Phoenix has some extremely popular hikes right within city limits. You have probably heard of them – Piestewa Peak and Camelback Peak. But these famous hikes aren’t for everyone. They are very steep and very crowded, and for new hikers, these hikes can really turn you off. I’ve witnessed people really struggling on these trails and getting discouraged that they can’t do them. But hiking is like any other sport, you train to do it. You train to go further, to go on more difficult trails, and even just to keep up your skill levels and fitness. With all that in mind, whether you are a first-time hiker or someone who is just looking to add some variety to their training hikes, I’ve got a couple great options for you here. These are two peaks in the same section of the Phoenix Mountain parks – North Mountain and Shaw Butte.
There are loads of good hikes in this area, and you can adjust the length of your hike to match and track your progress. There is also a mix of paved trails and dirt trails, so for people who are really new to hiking, you can tailor your journey to your needs and comfort level.
These are also great trails to visit if you just haven’t been to them before, so let’s check out these great training hikes in Phoenix, AZ!
Training Hikes in Phoenix, AZ
One of the things that has really helped me in my hiking journey is (1) training hikes, and (2) a variety of trails that I can train on. Throughout my life, my fitness level has gone up and down and so has my hiking fitness. So, sometimes, I have to start from the beginning in terms of distance and steepness. Having some good trails in my back pocket makes it much easier to get back out there and build my strength back up. When I am keeping up my fitness, these trails help too. They make it easy to get out during the week or a lazy weekend and just get some miles in.
In particular, I think having trails that you are really familiar with and which represent varying levels of challenge can help you get out and do hikes that are harder or easier depending on your needs that day. I also find that familiar hikes are just easier to get out on when you are feeling down or tired.
With that in mind, Shaw Butte and North Mountain were two of my go-to training hikes in Phoenix, AZ when I lived there. North Mountain is a shorter hike with a nicely paved trail. While the trail up Shaw Butte is a little rougher and longer. There are also loops of 4 and 6 miles that can be done, and several flat trails that you can enjoy in the park.
In short, almost no matter what you are looking for, you can find it in this part of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve.
There are several different places to park around this part of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, and in particular, there are parking lots at the base of both North Mountain and Shaw Butte. However, I usually park at the North Mountain Visitor Center parking lot, because it doesn’t fill up as quickly as the other lots and has bathroom facilities.
To access this parking lot, you will approach from the north or south on 7th Street. There is signage on the road for the visitor center, or you can put the following address into Google: 12950 N. 7th Street. The visitor center and the lot are to the west of 7th Street.
It is free to use this park, as it is free to use all City of Phoenix Parks. And there are bathrooms outside of the visitor center – these aren’t my favorite as they lack doors. When the visitor center is open, however, you can use regular bathrooms inside. There is also a cute little shop and museum in the center that are worth stopping in for.
If you do park in this area, you will have a little more mileage for your treks, but I think these starting sections will help you warm up for the steeper parts of the trail.
North Mountain Trail
Between the two peaks in this section of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, I think that North Mountain is the easier of these two training hikes in Phoenix, AZ. The trail is a little shorter, and about equally steep as Shaw Butte. I’m always challenged by this little mountain, and for people just building up their strength, you can do longer and longer sections of North Mountain until you reach the top.
If you start from the North Mountain Visitor Center, you will take a southern trail from the parking lot. From what I can tell, this is an established social trail, but it has no name and it isn’t on the official maps. However, you can find it by walking south to the end of the parking lot. It heads up into the hills and is sandwiched between 7th Street and the edge of the mountains. This trail is narrow, dirt (typical for the area), and will take you on a relatively gentle incline as it climbs upwards along the edge of the road. Eventually, you will hit a junction with the 101 trail. Continue south at this point. Here, the trail will get a bit steeper and rougher, before joining with the paved road that will go up to the top of North Mountain.
Now, it is fairly easy to get to the summit in terms of navigation. Just follow the road all the way up to the gated towers at the top. Some people continue to follow trail 44, which becomes dirt again near the top, to the south of the towers, but I like to walk up to the gate and summit out there. They have some really cute signs up there to touch and celebrate your accomplishment. I then go back the way that I came.
This hike ends up being about 2.5 miles and about 700 feet of elevation gain.
