AZ Utopia is An Arizona insider's guide to the best Arizona hiking trails for all levels. Includes the Grand Canyon, Sedona and beyond. Detailed descriptions & photos. The mission of this blog is sharing quality visual and written information to help others enjoy Arizona's incredible hikes, alongside timely hiking news and events, hiking tips and inspiring posts.
With its long views, and great mix of moderate & easy sections, the Windgate Pass Hiking Trail is anything but boring! Kicking of from busy Gateway Trailhead in north Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve, this trail first climbs to gorgeous Inspiration Point. Here there are excellent views over the city. The trail then gently ascends to equally stunning Windgate Pass, on the far side of the preserve.
TRAILHEADs: GATEWAY TRAILHEAD,18333 N. Thompson Peak Pkwy., scottsdale •DIFFICULTY: Moderate • DISTANCE: 4.5 MILEs (9 miles rt) INCLUDING ACCESS TRAILS • APPROX. TIME: 3.5-4.5 HOURS • ELEVATION GAIN: 858 FEET (61 STORIES) • APPROX. CALORIES BURNED: 930-1,055 RT • BEST TIME OF YEAR: October-April • PETS: YES • KID FRIENDLY: No • FACILITIES: YES • FEES: none
Gateway Trailhead to Windgate
As an interior trail, the Windgate Pass Hiking Trail is only reachable by hiking one of six McDowell Sonoran Preserve access trails. The most popular access (described here) is via the Gateway Loop Trail, from Gateway Trailhead. From the Trailhead, the super-easy, half-mile Saguaro Trail leads to the Gateway Loop Trail. Turn left to reach the Windgate Trailhead, one mile around the loop. This leg is, by far, the busiest part of the hike! The Hyper-popular Gateway Trail is moderately steep, with great views of Tom’s Thumb hanging out in the distance.
Once on the Windgate Hiking Trail, the crowds quickly disappear! The Windgate steepens slightly as it curves upwards between the mountains towards Inspiration point. Views of Toms Thumb are replaced by the rocky slopes of Drinkwater and McDowell Mountains.
Inspiration Point to Windgate Pass
Less than 3-miles into the hike, the Windgate Pass Hiking Trail reaches Inspiration Point. This gorgeous lookout, complete with stone benches to rest on, sits at an impressive 2,714′ elevation. Lots of hikers make Inspiration their turnaround point for a quick 6-mile out and back.
Looking back over the trail there are beautiful views of North Scottsdale. While, to the north, Toms Thumb is again visible, along with its namesake trail.
For those looking for a longer hike, the trail continues past Inspiration Point to Windgate Pass. This one-mile long section is less steep than the first section of the trail. At 3,031′, Windgate Pass is the highest point of the hike. From here, there are epic views both west, over Scottsdale and the McDowell Mountains, and east, over Fountain Hills.
Windgate Pass to Bell Trail
From Windgate Pass to the trail’s end, at the Bell Pass Hiking trail, the hike is now either flat or downhill. The mountains open up to wide eastward views of Fountain Hills, with Four Peaks far off on the horizon. Hikers can either turn around at Bell Pass Trail and head back the way they came. Or they can do a 9.4-mile loop by continuing on Bell Pass, to Gateway Loop, to Saguaro Trail. This route also returns to the Gateway Trailhead, and is only 0.4 miles longer than heading back on the Windgate Pass Trail. See the trail map at the link below for details.
At 30,500 acres the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is the largest Urban Park in the United States!
From the intersection of AZ Loop 101 and Bell Road (in Scottsdale) turn east onto Bell Road. Continue for 1.66 miles on Bell Road to N. Thompson Peak Parkway. Turn left/north onto N. Thompson Peak Parkway and drive 0.5 mile to the entrance to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Gateway Trailhead. It’s clearly marked on the right side of the road.
Huge, upright boulders and a “sometimes” stream grace this NE Phoenix trail. The Ballantine Hiking Trail kicks off just north of Fountain Hills, alongside busy Beeline Highway. As the trail curves away from the road, the sight and sound of traffic disappears. In their place is surprising tranquility & tons of cool rock formations.
