“Of all the states I’ve lived in and visited, Arizona is the most diverse in its running terrain,” she says. “Driving just a few hours or less can take you from warm deserts to snowy forests. Many of my friends who visit here have been astounded by the state’s beauty.”
Brianna Grigsby is an ultramarathoner and avid trail runner living in Tucson. She first hit the trails as a hiker, falling in love with the mountains surrounding the city. But when she realized she could cover more ground faster by running, Brianna never looked back. As a member of the Aravaipa Racing Team, she runs competitive races throughout Arizona and other states. Recent racing highlights include 2nd place in the Flagstaff Sky Peaks 50K, 1st place and a championship record in the Javelina Jangover 50K, and 1st place (and another championship record) in the Sinister Night Runs 54K.
When she’s not training or racing, Brianna works as a family medicine doctor on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Whiteriver, and also guides running trips with Aspire Adventure Running.
“I live in Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the country, and I don’t have to drive more than 30 minutes to access extraordinarily challenging trails.”
Jay Tinsley is a financial aid administrator by trade, but moonlights as a youth coach, community activist and distance runner. He’s also the captain of Black Men Run Phoenix, a national running group with local chapters all over the country.
Jay, a transplant from the Northeast who now lives in Phoenix with his wife and two children—“they are the sun around which my solar system revolves”—says running is how he both disconnects from the world and connects with his community.
“The American Trail Running Association has a blog called ‘Trails are for Every Body,’ Jay explains, “and I believe every body is intentionally presented as two words to emphasize that anyone can do this. I regularly remind myself of this when I feel intimidated by a trail simply because I don’t fit the quintessential trail running mold.”
“I encourage new trail runners to find a group run so they can learn the area, learn the dos and donts of trail running from experienced runners, and meet fun people with the same interests. And for safety’s sake, always let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back, bring water, and if you have to have headphones, leave one ear open to be aware of your surroundings.”
Ron French started running in his home state of Illinois in the 1970s. Cut to 2023—and a move to Phoenix in 1989—and Ron is still logging miles every day. He credits Arizona with his discovery of trail running.
“My love for trail running happened immediately when I moved here,” Ron recalls. “Running through the desert on singletrack trails and passing huge saguaros was, and still is, a thrill.”
Not only does Ron count running as his hobby (along with his work as a photographer), it’s also his profession. In 2000, he joined the staff at local shop Runner’s Den, and for the past two decades, has served as the store’s manager and buyer. His go-to trail shoe: Saucony Peregrine. “It has outstanding traction, durability and protection. I’ve enjoyed every version of this model through the years.”
Where to Run:
Our Experts’ Recommendations
Best Trail for Runners of All Skill Levels
Brianna: Catalina State Park, Tucson. There are several loops that are not technical and offer great terrain for beginning trail runners. I enjoy combining the 2.3-mile Canyon Loop Trail with the 1-mile Nature Loop Trail and the 1-mile Birding Loop Trail to make a 5-mile route. For those wanting a steep and technical route, Romero Canyon Trail is phenomenal. On this trail, you can reach Romero Pools in 2.5 miles; stop for a swim or even cliff-jumping when the water is deep enough.
Jay: North Mountain Preserve, Phoenix. Any of the trails within the preserve are great. There are shorter, flatter loops for beginners. Intermediate runners can tack on some elevation if they choose. Advanced runners can challenge themselves to run up and down Shaw Butte and North Mountain
Ron: The Peavine Trail, Prescott. This is a Rails to Trails conversion with amazing views of Watson Lake and the Granite Dells. You can stay on Peavine to the north parking lot at Hwy. 89A, or when it splits, take Iron King Trail into Prescott Valley. It’s a beautiful, non-technical run.
Best (Short) Singletrack Trail
Brianna: Sweetwater Preserve, Tucson. It offers a variety of fun, cruisy singletrack trails that are popular among runners and mountain bikers. The trails vary in technicality, with some being rocky and others smooth and fast. Though the trails are relatively short, they can be linked up to craft longer routes.
Jay: Bell Rock Pathway, Sedona. I’m not sure if I believe in vortexes, but I know I felt especially good and surprisingly fast running here.
Ron: Lost Dog Wash Trail, Scottsdale. From Lost Dog Trailhead, run to the Taliesin Overlook, then follow your steps back for a quick four miles. I enjoy this short run because it climbs on the way out and you can fly on the return trip. It is an ankle breaker, so tread lightly.
Best (Long) Singletrack Trail
Brianna: Black Canyon Trail, Black Canyon City. This trail runs 80 miles from north of Spring Valley to south of Anthem. It offers views of the Bradshaw Mountains as it weaves down into canyons and back and forth across the Agua Fria River, which is often a dry wash, but becomes a flowing river after rain. Every February, the Black Canyon Ultras 100K and 60K races take place here, attracting over a thousand runners from all over the world.
Jay: Sidewinder and Ocotillo Trails off the Apache Wash Trailhead in the Sonoran Preserve. It’s a short drive from the city, but you’ll feel like you’re in the country. If you go in the morning, you’ll see dozens of hot air balloons launching nearby.
Ron: Tom’s Thumb Trail, Scottsdale. From Gateway Trailhead, take Desert Park Trail to Wingate Pass to Tom’s Thumb. This excursion gets pretty quiet—which adds to the awesomeness—once you get a few miles away from trailhead.
Best Trail with Epic Views
Brianna: South and North Kaibab Trails, Grand Canyon. It’s hard to find a place with more epic views than the Grand Canyon! The South and North Kaibab Trails allow you to traverse the canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim.
Jay: Wildcat Trail, Monument Valley Tribal Park. Taking a pic at Forrest Gump Point is nice, but it’s an entirely different experience to run among the buttes.
Ron: Sunrise Peak Trail, Scottsdale. From Lost Dog Trailhead, this 6-mile roundtrip gives you some steep climbs near the summit. Be sure to stop and look back at the view as you climb.
Favorite Urban Trail
Jay: Papago Park Loop, Tempe. It’s centrally located in metro Phoenix and easy to get to. It’s perfect for large group runs for people of all abilities. And Lou’s Bar & Grill is right there for post-run treats.
Ron: Reach 11 Trail, Phoenix. Located near the Musical Instrument Museum, this flat, dirt loop is easy on the legs. On the trail, can also cross Tatum Boulevard and run at Horse Lovers Park. Both areas offer 100% dirt unlike the rocky mountain trails at most of the area’s trailheads.
Favorite Spot for a Post-Run Brew or Meal
Brianna:Red Curry Vegan Kitchen in Flagstaff, Chanpen Thai in Phoenix, Renee’s in Tucson. Jay: I’m typically itching to get home and shower after a long run, but I’ll say that Arizona Wilderness Brewing in Gilbert probably makes the best post-workout beers. I’m generally not a light-beer guy, but I had their Human Kind(ness) ale after running the National Trail and it was life-altering. They put a lot of love into their beer and food.
Ron: This sounds boring, but I really enjoy just hanging out at the trunk of my car with an ice-cold beverage that I’ve packed. Throw in some stretching and good conversation with your running buds and that’s a scenario that’s hard to beat.
Arizona is renowned as a hiking destination. Many challenging hikes—such as Camelback Mountain in Phoenix or Bright Angel Trail at the Grand...
About the Author
Jessica Dunham is a travel, food and fitness writer whose work has been published in PHOENIX Magazine, Runner's World, Phoenix New Times, Valley Guide, Phoenix Travel Guide, Modern Luxury Scottsdale and more. She is passionate about all things Arizona, especially spontaneous Saturday daytrips around the state. She can be reached at dunham-media.com.