Scottsdale's rugged Sonoran Desert is yours to explore, from winding rivers and towering peaks to lush valleys and arroyos. Whether you're looking for do-it-yourself adventures or guided excursions, the options for exploring this unspoiled sanctuary are as varied as the landscape itself.
Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve offers more than 60 miles of shared-use trails for hikers and mountain bikers. Guided tours by Jeep, Hummer and horseback offer easy access to the desert's most remote expanses. And, hot air balloon flights give you a bird's-eye view, while river rafting trips serve up thrills in your choice of calm- or white-water adventures.
Discover Scottsdale's adventurous side today!
Scottsdale, Ariz., is located in the Sonoran Desert – a vibrant oasis bursting at the seams with unusual wildlife and vegetation, including 2,000 native plant species. The pristine landscape beckons visitors to get out and explore, but the options are as varied as the terrain itself. Here are five ways to explore Scottsdale's Sonoran Desert setting during your next visit.
Hiking – Scottsdale offers nearly 100 miles of hiking , biking and horseback-riding trails. Some of the most popular spots include Camelback Mountain and Pinnacle Peak Park, but nothing beats the picturesque expanses of Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve , which offers nearly 20,000 acres to enjoy do-it-yourself or guided outdoor adventures .
Off-Road Desert Tours – If you prefer to take in your outdoor action from the comfort of a motorized vehicle , there are myriad options available in Scottsdale. Plus, you can watch the desert come alive after dark with Desert Storm Hummer Tours' night-vision goggle and stargazing tour that illuminates wildlife up to 500 yards away.
Horseback Riding – For those who want to get in touch with their inner cowboy (or cowgirl), Scottsdale offers horseback riding across the same terrain that hosted such legendary figures as Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and renowned Apache warrior, Geronimo. These guided adventures can even take you through the cool waters of the Verde River .
Hot Air Balloon Adventures – In a landscape as panoramic as the Sonoran Desert, there's no more leisurely way to soak it all in than aboard a hot air balloon . Riders gently drift with the breeze as the pilot floats the balloon several hundred feet into the air or swoops in low to point out wildlife and native vegetation. Plus, every ride ends with a gourmet breakfast in the desert.
Water Sports – First-time visitors might be surprised by the number of wet 'n' wild adventures available in and around Scottsdale. The city's outskirts are chock-full with lakes, watering holes and rivers. Rafting, tubing and fishing are all available to visitors who want to explore Scottsdale's Sonoran Desert.
A visit to Scottsdale wouldn't be complete without exploring the city's breath-taking Sonoran Desert landscape of mountains and valleys. For more ideas to plan your next Scottsdale vacation, visit www.ExperienceScottsdale.com .
Scottsdale is alive with the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert. Before you visit, get to know some of our most popular desert plant dwellers.
Century Plant : The century plant spends 5 to 35 years growing a large basal rosette of stiff, leathery leaves. Then, a single stalk resembling an asparagus spear topped with golden-yellow blossoms shoots out and grows as much as a foot each day to reach a height of about 15 feet.
Saguaro Blossom : Did you know? Saguaro cacti only grow in the Sonoran Desert! The saguaro blossom is a cream-white flower with a bright yellow center and measures about three inches in diameter. It's also the state flower of Arizona.
Palo Verde : In Spanish, palo verde means “green stick.” In the spring, the tree sprouts tiny, bright gold flowers. Palo verde trees save water by dropping their leaves in the dry season and can live to be 400 years old!
Queen of the Night : These thin, spiny stems grow to about three feet tall. In the spring the plant sprouts buds, and on one summer night, the buds burst open into silky white flowers. Each flower opens for only one night and closes with the morning sun.
Prickly Pear : The prickly pear is armed with small barbed spines that grow on flattened pads. Prickly pears bloom with brilliant flowers in the spring and the juice from the cacti's fruit is used in drinks, syrup and jelly.
From the City of Scottsdale:
Generous winter rains may deliver a spectacular show this spring in Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve – wildflowers!
Colorful displays are already beginning to bloom along the preserve's two dozen maintained trails with yellow carpets of brittle bush contrasting with the fiery red blossoms of Chuparosa. Still to come are Lupine, Crimson Hedgehog, Staghorn Cholla, Mexican Gold Poppy and other varieties of wildflowers.
Nine trailheads are open, connecting to a trail system totaling 60 miles. You can access the trails from several locations throughout the preserve. For maps, locations and more information on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, visit: http://www.scottsdaleaz.gov/preserve .
There is also a high-tech way to get information on the best wildflower locations in the preserve. The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, a non-profit group that works in partnership with the city on the completion and sustainability of the preserve, is operating a "Wildflower Watch" this spring. It features reports from dozens of volunteer Conservancy stewards who are out and about in the preserve reporting on the best wildflower locations. To get their daily insights, visit the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy's Web site at http://mcdowellsonoran.org , click on "activities" and then "recreation."
18333 N Thompson Peak Pkwy
Scottsdale , AZ 85255
Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve is like no other place in the Valley. It is unique geologically. It is home to stunning geography, lush cacti forests and diverse wildlife. It features award-winning trails and facilities.