TRAILHEADs: AZ 87, North of Fountain Hills •DIFFICULTY: Moderate • DISTANCE: 3.4 MILEs (6.8 miles rt) • APPROX. TIME: 3.5-4.5 HOURS • ELEVATION GAIN: 1,460 FEET (104 STORIES) • APPROX. CALORIES BURNED: 1,020-1,150 RT • BEST TIME OF YEAR: October-April • PETS: YES • KID FRIENDLY: No • FACILITIES: none • FEES: none
Ballantine & Pine Creek Loop Trail
Parking at the Ballantine / Pine Creek trailhead, right off AZ 87, it’s hard to imagine the quiet hike ahead. The Ballantine Hiking Trail heads left, paralleling the noisy highway for a half-mile. It then curves into the mountains and (Wow!) changes character completely. Suddenly, rolling hills frame the path and silence (yes silence) fills the air. A signpost, a mile further on, marks the intersection of the Pine Creek Trail. Turn right here for a short 3-mile loop back to the trailhead. Or turn left, (recommended) to continue to Boulder Flat.
Ballantine Trail to Boulder Flat
Turing left, the Ballantine Trail now starts to climb for real. It passes an immense field of giant hoodoos, tall stacks of granite boulders, and ginormous wildly balanced rocks.
After cresting a granite strewn peak, the trail slowly dips, then even’s out for the next mile. The tranquility in this area is palpable, as the path winds between dramatic rock-faced hills.
An ancient fence, of barbed wire and worn branches, outlines cattle grazing land alongside the trail.
At 3 miles, the Ballantine Hiking Trail reaches a T-intersection with the Pipeline Trail. Turn right to continue on the Ballantine Trail to Boulder Flat. A half mile further on, the surrounding area opens wide and flattens out. Camp Creek crosses the area, flowing by after a good rain. There are fantastic views of the surrounding rock lined hills. Turn around here to return to the trailhead. Or continue another 6.6 miles to the end of the Ballantine Trail, at the Cline Trail.
Total Nerdery The area surrounding the Ballantine Hiking Trail was severely burned in 2005, in the Cave Creek Fire. Some signs of the damage are still visible.
Directions From the intersection of Shea Blvd. and AZ 87 (in Fountain Hills), head north on AZ 87 for 21 miles. The Ballantine / Pine Creek Trailhead is clearly marked, on the right / east side of the highway.
At just under 200 feet high, Mooney Falls is the most intensely beautiful cascade in all of Havasu Canyon! It thunders over a cliff one mile past the canyon’s namesake fall, and eleven miles from the Havasu Hiking Trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop. The Havasu Hiking Trail follows turquoise blue Havasu creek eight miles past Mooney Falls. As the trail winds down the canyon, it passes gorgeous Beaver Falls and endless mini-cascades. Finally Havasu Trail, Creek and Canyon come to their dramatic end at the mighty Colorado River.
TRAILHEAD: Havasupai Campround, supai •DIFFICULTY: difficult at start, then moderate • DISTANCE: 8 MILEs to Colorado River (16 miles RT) • APPROX. TIME: 8-12 HOURS RT • ELEVATION GAIN: -1,000 FEET (-71 STORIES) • APPROX. CALORIES BURNED: 2,080 – 2,400 RT • BEST TIME OF YEAR: feb.-nov. (hot in summer) • PETS: no • KID FRIENDLY: no • trailhead fACILITIES: yes, but no water • FEES:pre-purchased Havasupai tribe permits required! price based on length of stay.
NOTE: Getting to Mooney Falls, first requires traveling 11 miles through remote Havasu Canyon. Havasupai Falls Permits are required to enter the canyon and hike the Havasu Falls Trail. Click here for information on getting a Havasupai Falls Permit. Click here for details on the 11 mile hike to Mooney Falls.
Mooney Falls Hike
Eleven-miles down remote Havasu Canyon, Mooney Falls crashes 196 feet to the canyon floor. From the cliff top, at end of Havasupai Campground, the view over the fall is majorly impressive! Water-worn canyon walls appear to “drip” straight downwards to the sand and turquoise pools below. The short “hike” to the base of Mooney Falls is the steepest part of the entire Havasu Hiking Trail! Not recommended for people with vertigo.
This hiking section is really an almost vertical, mist-soaked climb down the canyon wall. A series of short switchbacks, narrow tunnels, carved “steps” and wooden ladders lead the way. There are metal pegs and heavy chains to hang on to for balance. The trail can get a bit hairy when crowded with people going up and down. Head out in early morning for fewer people on the trail.
But OMG! The steep climb to the base of Mooney Falls is totally worth it! Standing below this powerful waterfall, in the middle of stunning Havasu canyon, is beyond words fantastic! A perfectly centered stone forms an Instagram-worthy photo platform. Fair warning that the spray from Mooney Falls drenches everyone at its base. No need to even get in the water.
