From almost anywhere in west Phoenix/Scottsdale, there is a particular rock formation that you can see in the McDowell Mountains- Tom’s Thumb. And if you’ve seen it, you may have asked yourself, how can I get up there to visit? Well, the answer is simple! Just take on one of the most popular hiking trails in Scottsdale, the Tom’s Thumb Trail. While not long, this is a steep hike up into the mountains of the Sonoran Desert, so it’s no proverbial walk in the park. But the views from this trail are out of this world. And of course, Tom’s Thumb itself is an amazing formation that’s well worth the hard hike.
I’ve been on this trail a few times over the years, and I’ve always enjoyed this trek and been challenged by it. I would only suggest this for intermediate hikers, rather than beginners. The path is steep, has a slippery substrate, and is an unforgiving climate. But give this guide a read to see if it might be for you. This is a very special trek, close to the city, and one of the most unique trails in the area.
- 1 What Makes Tom’s Thumb Trail Among the Best?
- 2 Trail Segments
- 3 Trail Conditions
- 4 Need to Know Information
- 5 How to Get There
- 6 Alternative Routes and Activities
- 7 Stewardship and Conservation
- 8 Safety Tips
- 9 More About Arizona
What Makes Tom’s Thumb Trail Among the Best?
There are two things that I absolutely adore about this particular route from among the hiking trails in Scottsdale. (1) Great views. (2) Seeing Tom’s Thumb up close.
The western side of the McDowell Mountains is kind of unique when it comes to the Sonoran Desert of Central Arizona. This is because it has a somewhat more… grassy characteristic to it. In fact, there are parts of the trail named after this arid “prairie.” Grasslands (not patches of grass) can encourage wildfires, which our native, Central Arizona plants are not adapted to. That being said, there are some native grasses, and areas of Arizona that are considered grasslands. So, I think you can safely enjoy this landscape.
Also, the Tom’s Thumb Trail will take you up to the towering rock that can be seen from the city. It is both fascinating and awe-inspiring to see this massive formation. And while the thumb is the most famous of the huge rocks up in this part of the McDowell Mountains, there are plenty of huge, mysterious stones to marvel at from the trail.
To my mind, there are four segments to the hike up Tom’s Thumb Trail. The first is the slower elevation gain from the trailhead visitor center towards the mountains. This is a great section of the trail that represents the flat lands of the Sonoran Desert. As you may notice, this part of Arizona is undergoing LOTS of rapid development. And most of the habitat being impacted is the desert at lower, flatter elevations. So, this is disappearing fast and it is very important to the plants, animals, and people of our city.
After you are warmed up, you will head into the second section of the trail, which is the hardest. In fact, this may be one of the hardest, popular hiking trails in Scottsdale. This is when you will switch from gradual elevation gain to really steep, winding trail. We suspect that this might be one of the less planned trails, and perhaps resulted from past spider trails. It isn’t the kind of trail that most park planners would design. Be careful! Make sure that you have good shoes, water, and snacks to undertake this.
Third and Fourth Section
After hiking up the mountain, you will come to a pass towards the top, and you will head downwards. (I know, disappointing!) At this point, the third section of the trail is fairly flat (compared to what you just did). It follows along the side of the mountain, and will give you some opportunities to photograph the mountain sides, prairies, and giant boulders that make this area so amazing. Enjoy your rest!
…Because the fourth section of the trail heads up again. This is the last stretch towards the Thumb itself, and while it isn’t quite as steep as the second section, it tends to have bottlenecks. Those are areas where people get backed up due to the trail narrowing or due to crowding. There are several sections where hikers have to slip through narrow passages between stones. And people do start jamming up for photos at the top.
Once you make it to Tom’s Thumb, you will have to turn around and do everything you just did, but backwards. Remember that you have an uphill walk before the steep downhill. Be careful not to slip going down, and let people hiking up have the right of way.
As I mentioned above, there are some challenging elements of the Tom’s Thumb trail. First, it is a very steep climb. So, it isn’t an easy hike even if it isn’t particularly long. This is compounded by crowding on the trail and the surface of the trail.
Yes, this is a popular trail. There are many people that hike it, particularly during the AZ tourism season when the weather is nice. But local people love this trek as well. So, it is steep and you will need to let people pass, which can be a little hard at times. (Please remember, yield to people hiking uphill).
The surface of the trail is typical for hiking trails in Scottsdale and elsewhere in the Sonoran Desert. But it might not be familiar to you if you are from out of town. That is, it is a hard surface, under sand and small round rocks. Which means, even when it is dry as a bone, it can be easy to slip on the trail.
