The Pass Mountain Trail is a great challenge for anyone looking for a longer day hike near Phoenix, Arizona in the USA. It’s a loop trail that’s about 7.5 miles from start to finish, and it has just enough elevation gain to get you sweating a little bit without killing you. The views from this trail also include some of the most spectacular vistas in the Phoenix-metro area, so it’s not to be missed if the length isn’t too much for you.
Need to Know
Trail Length: 7 miles (although we clocked closer to 8 miles)
Elevation Gain: 950+ feet
Difficulty: Clockwise- Moderate; Counter clockwise- difficult
Facilities: Yes, at the trailhead
Season: Fall, winter, and spring
Fee: $7.00 to enter the county park
We traveled in a clockwise direction and left from the Wind Cave trailhead, and from this starting point, there are essentially three sections to the Pass Mountain Trail. The first is a trek across the undulating landscape to the north, the second is the climb up to the saddle and then down, and the final is the flat slog back to the trailhead. If you want a more challenging hike, due to increased steepness, travel counter clock-wise.
Section One: North and Around the Mountain
As you leave from the Wind Cave trailhead, you will find that the stats on this section of the trail are deceiving. That’s because you won’t technically see a lot of elevation gain throughout these miles, but that doesn’t mean that the hiking is flat. Instead, you will find yourself hiking down and up, in and out of washes. It’s not horribly difficult, but it does wear on you. Some sections of the trail are hard ground under a layer of round rocks, which can make some steep sections more prone to slippage. All that being said, this section does give you some wonderful views of the Usery Mountains, which are very colorful and unique. There are also some very impressive saguaros on this part of your hike. So there is plenty to enjoy as you work your way towards to upwards hike towards the saddle.
Section Two: The Saddle
From the clockwise direction the hike up towards the saddle is slow and steady and you will start your climb while you are still on the western side of the mountains. This was my favorite part of the Pass Mountain Trail because there are just some absolutely amazing views of the Tonto National Forest from here. And the trail itself is very interesting and varied.
When you reach the saddle, you will find yourself standing between the Usery mountains and another peak to the east. Essentially, you will be standing on the center of a T made of mountains. It’s an interesting formation with supremely exceptional views in all directions. To the west, you will be able to marvel at the stoney face of the mountain. To the southeast, you will see the Superstitions and the city. And to the north east will be the expanse of the Tonto National Forest. This is also about your half way point so it may be a good place to stop an enjoy a snack or two.
Now you will start a steep descent with some switchbacks. Going downhill, this isn’t much of a challenge, although you will want to be careful not to slip. If you are traveling counter clock-wise, however, this will be your main challenge and you will see most of your elevation gain in this one short section. It is definitely a great workout.
Section Three: The Flat Slog Home
There are plenty of times on a long trail that you feel like the final miles are a slog, but this final section was my least favorite of this particular trail. That’s mostly because it felt boring. Once you come down from the saddle, you will mostly be walking on flat ground all the way back to the parking lot. This is about 3 miles of flat land hiking. While I sometimes enjoy exploring the lower deserts, I am less jazzed about this when its at the last part of a seven mile hike. Furthermore, you will start running into Usery’s other network of trails, and this can make the going confusing at times. Keep your eyes out for signs, and follow your map in the right direction. Needless to say, I was very happy to get back to my car.
Safety on the Trail
I always include a safety section in my newer hiking guides, because hiking can be dangerous, particularly if you aren’t prepared. As always, remember that you must take responsibility for yourself when you are out in nature- this guide is not a guarantee that Pass Mountain Trail is for you. Always take the time to assess your fitness level, environmental conditions (e.g. heat, weather), and supplies before heading out on the trail. Here are some more tips for staying safe on the trail, but please don’t consider this comprehensive.
(1) Pay attention to the weather
Arizona is a very hot place, and some people joke that it’s a “dry heat,” but don’t let that fool you. People die from the heat here. Once the 90s hit, you should really ask yourself if you should be on the trail, particularly if it is already hot when you leave home.
You might also think that weather in Arizona, since it is a desert, would be quiet and gentle, but that’s not the case. When it rains here, many times, it is a torrential downfall. Flash flooding, micro-bursts, etc. are all things to be considerate of. So, make sure to check the weather before you head out, particularly if it isn’t a cloudless day.
(2) Go prepared- pack what you need and dress appropriately
The Pass Mountain trail is 7+ miles, so you will need to bring along some supplies to keep you going and keep you safe/happy while you travel. Bring more water than you think you will need, and pack some snacks. Definitely make sure you have good hiking shoes that are broken in, possibly some trekking poles, and clothes appropriate for the weather. Sunscreen and a hat are also usually must-haves out here.
(3) Let someone at home know where you are going
Make sure that someone who isn’t in your hiking party is aware of where you are going and when you plan on being back. Make sure to check in with them when you are back at your car or have cell service again.
Respectful Travel in Arizona
Whether you are an Arizona local or visiting from elsewhere, being a respectful traveler is key to making sure that tourism is a force for good, not ill. Here are a few tips to keep in mind for visiting Arizona respectfully:
(1) Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is about more than litter- it’s about how to behave kindly on the trail and protect all the resources that you’ve come to enjoy. It’s a great philosophy to keep on hand while exploring. Learn more about the principles on the LNT website.
(2) Stay in a hotel
Arizona has a law called SB1350 which does not allow its small governments to regulate short term rentals like Airbnb and VRBO. Because of this, our communities have been suffering from unregulated party houses which bring unending noise disturbances and crime to neighborhoods. Even nicely run short term rentals in Arizona deprive local people from having real neighbors and has likely contributed to our shortage of affordable housing. Until the laws here change, short term rentals are not sustainable or responsible to lodge in in Arizona- even if you see a registration number. If you must stay in a short term rental, stay in someone’s guest house or mother-in-law suite, otherwise, check out some of our amazing hotels here.
(3) Respect local culture
If you are curious about culture in the United States, we have a guide for traveling respectfully in our home county. This tip varies by location, of course, even within the US, where we have many regional cultures as well as people living here from all over the world. But in this case, we are talking about our home state.
Looking to Explore More of Arizona?
Check out our post on one of the most challenging trails in the Phoenix-metro area- Flatiron via Siphon Draw.
We also have a Guide to Arizona!
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