Beaver Falls Hike
Passing Mooney Falls, the Havasu Hiking Trail continues down the canyon. It first descends a rocky hill. Then, for the next 3 miles, follows an easy, soft, sandy, vine lined, path. Here the lush green riverbank sits in stark contrast to the towering red and purple canyon walls. Look for Big-Horn Sheep in this area, grazing along the trail.
As Havasu creek swerves through the canyon, it brushes up against either sandy, treelined expanses or steep canyon walls. To continue onwards, the Havasu Hiking Trail crosses the creek numerous times. Cairns mark most crossings. And simple wooden bridges have been laid in some spots. But wading is often the easiest way to get from side to side.
Three and a half miles past Mooney Falls a wooden ladder starts a modest climb up the side of the canyon. The ladder sits just behind a huge Palm. A bizarre plant to come across in the middle the Grand Canyon!
The Havasu Hiking Trail ascends another half mile, offering lushious views over the creek. About 4 miles past Mooney Falls, gorgeous Beaver Falls comes into view.A short side trail leads to its base. Multiple cascades and stone platforms make Beaver Falls a fantastic place to hang out and play.
Colorado River Hike
Passing Beaver Falls, the Havasu Hiking Trail continues its journey towards the Colorado River. A small sign, just past the Beaver Falls side trail, marks the crossover into Grand Canyon National Park. The path continues one mile, along the side of the canyon, high above the creek. It then makes a steep, narrow descent back down to the water. From the cliff base, cairns mark the way through the creek to the trail’s sandy continuation around a bend.
For the next 2 miles the Havasu Hiking Trail is sandy and mostly flat. It crosses the creek a few more times, where the water curves around tall stone cliffs. The canyon is narrow and dramatically beautiful. Sunlight filters in from high above.
Just a few hundred yards from the Colorado River, the little bit of land alongside the creek completely disappears. In its place, steep walls line the water’s edges. Hikers can wade a short distance through the creek. But take care, as the current gets strong and dangerous as it approaches the Colorado. To see the confluence, climb up the ridge on the left side of the canyon and follow the trail to the River.Rafting tours often anchor here. It’s incredible to witness Havasu’s turquoise blue water blending with the teal water of the Colorado River, in the middle of the Grand Canyon. To return to Mooney Falls and the Havasupai Campground, turn around and make the same stunning 8-mile hike along Havasu Creek.
Mooney Falls is named after prospector Daniel Mooney’s sad story. He died in1882 trying to descend the fall. His repelling rope was cut in two by the canyon’s rough stone walls. And he fell to his death. In 1883 Mooney’s team returned. They blasting out existing caves, created tunnels, and pounded spikes and chains into the rocks to reach the base. The current trail is the result of their efforts*.
Directions: From the intersection of I-40 and Railroad Avenue, in Seligman, turn right / north onto Railroad Ave. At the end of Railroad Ave., turn left / west onto historic Route 66. Continue for 30 miles to Indian Route 18. Turn right / north onto Indian Route 18 and drive for 60 miles to its end at Haulapai Hilltop. Keep an eye out for free roaming cattle and horses along this gently rolling, fully paved road! Haulapai Hilltop has ample parking, a ranger station, small heliport, vault toilets and the Havasu Falls Trailhead. All visitors to Havasu Falls are required to validate their pre-purchased permits and register with the ranger before entering the Havasu Canyon. The top of Mooney Falls is 11-miles down the canyon, on the Havasu Hiking Trail.
Spectacular, 100′ high Havasu Falls is a bucket-list worthy destination! Its icy, turquoise blue waters thunder through a remote dessert canyon. Here, big horn sheep graze beside a spring-fed creek. And endless cascades form a magical oasis. A stunning contrast to the soaring canyon walls around them. This hidden land has been the sacred home of the Havasupai Tribe for as long as time can tell. And it’s with the tribe’s permission only that visitors are allowed to share in the beauty of this incredible, far-flung place. A Havasupai Falls Permit is required to enter the reservation, to make the 10-mile hike to Havasu Falls, and to stay in the canyon. These permits are checked at the only access point for the falls, the Havasu Falls Trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop. Only indiviudals with valid permits are allowed to enter.
How to get a Havasupai Falls Permit
The Havasupai Tribe makes a limited number of Havasupai Falls permits available each year. These permits go on sale February 1st, at 8:00 a.m. and sell out quickly. Permits may be purchased by visiting the tribe’s official website. 2018 will be the first year that permits can only be purchased through the website, so hopefully it will handle the traffic.