Need to Know Information
Trail Length: 4 miles round trip (out and back)
Elevation Gain: 1,236 feet (376 m)
Difficulty: Black Diamond (Difficult)
Toilets at the trailhead: Yes
Best Seasons: Winter, early spring, and late fall
Official Information from the City of Scottsdale
How to Get There
Although technically, you can approach this area from either the east or west, coming from the east is far easier. And this is likely the route that most people coming from the city will take to the Tom’s Thumb Trail. The 101 and surface streets can be used to access the trail. I am not familiar with public transit to this area, and suspect there are few, if any options. The best option for getting there will either be a personal vehicle or a carpool.
Alternative Routes and Activities
There is a second route to Tom’s Thumb which is much longer than the most popular route explored here. This approaches the formation from the western side of the mountains, and if you return to the same parking lot that you leave from, you will be hiking about 11 miles in total. So, this route is much more of a commitment in terms of time. Furthermore, I have not actually had the opportunity to do this part of the trail. I have heard, however, that it is a beautiful alternative to the main Tom’s Thumb Trail. So, if you are interested in a longer day hike, you might consider this option.
Hiking isn’t the only activity that you can do at Tom’s Thumb. There is also climbing to be done here. Because I am not myself a climber, I cannot speak much more to this. But if you are interested in climbing, you might give this area a look. Please be extremely careful, however; someone I know recently fell during a climb and was very hurt. Outdoor recreation is no joke!
Stewardship and Conservation
For hiking trails in Scottsdale as well as elsewhere, stewardship by everyone is essential. More and more people have been hitting the trails just about everywhere, and here in Arizona, we are seeing some of the fastest urban development in the US. With more people on the trail, we get more trash, more crowding, more disturbance of animals, and more erosion. So, what every individual hiker does is important. Here’s how you can help while visiting Tom’s Thumb Trail (or anywhere).
(1) Pick up your trash
Please do not leave trash on the trail. It may come as a surprise to some, but this includes bio-waste like orange peels, etc. Oranges, bananas, and apples are not native to the Sonoran Desert, so leaving parts of them behind is no good for the desert (or other hikers).
Dog poop bags are also a problem. If you are bringing your pup, bring the supplies to pack their poop immediately, otherwise, you risk forgetting to pick up all your trash on the way home.
Finally, those little protein bar packaging scraps are trash too! Micro-trash is something that many don’t realize is a problem, but animals may mistake small pieces of trash for food. They also mar the beauty of the landscape. Any itty bitty trash is still trash, please do your best to keep it wrangled and throw it away at home.
(2) Stay on the trail
While you might be tempted to cut switch backs for the sake of time or to avoid crowds- please don’t. Once you cut a switch back, a spider trail has started, and others will eventually follow you. This will kill plants, and our bio-crusts, and it also causes erosion. When it rains, water runs down the trail and damages the infrastructure. The more spider trails we have, the more damage the mountain will suffer over time.
(3) Don’t play with fire
Wildfire is a HUGE problem here in the Sonoran Desert. In 2020 alone, we had several fires around the area of Tom’s Thumb Trail. One, the Bush Fire, burned a massive area along the 87 highway, from Saguaro Lake to Mt. Ord. Thousands and thousands of acres, full of thousands of saguaro (most of which will die) were scarred. Unlike forests, the Sonoran Desert is not adapted to fire. Our species aren’t used to it, and don’t come back as strongly as fire-adapted plants and animals after wildfire.
It also takes very little to start a fire here, because of how dry it is. To avoid starting a fire, only practice target shooting in designated areas with berms. Do not drive with chains hanging/dragging. Please don’t park over dried plants. Finally, please don’t throw cigarettes out into the desert.
Safety is number one whenever you hike! And I have written many extensive safety guides in my other articles. So, I am going to be relatively brief here.
First, remember that you are responsible for your own safety on the trail. Know if you are in-shape and what you are prepared to do, and do not hike in dangerous weather. In Arizona, this includes hiking in hot temperatures or during storms. Dry heat is extremely dangerous and people die on the trails here every year due to underestimating the impact of our summer on their bodies. Lightning and flash floods are also extremely dangerous.
Besides that, go prepared! Wear good, grippy, close-toed shoes. Bring LOTS of water (more than you think you will need), and make sure that you drink it. Also, bring snacks to keep your energy up throughout the trek and to replenish salts. First aid supplies are also a must-have, and I would supplement those with a plastic comb which you can use to remove cholla pods if you end up getting attacked by one.
More About Arizona
If you will be visiting Arizona or are planning some “backyard” adventures, you will enjoy our guide to Arizona. And if you are looking for a nice trail to explore, but think this sounds a little too challenging for your current hiking level, check out our article on two of the best, short hikes in the Phoenix Area.
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