There are alternative routes that you can take up North Mountain. Trail 44 can be hiked as a loop if you park at the base of North Mountain, or create a lollipop if you park at the visitor center.
Shaw Butte Trail
Typically, when I hike Shaw Butte, I do the full 306 loop, however, depending on your needs you can adjust your route. This is what makes Shaw Butte one of my favorite training hikes in Phoenix, AZ. In particular, if you don’t want to do quite as much distance, you can park at the base of the mountain in a couple of smaller, neighborhood parking lots.
However, for my route, I take trail 100 west from the North Mountain Visitor Center. And then I follow it as it turns south, until it meets up with the 306 trail. Trail 100 is notably wide, heavily used, and generally flat. When you turn onto the 306, you will find yourself on a narrower track, and you will start climbing into the mountains. This climb will continue up as the trail meets a rough paved road that will take you up to the summit.
You will need to take a short spur at the top of the road to get to the actual summit of Shaw Butte. Look for the radio towers in order to find the way. I generally consider the giant pile of rocks up there to be the summit. There used to be a community plaque up there marking it, but this was destroyed in 2021.
To complete the loop, you will then keep traveling on the road, down the other side of the mountain. At the base, near the neighborhood parking lot, keep your eyes peeled for the sharp turn of the 306 on your right. This will take you from the road, to another dirt track. Generally, I take established social trails back to trail 100 and then head east back to the visitor center. You will find these large and well-traveled trails after you pass a large, dry dam. Cross the arroyo here (following the trail) and then follow the track back to trail 100.
When I hike the 306 loop from the Visitor Center, I end up hiking about 4.5 miles and 915 elevation gain.
The quality of the road here is much rougher and similar to a dirt trail than the road on North Mountain. But if you just want to keep to the larger roads, park at the neighborhood trailhead, for an out and back to the summit.
Safety on the Desert Trails
Remember, this guide is not a guarantee of your safety; you and you alone are responsible for your safety on the trail. Be prepared and be cautious. In addition to the tips above, here are some other considerations:
While these training hikes in Phoenix, AZ aren’t particularly long, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be dangerous. And even though I know these trails really well, I have been on them when it is too hot. It was definitely a potentially dangerous situation. Make sure that you pick times when the temperature is under 90 degrees. Additionally, monsoons in Arizona are not safe for hiking. There is a lot of lighting and flash flooding.
With the towers on both North Mountain and Shaw Butte, you should also stay outside of the fences and follow all posted instructions. It is possible to get very hurt or die by messing around with radio towers, in addition to it being illegal. The roads leading up to the towers are also active for employees, so keep your eyes peeled for trucks. Let them pass and stay safe!
Invasive Plants in the City
The Phoenix Mountain Preserve (along with most other parks in and around the city) are a showcase for many invasive plants. I’ve seen Stinknet, Sahara mustard, buffelgrass, fountain grass, and London rocket all in this park, particularly around the roads and highly used areas.
So, what is the deal with invasive plants and why should we care while checking out training hikes in Phoenix, AZ? Well, because invasive plants can damage the natural environment that we get out onto the trail to enjoy and they can also impact people and pets. Of most concern is that these plants compete with native species for resources, and they also create fuel for wildfires. Buffelgrass, in particular, is known to burn very hot and even encourage the spread of fire, because it is part of the grass’ life cycle. These fires kill saguaros, along with slower animals like tortoises. And they also pose a huge risk to homes and livestock.
Plants like stinknet are also known to trigger people’s allergies and asthma, thus it poses a health risk for many people.
If you feel drawn to help with this issue, consider:
- Removing invasive plants from your own property – these plants move from private property to natural areas.
- Consider getting involved with programs like Desert Defenders and Weedwackers where you can learn to properly identify invasive plants and assist in their removal.
- Donate to organizations like the Central Arizona Conservation Alliance and McDowell Sonoran Conservancy to support removal and research work.
Planning a Trip to Arizona?
Are you planning a trip to Phoenix, AZ? I lived there for more than 30 years, and I have loads of materials about exploring and getting the most out of visiting this city. Check out my guide to Phoenix. If you are planning a grand Arizona trip, I also have the hookups for you. Finally, if you are just looking for more hiking options throughout Arizona, check out some of my hiking goals and the hiking guides associated with them.
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