A Havasupai Falls Permit includes the fees for the permit, entry to the Havasupai Reservation, camping and taxes. Permits fees are calculated per person / per day, with a maximum 4-day-stay allowed on each permit. Havasupai Falls Permits are non-refundable and non-transferable, so trip insurance is recommended. Spring and Fall are the most popular seasons to visit Havasu Falls and sell out first. Once you are at the falls, you’ll be thankful you made the effort!
If you prefer to visit Havasu Falls with a group tour, there are a number of companies that conduct guided tours into the canyon. Pre-purchased permits are included within the tour package price. These tours also sell out quickly. So be sure to make your reservations well in advance. Group tours generally include equipment rentals, mule transport of supplies, camp setup, food and cooking services, and guided hikes.
Staying in Havasu Canyon
Havasupai Falls Campground
The Havasupai Falls Campground is a beautiful, flat, mile-long stretch on the Havasu Canyon floor. The camping area starts just past Havasu Falls, 10-miles from the Havasu Hike Trailhead. It ends before the top of stunning 150′ Mooney Falls. Turquoise blue Havasu Creek babbles through the middle of the campground, while the high walls of Havasu Canyon frame the sides. The Havasupai Falls campground accommodates about 100-150 tents, or 200-300 campers. There aren’t designated camp sites. So permit holders set up in lovely nocks and crannies: under the ample shade trees, alongside the creek, by sandy pathways or below canyon walls. A few large clearings are generally filled by tour groups. Multiple picnic tables are scattered throughout the campground. And drinking water is available from a tapped fresh-water spring. There are regularly cleaned and supplied vault toilets at both ends, and in the middle, of the campground.
The Havasupai Lodge
If camping isn’t your thing, the quaint Havasupai Lodge is another option. This small, rustic lodge, with a central courtyard, is the only hotel in this remote location. It’s located in Supai Village, 8-miles from the Havasu Falls Trailhead. The Lodge is 2 miles from Havasu Falls. It is air conditioned, with running water and basic electricity. There is no food available. So you will need to bring your own, purchase it at the small general store, or eat at the sporadically open local cafe. Reservations can be made by calling (928) 448-2111 or (928) 448-2201. The purchase of a Havasupai Falls Entry Permit is also required to stay in the Lodge. It is sold along with the room reservation. Note: In 2018, the Havasupai Lodge will be closed for renovations from Jan. 1 – March 31.
The Trek to Havasu Falls
Havasu Falls Hiking Trail
The 10-mile hike to Havasu Falls is astoundingly beautiful! And a fantastic part of the experience. The Havasu Falls Hiking Trail starts at remote Hualapai Hilltop. It descends quickly in the first 2 miles, then continues gently downwards through Hualapai, then Havasu, Canyons.Click here for a detailed description of the trail.
A private helicopter makes frequent trips between Haulapai Hilltop and the small landing pad in Havasu Canyon’s, Supai Village. It’s primary purpose is to carry supplies in and out of this remote village and provide transport to the Havasupai People. The helicopter flies Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, between 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. When space is available, it’s possible to pay to be flown in or out of Supai village, on a first come, first serve basis.
Havasu Canyon Waterfalls
Havasu Falls is the most recognized feature of Havasu Canyon. But spring-fed Havasu Creek is plush with seemingly endless cascades. Its turquoise blue waters crash first over impressive 50 Foot Falls, followed by Little Navajo, Havasu, Mooney and then Beaver Falls. There are tons of smaller cascades all along the creek’s course to the Colorado River. It is worth taking a few days to hike to, and explore, each of these stunning locations.
Planning Your Trip
Further information on planning your trip is in the works. Included will be details on pre-hike accommodations, what supplies to bring and more. Please check this post again shortly for the link.
Turquoise blue water and a thundering 100′ waterfall make Havasu Falls one of Arizona’s most spectacular places. Winding through a remote desert canyon, the Havasu Falls Hiking Trail descends into a magical land – almost surreal in its beauty. Deep in the canyon, a treelined, icy blue creek, and roaring falls, flow between narrow 1,000′ canyon walls.
TRAILHEAD: Route 18, Hualapi reservation, north of seligman •DIFFICULTY: difficult • DISTANCE: 10 MILEs (20 miles RT) • APPROX. TIME: 6-8 HOURS, each way • ELEVATION GAIN: -3,350 FEET (-240 STORIES) • APPROX. CALORIES BURNED: 1,380-1580 each way • BEST TIME OF YEAR: feb.-nov. (hot in summer) • PETS: no • KID FRIENDLY: no • trailhead fACILITIES: yes, but no water • FEES:pre-purchased Havasupai tribe permits required! price based on length of stay.
