Arizona? Be sure to check out our Guide to Arizona– this is our home state and we are always getting out to experience more of it.
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