See for yourself. Now is a great time to explore the preserve, stretched across 17,000 scenic acres of Scottsdale.
The Preserve encompasses the McDowell Mountains, where recent discoveries are causing geologists to rethink how this region formed and evolved. New trails and amenities are bringing Scottsdale's “mountains of discovery” closer to residents and visitors. Check them out!
How to Get to the Preserve
You can access the trails in the Preserve from multiple trailheads around the Preserve's perimeter.
There are 3 ways to acquire a trails map of Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve:
~ You can pickup trail maps at the trailheads or the following locations:
|City of Scottsdale
Community Services Office
7447 E. Indian School Rd. Ste 300
|McDowell Sonoran Conservancy Office
16435 N. Scottsdale Rd. Ste 110
For information on guided tours of Scottsdale's Preserve, visit the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy's website at www.mcdowellsonoran.org .
c/o Spur Cross Stables
- 44029 N. Spur Cross Road
- Cave Creek , AZ 85331
- Toll-Free: 866-615-2748
- Phone: 480-634-8488
- Fax: 480-634-8487
Personalized hiking excursions for all ages and abilities! We offer full-day, half-day, sunrise, sunset and night hikes available year-round. We have something for everyone – groups, corporate teams, individuals and families. Take a trip on foot. Hiking is a spectacular way to enjoy the Sonoran Desert's unspoiled scenery. Venture into the world's most diverse desert and discover winding trails, hidden canyons and beautiful vistas. Learn about the desert and its unique inhabitants. Our guides are local experts who make your hike a fun and exciting adventure for you. Hiking is our passion, it's all we do!
Best Scenic Views
- Easy : The Lost Dog Wash Trail in Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve provides expansive East Valley views from the Lost Dog Overlook, which was an ancient Native American tool-making site. In spring, this trail is often awash with wildflowers.
- Difficult : The Preserve also is home to Tom's Thumb Trail , a challenging scenic track that climbs more than 1,300 feet in 2.5 miles through a wonderland of huge boulders. The trail offers excellent views of Tom's Thumb, the most recognizable feature in the Preserve and a popular spot for rock climbers.
Great for Working Up a Sweat
- In central Scottsdale, Camelback Mountain's Cholla and Echo Canyon summit trails reward hearty hikers with intense workouts and panoramic city views.
- The Sunrise Peak Trail in Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve climbs 1,100 feet in about 2.5 miles. The views of the Valley are magnificent.
Ideal for Families
- The Bajada Trail at the Gateway to Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve is an easy 1/2-mile interpretive loop that's family-friendly and ADA accessible. Add a short walk on the Saguaro Loop Trail to give kids a little more time out in the desert.
Best Wildflower Views
- The Preserve's Quartz Trail follows a large desert wash slowly uphill through a beautiful development for two miles and into the Preserve. This cool, shady, slightly wetter wash often produces a great variety of wildflowers.
- All of the trails in Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve are open to hikers and their four-legged friends. Keep in mind that dogs, like people, have varying degrees of physical fitness so choose a trail that matches both your and your dog's abilities.
Best for Birding
- Wash trails that boast lots of vegetation can offer excellent opportunities to see various kinds of desert birds. As noted above for wildflowers, the Preserve's Quartz Trail follows a large wash into the Preserve where a left turn takes you along the wash bank and then down into the wash through an area that gets progressively narrower and more interesting. There are unusual rock formations and vegetation all along the way.
Great Hiking/Climbing Combos
- Pinnacle Peak Park offers breathtaking north Scottsdale views from its summit trail as well as a variety of traditional crack and bolted climbing routes on the namesake 200-foot granite peak and other formations like Cactus Flower and Y-Crack Boulder.
- In Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Tom's Thumb is a 150-foot granite pinnacle offering excellent cracks of all grades. The hike to Tom's Thumb is strenuous and steep, but the breathtaking scenic views are worth the effort.
Stellar Sunrise Hikes
- Head out on the Bell Pass or Windgate Pass trails from the Gateway when Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve opens at sunrise and you'll be rewarded with a great workout and stellar eastward views to Four Peaks and beyond.
Good for Strolling
- If you'd like to experience Sonoran Desert flora and fauna in a more urban setting, check out the Desert Botanical Garden's five thematic paths, which illustrate topics like desert wildflowers, conservation, desert living, and plants and people of the Sonoran Desert. You'll experience the beauty of desert flora and fauna within arm's reach of urban amenities like the Garden Shop and Patio Café.
Most Culturally/Historically Significant
- The Lost Dog Overlook , located along its namesake trail, is a well-documented Native American tool-making site. The tall, steep banks of the wash were used by hunters to ambush large game animals, like deer, passing through the wash below.
Now that you've found your best hike, check out these helpful tips to Know Before You Go !