Standing at the Havasu trailhead, on Hualapai Hilltop, it’s hard to imagine the turquoise blue creek flowing 6.5 miles below. Stunning red canyons and dry, rocky desert fill the horizon. And not a hint of water can be seen. Please note that hiking Havasu Falls Trail is not allowed without a pre-purchased, Havasupi Falls permit!A ranger at the trailhead station confirms I.D.s, and checks them against a daily list of permit holders, before allowing hikers onto the trail.
Stepping over the Haulapai Hilltop rim, the Havasu Falls Hiking Trail kicks off dramatically. A series of steep switchbacks descend 1,300′ to the Hualapai Canyon floor, on the first 1.75 miles of the hike. This is the most difficult leg. Not bad on the way down. But grueling on the way up. Post-early-morning, this section is fully exposed to the sun. The trail is shared with fast moving mule trains, carrying supplies in and out of the canyon. Be sure to move aside as you hear them approach. Their drivers are located far in back. And the mules are on auto-drive, paying little attention to hikers.
Once on the canyon floor, the Havasu Hiking Trail becomes mostly flat and easy. The next two miles follow a wide, gravely arroyo through an open section of Hualapai canyon. Expect full sun exposure, and gorgeous upward views.
As the hike continues its gentle descent through Hualapai canyon, the walls gradually increase in height. Intermittent shade begins to grace the trail as the path winds from side to side. The trail passes wacky rock formations and pockmarked boulders, decorated with small rocks by passing hikers.
At five miles, Hualapai Canyon narrows beneath dramatically soaring cliffs. This is my favorite part of the hike! Wonderfully deep shade cools this section. And it’s not surprising to step around shallow pools of water,left by past monsoons. The echos here are fantastic! Distant mules trains can be heard clomping up the trail, way before they can be seen.
After 6.5 miles, Hualupai Canyon comes to its end at the t-shaped confluence with Havasu Canyon. A rustic signpost points left to Supai Village, and the landscape suddenly transforms! The sound of rushing water is heard. And the trail converts to soft sand as it follows the shady banks of Havasu Creek.
One mile further and the Havasu Hiking Trail enters remote Supai Village – the sacred home of the Havasupai tribe. Nestled between ancient Cottonwoods and sandy streets are the tourist office, Havasu Lodge, a small cafe, local store, heliport and a number of small private homes. Hikers must stop at the Tourist office to register and get their wrist and tent tags. A tribal representative periodically walks the campground and fall areas to check these items.
After registering, hikers can continue on through the village. A signpost marks a righthand turn to the campground. This mildly descending, mile-long stretch is lined with deep, soft, beach-like sand.
At around 9 miles, the Havasu Hiking Trail first passes 50-Foot Falls, and then Navajo Falls. These beautiful cascades are only partially visible from the trail, and definitely worth a visit! Finally, the trail reaches the top of 100′ Havasu Falls. The path steepens as it descends along the side of the fall to its base. The views are incredible. And after the long trek it’s great to have finally arrived!
From the base of Havasu Falls, the sandy trail continues along the creek. It passes an Indian Fry Bread stand, a ranger station, a mule train loading stable, and finally enters the campground. The narrow, mile-long Havasupai Falls Campground is gorgeous! Both sides are flanked by the soaring walls of Havasu Canyon. There are ample Shade trees. And the refreshing babble and cooling air from Havasu Creek, flowing through the center, make it insanely beautiful. Drop that backpack and set up camp in any of the lovely nooks and crannies. Camping is allowed anywhere between the fence, at the start of the campground, and the flat area just before the drop off of Mooney Falls.
Information on hiking further through Havasu Canyon to Mooney and Beaver Falls, and the confluence of the Colorado river is in the works. Please check this post later for the link.
Havasupai roughly translates into people (pai) of the blue-green water (havasu). The stunning turquoise hue of Havasu Creek is the result of a high calcium content, which leaches into the 30,000 year old underground spring feeding the creek. A natural aquifer, deep within a limestone cavern at the mouth of Havasu Canyon, houses this spring,
Directions: From the intersection of I-40 and Railroad Avenue, in Seligman, turn right / north onto Railroad Ave. At the end of Railroad Ave., turn left / west onto historic Route 66. Continue for 30 miles to Indian Route 18. Turn right / north onto Indian Route 18 and drive for 60 miles to its end at Haulapai Hilltop. Keep an eye out for free roaming cattle and horses along this gently rolling, fully paved road! At Haulapai Hilltop you’ll find ample parking, a ranger station, small heliport, vault toilets and the Havasu Falls Trailhead. All visitors to Havasu Falls are required to validate their pre-purchased permits and register with the ranger before starting the hike.
