There's something about the desert that's mysterious and magical. Stories of lost treasure, legends and traditions handed down by native tribes, unique plants and animals, ancient ruins from civilizations past, and some of the country's most dramatically beautiful scenery create an aura of enchantment sure to bring out anyone's inner adventurer. Lace up your hiking boots, put on your Indiana Jones leather fedora, and head out to uncover the desert's secrets on these hikes through Phoenix's hot springs and ancient petroglyphs.
Begin your Arizona adventure on this easy-going trail that leads you right to the cliff of a waterfall. Great for families, dogs, and the average curious hiker, Waterfall Trail (at White Tank Mountain Regional Park on the metro area's western border) is just two miles round trip. Keep in mind that the waterfall is at its prettiest after a good rainfall, so keep an eye on that weather tracker and wait for a spout of rain the night before or the morning of your trip. Luckily, the petroglyphs (rock carvings) and sweeping views are abundant enough to make the hike worthwhile, whether there's flowing water or not. For those wanting to experience some Arizona hiking but don't want to commit to an all-day, exhausting trip, Waterfall Trail is an ideal length. It's not too difficult, and there's even an informative library within the park.
Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area consists of trails spanning seven miles, and is home to some of the biggest cacti you're likely to see on your trip! Choose the right hike length for you on easy-to-follow trails that range from just a mile or two, to more of an all-afternoon outing. Metate Trail offers views of strange and mysterious petroglyphs, making it a great option for exploration. For just $3, you'll receive access to the park as well as a map and trail guide. A creek on the property that flows throughout much of the year offers a cool break from the heat! Dog friendly and with some trails that are moderate enough for beginner hikers and families, Spur Cross Ranch allows for a great workout, mysterious ancient carvings, and some killer cactus views.
Note-- it's never a bad idea to keep some tweezers on you in case of an encounter with an angry cactus!
Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve is a nearly 50-acre archaeological site that's perfect, whether you're nuts about the rich culture and history of the area, up for learning new and interesting things, or just curious as to what all of the Arizona petroglyph hubbub is about. Pre-Columbian tribes such as the Archaic, Payatan, and Hohokam created over 1,600 petroglyph carvings throughout the property, and the museum was built to preserve and provide education on these thousands-of-years-old landmarks. Be sure to check out the art center for fascinating historical remnants such as an ancient Hohokam cooking pit. Inside the museum, knowledgeable staff members are ready to enlighten you on anything you might want to learn about. There are also plenty of activities and exhibits for children, and special events and concerts are regularly scheduled!
After exploring Phoenix, hiking and taking in all of its culture, escape the city for a day trip to El Dorado Hot Springs. Kick back and relax in the mineral water, which has been said to feel like "bathing in liquid silk." Choose from a wide variety of relaxing experiences, such as private soaking areas with desert views where you can see Saddle Mountain in the distance, access to a bar and fire pit, and much more. El Dorado additionally offers a nude-only communal area called "Desert Pete," which also has a private bunkhouse and reading area. Stay overnight, or return to the city after an afternoon of healing bliss. This popular form of natural therapy gives you the relaxation you need after long days of hard work or hiking fun, and has been said to not only be great for the body, but healing for the mind and spirit as well.
For a challenging hike that's relatively quick and right in town, Mormon Trailhead, located at the bottom of South Mountain Park and Preserve near 24th Street and Valley View Avenue, connects to a few different trails around the area and offers the chance to see petroglyphs as well as panoramic views of Phoenix. The Hidden Valley loop is a little under four miles, and is filled with dry waterfalls and tunnels, which make great photo ops! Hidden Valley leads you through a natural tunnel, right to the popular “Fat Man’s Pass,” a space between two rocks that hikers must squeeze through to get to the other side. This famous spot is worth the hike in and of itself, but opportunities to hike over the pass are available as well! From here you can loop right back to Mormon Trail for an easy return to the parking lot. Allow a full afternoon of hiking on this adventure, and feel free to bring lunch-- to stop and relax in Hidden Valley for a beautiful scenery-filled picnic.
Also within South Mountain Park and Preserve, Holbert Trail is a more difficult climb up the mountain, ideal for hikers wanting more of a challenge. Charles M. Holbert was South Mountain's first park custodian back in 1929, and was known as the "Old Man of the Mountain." Rightfully named after the man who explored every inch of the park, the trail offers a gorgeous lookout spot, Dobbins Lookout, that allows for panoramic views of downtown Phoenix and the surrounding area. There are even some neat photogenic rock features and ancient art along the way-- it's probably the best trail in the park for petroglyph spotting. At the top of the trail, you're rewarded with a panoramic view of the entire park, something you won't want to miss! The trail itself is two and a half miles one way, but also connects with the National Trail, if you want to give your hike a little boost. Just like many of the accessible trails scattered around the area, Holbert Trail is dog friendly!
Named after the telegraph line that ran from San Diego to Maricopa Wells, which was extended by the US Army to Prescott back in 1873, Telegraph Pass Trailhead spans a few miles and is located right inside South Mountain Park and Preserve. It's one of the more popular trails in the park, and though it is shorter than most of the others, it can get steep. The start of the trail is paved and features informative signs about the various petroglyphs you will encounter. It's common for hikers to continue on to the National Trail from here, to allow themselves to see the Stone Hut rock feature and views of the park and the city of Phoenix. For those wanting to give hiking a try without spending hours upon hours on a trail, or those who want to get a quick workout and see some breathtaking views, Telegraph Pass is a great choice once in South Mountain Park!
Hieroglyphics Trail is located right in the Superstition Mountains and is easily accessed through Gold Canyon. At just a mile and a half long, it’s one of the shortest trails in the area, making it great for families and hikers of all experience levels. Don’t let the short trail fool you into thinking that it’s anything short of the full Arizona experience; Hieroglyphics is filled with cacti and gorgeous views. After climbing up the sloped first half, you'll run into rocky pools of water that are full during much of the year. Here, the views of Gold Canyon and the Gila River plain are incredible, and you can truly feel the rich history of the Hohokam Indians, who once inhabited the area. Keep your eyes out for subtle markings left on the stones and cliffs lining the trail.
The ancient art and beautiful trails found in Phoenix are countless; a great treat for everyone from the most experienced hikers to those who just want to see what Arizona has to offer. This is truly a unique adventure you'll enjoy on a solo trip, or with family or friends. Be sure to pack plenty of water as you prepare to emerge yourself in the ancient culture-filled lands that feel more magical with each step.