From Tucson's Sabino Canyon to Thumb Butte in Prescott, explore these six natural areas for a perfect wintertime trek.
With more mountains than Switzerland—we swear!—and millions of acres of protected land, the number of hiking trails in Arizona is mind-boggling. The only thing more impressive than the sheer amount of hiking opportunities is the variety of scenery hikers can enjoy: desert, alpine, urban, remote, rocky, sandy, grassy, and so on.
Because we couldn't possibly cover all of this in one short article, here are a collection of hikes perfect for Arizona's balmy winter months.
And, yes, the weather may be near perfect, but don't forget to pack some water for your trek—and maybe a sweater.
South Mountain, Phoenix
The 14.3-mile National Trail is the consummate South Mountain hike. One of the largest municipal parks in the country—it's 16,000 acres—South Mountain gives you room to roam, and the National Trail does nothing if roam.
If you're not looking for an all-day adventure, hike east a few miles along the trail from Buena Vista Lookout to Fat Man's Pass. A narrow natural tunnel arcs over the trail and makes a good turn-around point.
Camelback Mountain, Phoenix
"Hike" may not be the best verb to describe the 1.2-mile Echo Canyon trail (or Summit Trail) that ascends 1,264 feet to the top of Camelback Mountain. A better verb? Scramble. Expect to use your hands just as much as you do your feet while clambering up this rocky path. This is adventure hiking at its finest.
The final views make the effort worthwhile: Camelback is the highest mountain in the Phoenix area.
If you prefer a (slightly) less steep route to the summit, the Cholla Trail at the east end of the mountain rises nearly the same number of vertical feet in 1.75 miles.
Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa
The 3.2-mile (round trip) Wind Cave Trail makes a great family hike in the Pass Mountain.
Although the "cave" is more of a shallow arch than a gaping, mysterious, bat-infested hole, the sweeping views to the north and west and the interesting array of plants growing from the "ceiling" make it worth a visit.
Be sure to pack a picnic lunch. The shade at the mouth of the cave creates a nice spot for an alfresco meal.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, Tucson
Northeast of Tucson, at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the lush Sabino Canyon Recreation Area offers visitors open-air shuttle rides. You can hike the area without the use of the shuttles, but they do help you see more—and save some sweating—on your Sabino Canyon hike.
The Bear Canyon Tram goes directly to the trailhead for this 2.5-mile walk to picturesque Seven Falls, which includes several stream crossings.
The Sabino Canyon Tram makes numerous stops along its 45-minute route. Several hikes of varying difficulty start along the bus path.
Thumb Butte, Prescott
Easy to spot from nearly everywhere in Prescott, Thumb Butte offers a nearly two-mile hiking loop, part of which is paved, that goes almost to its summit.
You can hike the loop in either direction, but we like starting on the less-steep side. It takes a little longer to get to the top of the trail, but the gentler gradient makes up for that.
Upon reaching the loop's high point several hundred feet below the summit, look for a spur trail that takes you to an interpretative sign and bird's-eye views.
The sign gives you the names of each of the mountains in the Bradshaw Range you'll see before you. On a clear day, you can even see north all the way to the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, although there's no interpretative sign naming those mountains.
A winter warning: The steeper side of the loop, which is partially paved, doesn't see too much sun during the late part of the year and can sometimes be a little icy.
East Wetlands, Yuma
The Lower Colorado River used to support more than 450,000 acres of wetlands and native forests; by 1986, only an estimated 1,000 acres remained.
Starting in 2004, Yuma partnered with the Quechan Indian Tribe to work on restoration, and 350 acres have been restored in Yuma East Wetlands within the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.
A three-mile trail begins at Gateway Park and loops through marshes, cottonwoods, and willows. The trail through East Wetlands is unpaved.
For a more extended hike, follow the paved path heading west from Gateway Park. This route stays close to the Colorado River and is dotted with city parks.
About the Author
Dina Mishev lives and writes in Jackson, Wyoming, and wherever she parks her camper van in Arizona. Her work about travel, adventure, fitness and lifestyle topics appears in AFAR, Sunset, Entrepreneur, AAA Via and The Washington Post, among other publications. You can find her blog at www.dinamishev.com.