This short, steep hike ascends a craggy slate trail & pays off with epic north valley views! Tucked behind Cave Creek’s western-style town, the Black Mountain Hiking Trail is one of the valley’s best butt-kicking hikes. This trail gets less crowds than central Phoenix’s Piestewa or Echo Canyon hiking trails. But is an equal match for a sweat-inducing workout with excellent views.
TRAILHEADs: North Schoolhouse road, cave creek •DIFFICULTY: difficult • DISTANCE: 1.25 MILEs (2.5 miles RT) • APPROX. TIME: 2.5-3.5 HOURS • ELEVATION GAIN: 1,165 FEET (83 STORIES) • APPROX. CALORIES BURNED: 425-475 RT • BEST TIME OF YEAR: October-april • PETS: YES (note: trail is steep and rocky) • KID FRIENDLY: no • FACILITIES: None • FEES: none
Any visitor to Cave Creek has noticed the tall mountain framing the southern edge of town. Unbeknownst to most tourists and Harley riders hanging at the local saloons, Black Mountain has one of the valley’s best workout trails. From the trail parking lot, it’s an easy quarter-mile jaunt up the road to reach the trailhead. At the base you can choose to head left on the more scenic trail, or continue straight on the gravel road. Both paths come together a third of the way up the mountain.
Beyond where the paths meet, the Black Mountain Hiking Trail gets increasingly steep and rocky. The path ascends on jagged slate outcroppings, requiring high steps and a solid heart-rate!
Keep on trucking to reach a short reprieve. After three-quarters of a mile, the trail reaches a short saddle with fantastic views over Cave Creek. From here, the path turns moderate and less rocky for a stretch, as it ascends the mountain’s upper slope.
A quarter mile more and the the Black Mountain Hiking Trail reaches its peak. An American Flag marks the top.
360° views are a choice reward for the climb. To the east and southeast are views of Four Peaks and the McDowells. While Piestewa, Camelback and even the Superstition’s Weavers Needle are visible to the south.
Black Mountain is named for the black hue created by its rocky slate surface.
Directions From the intersection of 101 and Scottsdale Road (in north Scottsdale), head north on Scottsdale Road (which turns into Tom Darlington) for 12 miles. At the T-intersection of Tom Darlington and Cave Creek Road, turn left / west onto Cave Creek, and continue 1.4 miles. At the stop sign, turn left / south onto North Schoolhouse Road. Parking for the trail is a quarter mile further on both sides of Military Road.
Skimming the base of a tall, horseshoe shaped butte, the Mescal Hiking Trail serves up choice Sedona views. Look closely and you might catch a glimpse of ancient Native American life in the pockmarked cliffs.
TRAILHEADs: LONG CANYON ROAD, SEDONA •DIFFICULTY: easy • DISTANCE: 2.5 MILEs (5 miles RT) • APPROX. TIME: 2.5-3 HOURS rt • ELEVATION GAIN: 220 FEET (16 STORIES) • APPROX. CALORIES BURNED: 650-750 RT • BEST TIME OF YEAR: Year round – exposed in summer • PETS: YES • KID FRIENDLY: yes • FACILITIES: none • FEES: $6 Red Rock Day use pass (or annual red rock or national parks pass)
The easy Mescal Hiking Trail offers on-point Sedona scenery with little effort required. The trail kicks off on a classic red rock path flanked by Prickly Pear cactus and Juniper. As the path mildly ascends, the curvilinear silhouette of Mescal Mountain fills the horizon.
After a mere mile, the trail reaches the base of Mescal butte. Here a mountain biker’s sign points to the “difficult” or “extreme” options. But seriously no worries! Although the trails may be challenging to ride, they are super easy to hike. The difference? The “extreme” option is slightly narrower and a few feet lower on the sandstone slope.
As the trail winds around Mescal Mountain, the views of northern Sedona get increasingly sweet. A large cave, around the far side of the mesa, sits off-trail but within easy reach. Inside cool shade and expansive views of Boynton Canyon make this unmarked detour worthwhile.
Departing Mescal Mountain, the trail gently meanders down the hillside to its terminus at the juncture of Deadman’s Pass Hiking Trail. Return to the trailhead by turning around here. Or turn right on Deadman’s Pass, then right on Long Canyon Trail to make a 4.7 mile loop . This route goes around the back of Mescal Mountain and is also easy.
Mescal Mountain gets its name from the gobs of Agave (or Mescal) that grows around the base. Tequila making anyone?
