Vulture Peak Trail: Exploring the Wild Desert in Phoenix’s Backdoor

Vulture Peak Trail is not far from Phoenix, but it’s one of the best places to experience the beauty of the wild desert.

Many people think that the desert is an empty wilderness, marked here and there by beautiful sandstone canyons and oases. So, what’s the big deal when more houses are built? The desert is just a big, natural parking lot already, right? Come explore Vulture Peak and hiking near Wickenburg AZ to see that this isn’t at all the case. The Sonoran Desert is one of the most biodiverse deserts in the world! When you hike here you can enjoy beautiful saguaros, and a landscape that changes dramatically with rain and temperature change when plants blossom at the first chance. As plants shift and color the landscape, animals like coyotes, snakes, sheep, deer, mountain lions, and even burros thrive.

vulture peak trail

(c) ABR 2020

And rising above it all is the brilliant red Vulture Peak, which you can marvel at as you struggle up its slopes. Then enjoy the breathtaking views of the wide-open landscape at the top. The desert is alive and beautiful! Explore Vulture Peak Trail to get a taste for just how amazing the Sonoran Desert is.

General Must-Know for the Vulture Peak Trail

Trail Length: 2 miles to the peak saddle, making the round trip hike 4 miles

Trail Difficulty: First half- Moderate; Second half- Difficult to extreme

Cost of entry: Currently free (2020), but future entrance fees to support maintenance of the area will be implemented.

vulture peak trail

(c) ABR 2020

The Vulture Peak trail is located on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, which means that much of the area that you will be exploring is federally owned. The BLM allows for multi-use and the general experience of their lands is that they are very hands-off; they don’t have the manpower and resources to provide lots of facilities, and support for visitors. However, as of 2020, Maricopa County is working with the BLM as a partner to develop and maintain this trailhead. This means that a lot of changes coming to this spot.

At the beginning of 2020, you had to take a pretty rough (for a car) dirt road down to the trail. Eventually there will be a small visitor center here, bathrooms, established campgrounds, and spaces for educational programming. This means that some construction will be happening soon. Once this is complete, the impacts of users will be more contained and there will be more resources for visitors. Along with Hassayampa, this is poised to be one of the most beautiful and accessible trails for hiking near Wickenburg AZ.

All that being said, check the Maricopa County website before finalizing your trip, as the trail may be inaccessible during construction.

Getting to the Trailhead

vulture peak trail

(c) ABR 2020

No matter where you are coming from, there is only one paved road that you can use to access this trailhead, Vulture Mine Road. The primary access will be from the north. If you are coming from this direction, you will access this road from the 60. Coming from Phoenix, this means that you will need to pass through the little town of Wickenburg. (If you do, be sure to stop by one of the local restaurants or shops after your hike!)

You can access the trail from the south. That will require taking Aguila Road from 355th Ave up from the I-10. This will have you following a small road for a pretty long distance through the desert. So, it’s not a route that I would suggest to most people coming from out-of-state, because you will miss some very beautiful views of Lake Pleasant and cute, little Wickenburg. The northern route has more on it by way of established things to enjoy. That being said, if you want to enjoy more of the open desert, without development, the longer southern route might be a nice adventure for you. Don’t expect bathrooms or services if you come from the south.

vulture peak trail

(c) ABR 2020

Once you see the sign for the trailhead, you will turn east onto a small dirt road (for the moment). You will follow the dirt road for 1-2 miles. This won’t be any problem for a high-clearance vehicle, but there are some challenging sections for cars. The trailhead will be apparent due to some outhouses and a ramada as well as a wide, circular parking area.

As I mentioned previously, the Vulture Peak Trail will be seeing some pretty considerable changes soon, so please consider this a guide to early 2020. Please refer to the Maricopa County website before planning and finalizing your trip to insure that the trail is still accessible when you plan on visiting.

Experience on the Trail

vulture peak trail

(c) ABR 2020

As I mention above, there is an outhouse at the trailhead (as of early 2020), but a friend of mine mentioned that she found it to be very dirty. You might opt for going to the bathroom before you leave Wickenburg.

From the trailhead, you will find yourself perched up above a wide wash, with the mountain clear in the distance with its southern edge of stony teeth, and it’s northern plateau. Between you and the mountain is something like a maze of washes and hills rising up to Vulture Peak’s base.

For the Vulture Peak trail itself, you will currently find the beginning of the track to be a little confusing, due to the many spider trails and ATV tracks. Vulture Peak is fairly apparent from far away, however, so you can use that as a point of reference as you navigate the trails.

vulture peak trail

(c) ABR 2020

Head down into the wash, following signs for the trail, and stick with the track as it crosses a fence. This is where you are most likely to get lost, so pause when you get to the bottom and locate the trail sign. Try to avoid following the larger ATV roads, as these sometimes have people riding fairly fast on them. However, if you can’t find the trail otherwise, you can opt for one of these dirt roads.

If you get going in the right direction on the actual Vulture Peak Trail, you will find yourself steadily gaining elevation as you pass through washes and climb up and down hills. Even though you might be tempted to hurry because the peak is off in the distance, please don’t. This part of the trail is a great warm up for the ascent, but it’s also a great place to enjoy spring blooms, or to just experience the vibrant Sonoran Desert life no matter the time of year. In any case, this part of the trail is wide open to the elements, so don’t expect shade here (or up on the mountain if you aren’t climbing in the morning).