For more information:
Desert Dog Hummer Adventures
17212 E. Shea Blvd.
Fountain Hills, AZ 85268
Phone: 480 837-3966
Fax : 480 837-0742
Desert Dog Adventures offer unique levels of 4X4 Desert Adventures from our scenic Sonoran adventure to our "desert stormin" extreme adventure. Come with us and enjoy the beauty of Arizona's "outback" in one of our H1 Hummers or our New H2 Hummer complete with air-conditioning, exterior roll cage and multiple roof mounted spotlights..a "stellar" experience not to be missed! Or experience the thrill of driving one of our exclusive, unique "C2" 2 seat desert cars or buggies though some challenging desert trails. ATV's - 4 wheelers - quads tours are also available.
7-days, morning, afternoons and sunset.
15600 N. Hayden Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85260
Phone: 602 618-1903
Fax : 480 905-3042
EagleRider Phoenix offers the ultimate motorcycle experience. Located in a climate suited for year round riding, there is always a road and destination waiting for you. From the majestic views of the Grand Canyon and the red rocks of Sedona, to the Wild West's legendary route 66 and that corner in Winslow Arizona… our state has it all.
Whatever your adventure, EagleRider Phoenix will help get you there. Our knowledgeable staff is eager to put you on the road with a late model Harley Davidson. We offer self-guided tours, protective riding gear, accessories and gifts to take home
Let's go flying! Take a Seaplane Adventure up the "Apache Trail," through some of Arizona's most stunning landscape, make an exciting water landing and return to Scottsdale Airport in just over an hour.
Cessna Caravan Jet-Prop Amphibious Seaplane Tour of the Salt River Canyon and Superstition Mountains - water landing at Roosevelt Lake - departing Scottsdale Airport 5 times daily!
Bring your camera for stunning views of the golden canyons of Saguaro Lake, Canyon Lake, Apache Lake, Roosevelt Lake lime cliffs "Painted Desert," Haystack Island, Tonto National Monument Indian Ruins, catch a rare glimpse of Desert Bighorn Sheep in the wild, Tortilla Flats, Fish Creek Canyon, Weavers Needle, and the Legend of the Lost Dutchamn Mine, Hopi Legend of the Spires, Red Cliffs of the Superstitions at Apache Junction, Goldfield Ghost Town and Mine, Red Mountain, and reach out and touch the 562 foot tall fountain at Fountain Hills just before returning for a runway landing at Scottsdale Airport.
- Contact Name: Bruce G. Leadbetter
- Title: GM/Owner
- Phone: 602-795-1877
- Fax: 480-393-4978
Rock Climbing . . .one of America's fastest growing sports. Are you a novice looking to learn the basics or make the switch to outside climbing? Maybe you're an experienced climber who just needs someone to show you some tasty routes. There are dozens of routes to choose from and your guide will pick one based on your experience and desire for a challenge. Each climb offers a stunning aerial view of the surrounding area. Your guides have led climbs around the world and enjoy sharing their knowledge and stories of adventures in the mountains. This is the perfect outing for first-timers or experienced climbers looking for a challenge.
- 16447 N. 91st Street
- Suite 101
- Scottsdale , AZ 85260
- Toll-Free: 866-455-1601
- Phone: 480-945-2881
AOA provides the finest hiking, mountain biking, rafting, kayaking, multi-day adventure vacations, and corporate teambuilding programs in the Southwest.
- 47801 N. Black Canyon Highway
- New River , AZ 85087
- Toll-Free: 877-613-9653
Why sit in the back seat when you can drive? Featured in AAA Highroads as a "Thing to Do and See in the Grand Canyon State," Desert Wolf Tours offers guided tours in the all new Tomcar. This excursion is truly unique in that YOU GET TO DRIVE! After searching the world for the most exciting yet easy to use vehicles that would afford our guests the excitement and comfort they deserve, we found the Tomcar. Originally developed for use by special operations units, we own the largest tour fleet in Arizona. Our guests self-pilot, these amazingly comfortable and automatic vehicles during guided tours through the beautiful Sonoran Desert while they learn about the plant and animal life that inhabit our unique landscape. Although you travel in a convoy, we never mix parties…your party will get their own vehicle(s). We also take dozens of pictures and send you a private link to your group's photos on the web where you can download or share with your friends and family! Call us now for private, corporate, group and custom tours including team bonding events. Our standard tour is about 3.5 hours and contains some of the following: · River crossings · Ghost towns · Indian Ruin · Fun driving challenges (descents, ascents, river crossings)
- 8399 E. Indian School Road
- Scottsdale , AZ 85251
- Contact Name: Joshua Swift
- Title: COO
- Toll-Free: (866) 703-2622
- Phone: (480) 291-9899
- Fax: (480) 990-2522
Green Zebra Adventures offers one of the most exciting things to do in Scottsdale. We provide exhilarating off road tours featuring the cutting edge Tomcar. Providing one of the most invigorating things to do on any vacation, Green Zebra Adventures allows you to drive your own specially designed, military grade off road vehicle. Enjoy the ride as you explore 23,000 acres of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. Twist and turn through the famed Sonoran Desert that features towering Saguaros, bald eagles, wild horses, and opportunities to drench yourself in the Verde River. During the tour, guides will share area information, including the history of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and other tales of Arizona. Come earn your stripes and book your tour today!