One of the largest metropolitan cities in the U.S., Phoenix is also one of the best hiking cities in the country, offering visitors miles upon miles of desert trails through this unique environment.
Designated wilderness areas, including mountain preserves, desert parks, and riparian (or riverbank) areas with duck ponds, criss-cross the urban development. Trails for hikers of all skill levels show off the wonders of the desert environment. And some of the most spectacular trails comprise easy strolls in the middle of the city -- no need for strenuous uphill or long hikes to feel far away from the hustle and bustle. The trails take you through spectacular desert scenery, showcasing different cactus varieties, desert trees, and bushes among the giant saguaros.
From walks among giant saguaros and spectacular vistas to hikes through desert oases and adjacent duck ponds, the following are some of the easiest desert trails you can hike in Phoenix.
Judith Tunnel Accessible Trail In South Mountain Park
South Mountain Park Preserve is not only the largest in Phoenix, but also the largest wilderness city park in the country. With 51 miles of trails crisscrossing its 16,000 acres of wilderness, the park offers something for hikers of all abilities.
The easiest trail through this wilderness is the paved Judith Tunnel Accessible Trail, comprising two half-mile loops, starting at the Visitor Center. As the name suggests, this trail is also wheelchair accessible, paved, and flat, making it a perfect introduction for first-time visitors to the desert environment.
The Kiwanis Trail In South Mountain Park
For those who want a bit more challenge, or at least a walk on an unpaved trail, the Kiwanis Trail offers a perfect introduction to desert mountain hiking. A mile-long and relatively flat trail, it has a slight elevation gain (480 feet) and the terrain is rocky in a few places, but nothing that requires any exertion (only decent hiking/walking shoes). This trail showcases Sonoran Desert plants and animals.
Hole-In-The-Rock Trail In Papago Park
One of the most recognizable spots in Phoenix, Hole in the Rock Butte is in the center of the city in Papago Park, across from the Desert Botanical Garden and the Phoenix Zoo. Instead of desert plants and animals, here you’ll enjoy views of unusual rock formations in the desert.
A short walk (just under a mile) looping around and through the rock, this trail is popular with visitors and locals alike. Though you’ll encounter crowds no matter when you go, it is still the perfect trail to watch the sun set over the city skyline through the iconic Hole in the Rock.
Double Butte Loop In Papago Park
For a slightly longer trail through Papago Park, the Double Butte Loop offers 2.2 miles of walking through desert environment. Most of this trail is paved, making it an easy trail for beginners. The only downside is that most of the trail markings are faded, and with many side-trails, it’s easy to take off in a different direction. Luckily, it’s almost as easy to get back on the main trail, especially since it’s always busy.
The Double Butte Loop won’t offer a getaway-from-the-city feel as much as some on our list, but it offers a great introduction to the desert environment and beautiful views of the city skyline.
The Nature Trail At The Piestewa Peak And Dreamy Draw Recreation Area
Surrounding the base of Piestewa Peak, Phoenix’s Dreamy Draw Recreation Area offers trails with great views and secluded valleys, making you feel miles away from the center of the city.
One of the easiest trails in this wilderness area, the 1.5-mile-long multi-access Nature Trail offers a loop through the desert environment with views of the surrounding peaks. Crossing a few desert washes -- seasonal riverbeds -- the trail does get rocky at times. Trail users get to see a wide variety of Sonoran Desert plants and the area’s most often encountered wildlife: rabbits and coyotes. In spring, desert wildflowers offer an amazing, colorful show.
Penny Howe Barrier-Free Trail At North Mountain Preserve
North Mountain and Shaw Butte, some of the highest peaks in the city and both part of the North Mountain Nature Preserve, are easy-to-recognize peaks on the North Phoenix skyline.
The Penny Howe Barrier-Free Trail is the easiest and shortest of all the trails in North Mountain Preserve. At 0.3 miles, it comprises two small loops, plus interpretive signs that teach about the desert flora and fauna.
Part Of Charles M. Christiansen Memorial Trail (Trail 100) At North Mountain Preserve
A short stretch of this 10-mile-hike starting at the North Mountain Visitor Center offers a nice stroll and great views of North Mountain, Shaw Butte, and their surroundings. Interpretive signs close to the Visitor Center offer insights into the desert environment in the middle of Phoenix. This is also a good area for wildflower viewing from February to April.
The Nature Trail At Reach 11
The Reach 11 Recreation Area in North Phoenix is home to a few multi-use nature trails, the Arizona Horse Lover’s Park, and a sports complex.
The short, mile-long Nature Trail in Reach 11 is partially paved until it reaches a loop area. From there, it is still an easy stroll through desert vegetation and a unique xeroriparian area -- an oasis surrounding a small pond that’s home to a wide variety of desert plants. Interpretive signs along the trail offer info about the plants and animals of the surrounding environment. The trail is great for wildlife viewing, too. While you’ll most often see rabbits, desert rats, and birds of prey, you might spot a coyote or a few ducks in the pond.
Skip Rimsza Paseo Trails In The Sonoran Desert Preserve
The Sonoran Desert Preserve, one of the newest dedicated natural spaces in North Phoenix, offers miles of trails for hikers of all levels in a pristine desert environment. Being almost out of town, it features cleaner air and a nicer drive to get to than some of the aforementioned trails. It is also one of the few desert areas of Phoenix where you can be alone on the trail, with no other visitors around.
Accessed from the Apache Wash Trailhead, the Skip Rimsza Paseo Trails, both East and West, are by far the easiest in this preserve. Running in either direction, the trails feature light, gradual inclines of 37- and 15- feet elevation gain, and are both paved. The East Skip Rimsza Paseo Trail runs 1.9 miles, while the West trail runs 3.1 miles. The trails feature great views, though they do run parallel to Sonoran Desert Drive, so you might hear a bit of traffic noise, especially during times when the roads get busy.
Apache Wash Trail In The Sonoran Desert Preserve
For those who prefer to feel even farther away from the city noise, the Apache Wash Trail, the one that gave the trailhead its name, offers an easy and short walk in the desert. Starting on the west side of Apache Hill, the trail goes around the hill and is less than half a mile. Flat and wide, it is easy to walk, and it takes you away from the road noise. Filled with desert plants, it is also a great place for wildflower viewing in late winter and early spring. As a bonus, you might spot wildlife here, mostly rabbits, or a coyote on occasion.
Hiking In The Desert
Even if you hike in the desert in the winter, remember to stay hydrated and protected from the sun. Though temperatures are perfect, it is still very dry and the sun is strong, so a water bottle, sunscreen, and a hat are musts for even the shortest hike.
Be careful not to touch or step on any of the cactus varieties. The jumping cholla or the cute-looking teddy bear cholla can get stuck in your shoes, taking hours to get off. Some varieties have tiny needles you won’t even see, so while it might be tempting to touch them, those tiny, almost-invisible needles can get stuck in your hand, and they hurt (I’m speaking from experience). Also be aware of the young palo verde trees (while they still look like bushes), too. As beautiful as they are, they are very thorny, so try not to touch them or fall into one.
When it comes to wildlife, you need to be aware of the rattlesnakes. Though shy and beautiful, they could be deadly if startled. They won’t go searching for you, in fact, on most of the trails I mentioned you’re not very likely to encounter one. But in case you do, keep as quiet as possible and back away from it slowly, or walk around it far enough not to startle it. They might be out early mornings to warm up in the sun, so if you’d rather avoid an encounter, hike later in the day.
Want to see more cacti up close and personal? These are the most beautiful succulent gardens around the world. One is less than two hours away in Tucson and could make a perfect stop if you’re road tripping through Arizona.