Up the Mountain

vulture peak trail

(c) ABR 2020

Eventually, the trail will pass through a jeep/4 wheel parking area with some informational signs, and this is where you will start to gain elevation at a much faster rate. If you aren’t an experienced hiker or it is starting to get hot, this is where you should turn around.

If the weather is good and you are feeling strong, start making your way up the mountain. Initially, as you work your way up the base, you will be on a steeper version of the trails that you have already traversed. As you get higher, you will move up into the stony landscape that makes Vulture Peak Trail so special and beautiful. Here, if you aren’t familiar with Arizona trails, you may find things to be a bit rough. You will need to scramble up rocks and in some places it will get so steep that you will find yourself walking up portions of trail that feel more like a staircase than anything else.

After quite the tiring climb, you will find yourself at the saddle where you can look down into the sweeping landscape on the other side of the mountain. If you stop here and turned around, you would have visited of the most beautiful places for hiking near Wickenburg AZ.

Considering the Summit

vulture peak trail

(c) ABR 2020

Bagging to the summit of the Vulture Peak Trail is something that I actually would not recommend. That is because getting to the summit is not a hike after the saddle, it is a climb.

While this is a doable climb without equipment, it will require hand-over-hand scaling of a rock face. That means that it is much more dangerous than the trail that you take to the saddle. If you were to slip and fall here, your odds of getting very hurt are high. Furthermore, the times of the year when it is most comfortable for humans to hike about is also the best time for snakes to sun on the rocks. That means that there is a chance you will stick your hand right into a rattlesnake’s personal bubble on your way up… That’s not a situation that you want to have happen to you, especially not in a wilderness situation.

All that being said, if you are tempted to try for the summit, you should be a comfortable climber, you should not be alone, you should have very good shoes and gloves, and you should move slowly so that you can check for wildlife before you place your hands and feet.

All this in mind, it would be best to spend some time enjoying the view from the saddle, and then head down.

Safety Concerns

vulture peak trail

(c) ABR 2020

Remember that you are responsible for your own safety and well-being in nature. Always travel with a hiking companion and let others know where you are going and when you expect to be home.

(1) NEVER hike in Arizona when the temperatures are above 100 degrees. It may be dry, but it is brutally hot and the dry air will sap you of your internal water content. Furthermore, when the air is hot, the ground will be even hotter. This means that if you become exhausted in the heat and need to sit down, you will get even hotter. Just be careful and smart. In the spring and fall, head out early in the morning, and avoid hiking in the summer altogether if you don’t have experience with our heat.

vulture peak trail

(c) ABR 2020

(2) You will need more water than you think, and snacks as well. Never hit the trail in Arizona without plenty of water. A good rule of thumb is that you should turn around when your water is half gone. Believe me, you don’t want to hike in the desert without water on hand; it is extremely uncomfortable on a good day and can be deadly. A salty snack is also a helpful way to get a dash of electrolytes, and a little bit of sugar can give you a boost of energy when you need it.

(3) Bring the right gear. Wear hiking shoes. This is no place for running shoes, since the trail is very steep, and it’s definitely not a place for sandals. Furthermore, you should bring a small first aid kit. And a comb in case you end up with some cholla in your leg.

Responsible Use

vulture peak trail

(c) ABR 2020

Stay on the trail to save plants and animals that you can’t see. The desert is very good at hiding its biodiversity. So stepping off the trail can crush seeds waiting to sprout, essential soil bacteria mats, or the homes of little animals escaping the sun and heat.

Take your trash with you to keep the desert beautiful and healthy. Plastic and wrappers can last for a very long time before breaking down. Over that time they may kill animals that consume them. You’ve come to experience the beauty of the desert, so please leave it just as lovely as you found it.

Other Hiking Near Wickenburg AZ

hassayampa river preserve

The Palm Lake (c) ABR 2019

My favorite alternative hike in the Wickenburg area is Hassayampa. It is not remotely similar to Vulture Peak Trail. It’s only got short hikes, and it is in a lush, green riparian area. However, it’s a great place to experience what happens in the desert when you have water. And you are sure to see birds and small mammals if you visit.

If this was helpful to you, please share!

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8 Comments

  1. Isabel

    Breathtaking place and a good alternative to do hiking. Lovely pictures =)

  2. Karen

    Desert hiking is great especially when the wild flowers are out. I like your inclusion of responsible use in the post. Great post.

    • waitingforrain28

      Thank you! Responsible use is really key- not only for everyone else that wants to experience these places, but health and safety as well!

  3. Kim

    These are such helpful tips! Looks like a beautiful area!

  4. Ale

    This looks so beautiful! I’ve only explored the Sonoran desert in Joshua Tree and haven’t ventured out to Arizona yet, but adding this to my list. I know to bring tweezers when heading to the desert, how does a comb help with cholla?

    • waitingforrain28

      Often when you get cholla in you, it’s a pod with spines all around. Tweezers can be a hard starting point to get the pod off without getting it stuck to something else. So a comb is a great way to safely get the pod off- then you can use those tweezers for any remaining spines.

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