Directions From the intersection of I-17 and AZ-179 (I-17 exit 298) head north on AZ-179 towards Sedona. Drive 14.5 miles on AZ-179 to the intersection of AZ-89A. Turn left/west on AZ-89A and drive 3.1 miles to Dry Creek Road. Turn right/north on Dry Creek Road (which turns into Boynton Pass Road and continue approximately 3 miles to Long Canyon Road. At Long Canyon Road turn right/north and drive for under a quarter mile to the trailhead parking lot (shared with the Long Canyon Trail) on the right side of the road. The Mescal Hiking Trail starts across the street from the parking area.
Explore rolling Granite Dells, hidden coves and a waterfall on this stunning loop hike. The Watson Lake Loop Trails circle Prescott’s largest lake on a series of mile-long sections. Each portion surprises with a totally unique character.
TRAILHEAD: Hillsdale ROAD, prescott •DIFFICULTY: easy (Moderate in spots) • DISTANCE: 4.8 MILE Loop • APPROX. TIME: 2.5-3.5 HOURS RT • ELEVATION GAIN: 162 FEET (12 STORIES) • APPROX. CALORIES BURNED: 624-720 • BEST TIME OF YEAR: September – June • PETS: YES WITH LEASHES • KID FRIENDLY: 10 AND UP • FACILITIES: YES • FEES: $3 day parking
The wonderfully varied Watson Lake Loop Trails can be kicked off from a number of trailheads. And each sports a totally different character! Our favorite starting trail is the North Shore, for its granite surface, long views and hidden treasures. This slightly moderate, 1-mile long leg, meanders over the rolling Granite Dells that define Watson Lake’s unique beauty.
After a half-mile on the North Shore Hiking trail, fantastic views of the Watson Lake dam appear. From the trail, it’s fun to watch kayakers approach and paddle the rim.
Passing the dam, the hike leads to a seemingly endless stretch of eroded Granite Dells. These immense formations seem otherworldly – with their oversized bulbous shapes and bizarre layering. Kids of all ages will have a blast hopping around this part of the trail!
After a moderate descent, the North Shore Hiking Trail curves around to reveal one of the coolest features of the hike. Suddenly, the air is moist and cattails spring from a marsh! Crossing a small bridge, a short side trail leads to the back of the dam. Here a relief waterfall gushes out, spritzing the air.
Exiting this lush area, the trail becomes the moderate, Over the Hill Hiking Trail. This section ascends back onto the Dells and meanders in and around them for the next mile.
One particularly beautiful spot is Secret Cove, a large inlet with views out onto the lake. Here reflections of sky and stone, beneath the distant silhouette of Granite Mountain, just beg for social media posting.
The path now becomes the Lakeshore Hiking Trail. True to its name, breathtaking views of the lake, its shores and the wacky rock formations that jut from the water, roll out from various high points.
As the trail exits the Dells, the path opens onto wide fields. In Spring and Summer these are filled with colorful thistle and wildflowers.
A half-mile further on, the hike merges onto Prescott’s renowned Peavine Trail. This wonderfully wide, flat pathway was constructed atop a 19th-century railroad track. It’s a local favorite for evening strolls and family bike rides.
A right turn onto the Discovery Trail leads around the base of Watson Lake. Huge Cottonwood trees shade this section. And the temperature is refreshingly cool beneath the trees.
The Discovery Trail now curves northwards around the lake. Delicate wildflowers line the wide even path in this section.
At the boat dock, the trail becomes the Watson Lake Trail. This 1-mile leg continues north, eventually reentering the Dells. Jaw dropping views of the lake roll out from the Watson Overlook. A quarter mile further and the hike reaches it’s original starting point – at the North Shore Hiking Trail.
The Watson Lake Loop Trails can be started from the Peavine, Discovery, Watson Lake or North Shore Trails. Wherever you opt to get going, you won’t be disappointed!
Watson Lake was created in 1900 when the Chino Valley Irrigation District built a dam on Granite Creek. It’s sister lake is Willow Lake, sporting its own lovely loop trail.
Directions From the intersection of 1-17 and AZ 69 (in Cordes Junction), take exit 263 onto AZ 69 north, towards Prescott. Drive 20.2 miles to Fain Road. Turn right / north onto Fain Road (which becomes AZ 89A) and continue 13.5 miles to the T-Intersection with AZ 89. Turn left / south onto AZ 89 and drive 3.5 miles to the traffic circle. From the circle merge onto Watson Lake Park Road. After entering the park, turn left onto Hillsdale Road and park at the recreation area. The North Shore Hiking Trailhead is a short ways further on the left side of the road, beside the boat dock.
Black “sand” and killer views of the Painted Desert rock this exotic hike. Looping around an ancient volcanic cinder cone, the little-known but highly recommended Strawberry Hiking Trail crosses hills of granular black lava, frozen volcanic formations and stunning fields of flowers tucked in between.
TRAILHEAD: Forest Road 779, North of Flagstaff •DIFFICULTY: MODERATE • DISTANCE: 2.2 MILE LOOP • APPROX. TIME: 1.5 – 2 HOURS • ELEVATION GAIN: 250′ (ABOUT 18 STORIES) • APPROX. CALORIES BURNED: 330-375 • BEST TIME OF YEAR: MARCH -october • PETS: YES • KID FRIENDLY: Yes. 10 AND OVER • FACILITIES: no • FEES: none
Rising from the edge of Arizona’s Painted Desert, a string of tall volcanic mounds, seem to guard entry to the plain. Strawberry Crater is one of the smaller of these ancient cinder cones – being just a fifth as tall as its well-known and tourist-filled neighbor, Sunset Crater.
It’s hard to do justice to the unique beauty of this sparse area and the intimacy of the Strawberry Crater Trail. Fields of wildflowers surround the Crater, Spring through Fall. The views of the Painted Desert are breathtaking. And there are no crowds to contend with.
As the trail ascends the side of Strawberry Crater, the surface is surprising. It rapidly morphs from firm soil to deep, loose granules of black and red lava. This makes this part of the hike feel like walking up (and then down) a huge sand dune.
Continuing around the loop, the trail crosses a high point and then winds downward through a bizarre landscape of volcanic formations. Incredible views of the plains stretch out in the distance.
Fields of stunning yellow and purple wildflowers mark the return, as the trail completes its loop around Strawberry Crater. Enjoy them on the short trek back to the trailhead.
Strawberry Crater was named for its red toned lava surface and Strawberry-esque shape.
From I-40 (in North Flagstaff) take exit 201 to US 89 North. Continue north on US 89 for 15.65 miles to Forest Road 546 and turn right / east. Take FR 546 for 3.55 miles to FR 779 and continue for 2.2 miles to the Strawberry Crater Trailhead. Although the forest roads are in pretty good shape, a high clearance vehicle is recommended.
This short hike, along the banks of two rivers, ends at a crisp, clear swimming hole. The Water Wheel Hiking Trail hopscotches two rivers on a rustic path. Along the way it passes dramatic waterfalls and deep gorges. The hike ends at a gushing cascade, that pours icy water into a deep natural pool.
TRAILHEAD: Houston Mesa Road, Payson •DIFFICULTY: Easy • DISTANCE: 1.6 MILES (3.2 miles RT) • APPROX. TIME: 1.5 -2 HOURS RT • ELEVATION GAIN: 150 FEET (11 STORIES) • APPROX. CALORIES BURNED: 416-480 RT • BEST TIME OF YEAR: March-October • PETS: YES • KID FRIENDLY: Yes please! • FACILITIES: Yes (but no water) • FEES: $9 parking fee (or annual National Parks Pass)
The Water Wheel Hiking Trail is obviously named for the ancient wheel that sits a short distance from the trailhead. Since this hike is family friendly, and sports an awesome swimming hole at the end, it’s often crowded in Summer.
The trail kicks off from an ample parking lot off of Houston Mesa Road. Head upstream from the trailhead along the banks of the East Verde River. The first leg of the hike follows a well-worn, super-easy-to-follow path.
About a quarter-mile into the hike, a granite hill rises above the river. This short uphill section is the hardest part of the hike, with a modest ascent.
At the top of the hill a dramatic waterfall cascades to the river below. Years of flowing water have carved a deep gorge through the rock.
A few yards further on, the East Verde River meets Ellison Creek. This is a popular resting spot and a fun place to dip your toes in the water. To reach Ellison Falls, cross the East Verde River on the ample boulders and fallen logs.
From here on out the trail is less defined. Continue right up the huge granite swaths at the base of Ellison Creek. Then follow the creek banks for one mile.
The hike ends at Ellison Falls. Here a long cascade rushes down a huge stone embankment. The deep natural pool at the base is crispy cold and perfect for a well deserved dip! Please remember to take your trash out with you to preserve this beautiful place!
Directions From the intersection of 87 A and 260 (in Payson), take 260 north for 2 miles to Houston Mesa Road. Turn right / north on Houston Mesa Road and continue to 7.75 miles to the Water Wheel Hiking Trailhead, on the right side of the road.