The other day one of my local friends who is looking forward to hiking again now that fall weather is approaching (YIPPEE!!!) asked me what my favorite trail was, and it turned out that question felt a lot harder to answer than you might guess…I told her- it depends what kind of experience she’s looking for because different trails have different gifts- it is something I have come to love about hiking. Now don’t get me wrong, not all trails compete to be my favorite- there are some I feel meh about for sure, but as I started thinking more about the past year and a half of really getting into hiking, I realized that even many of the trails I might leave as a one and done experience still had gorgeous moments. So, today I am sharing a few of my favorite trails that are very different and offer very different kinds of gifts. I stuck with trails in the Phoenix Metro area as opposed to day trips we’ve taken so if you are local, recommendations are linked below and if you are not- I hope you enjoy reading about the diverse opportunities different trails present and at the very least are reminded of the many beautiful ways you can opt outside!
Favorite Long Trail: Bell’s Pass via Gateway– I’m not sure if this is actually my favorite or just the longest trail I’ve ever done so it wins by default. The beginning of this trail is crowded as a lot of people head to Gateway trailhead, but once you get closer to Bell’s Pass it gets so quiet and beautiful. The views are crazy and Bell’s Pass can be your final destination or you can keep going toward the other peaks in the McDowell Mountains like Tom’s Thumb (see below for more about that!). Long trails are such a gift because they give you so much time to be with your thoughts and see so many different views and perspectives. They also make me practice my pacing- too fast in the beginning and I’m tired and sore and probably a little grumpy the rest of my hike, too slow in the beginning and I’m wondering if I’ll get back to my car by sunset or if I’ll need to change or cancel plans because I thought I’d be done earlier. That may not seem like a gift but it is. To live in that liminal space between time seeming utterly pointless and yet time still being crucial does something to my brain that really helps it reset.
Favorite Views: : Perl Charles Memorial Trail aka trail 1A– in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. This is a Lollipop Trail which is by far my favorite trail shape. A lollipop trail means you start and finish on the same stretch of trail, and at a certain point you branch off the main trail and do a loop trail- the effect being a lovely little lollipop shape- although sometimes the “stick” part of the lollipop is not so straight…. These are my favorite shape because at the end of the trail when I am tired I have something familiar. The 1A loop at Phoenix Mountain preserve has the most stunning views of the city, but also has large sections where I feel totally separate from civilization. There are challenging switchbacks which makes me feel really confident and proud when I get past them, and there are gorgeous peaks and lovely memorial benches that beckon me to rest when things are overwhelming. *Please note- the All Trails link starts at the official beginning of the trail which is by a canal in a neighborhood I believe and has not even been open recently. I start this trail from Dreamy Draw Trailhead!
Favorite Loop Trail with kids: Papago Park Butte Loop– this is basically just across a major road from the very popular Hole in the Rock trail- Papago park is usually less crowded (maybe because there is a bit less parking?) and has a lot of trails to explore, but we really enjoy his easy loop trail. We’ve been coming here since our oldest was a baby and I wasn’t really a hiker so it is a great trail for beginners. Hiking with kids is such a gift- starting them young on an activity that helps cultivate a love of both the outdoors and moving our body in a fun, positive way. My kids also almost always point out things I might miss or take for granted- a clump of wildflowers, a gecko camouflaging, the shape of an interesting cloud. The double edge sword of doing a loop trail with kids is that if you get halfway you have no choice but to keep going! Sometimes that has been great for improving stamina and letting the kids know it would be longer to go back the way we came than to just keep going, and sometimes this has led to a few minor meltdown. Overall though, we love this trail. It is also a great middle meeting point when meeting friends from the East Valley.
Favorite Loop Trail without kids: Cholla Loop– This trail at the Thunderbird Conservation park is blessedly less crowded than the more popular Sunset and Coachwhip trails. It has some particularly stunning saguaros and it has some long flat stretches that are great for beginning trail runs along with enough elevation to give you some views! Plus, the trail is in the shape of a heart so it is extra fun to track on apps like Strava.
Favorite Popular (aka CROWDED) trail: Tom’s Thumb- This trail was the top trail recommended to me at the beginning of the year when I announced my 31 day hiking challenge at the beginning of this year. It is no mystery why it was so recommended. The landscape is gorgeous with huge boulders and the iconic thumb formation. The surrounding mountains are lovely and it has some challenging spots while still being long enough to enjoy the journey. It Is CROWDED from the main trailhead though, especially on some of the tighter switchback areas. I’d love to try to hike it via Gateway and Bell’s pass, as mentioned earlier in this post, but that would definitely be more of a long hike. (Piestewa, my favorite summit hike, is a close second in this category and is absolutely gorgeous but I have a LOT of the Phoenix Mountain preserve on this list already since I’ve hiked it so many times… – unpopular opinion- I’d rather go Piestewa than Camelback any day of the week…)
Favorite trail to explore and meander with no set goal: Trail 100– this trail is LONG and spans all throughout the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. It is a great starting point or connecting trail for various routes and so it feels a little different every time. It also contains two tunnel underpasses that my kids are obsessed with. I never get board with whatever section of this trail I try. Ironically, though, I actually do have a goal set around it for the fall which is to do the whole thing from point to point in one go! Definitely not attempting it until cooler weather comes and hoping to make a leisurely day of it.
Favorite “everyone takes this picture but still wonderfully Inatagramable” Trail: Wave Cave– In some ways this doesn’t even really feel like a local trail unless you are already in the East Valley and the road to get to the trailhead is VERY bumpy so be aware of that if you want to tackle it. I was stunned when I asked my husband what his favorite hike was from the past year and he told me this one. It was by far the HARDEST family hike we did with the two of us passing off three children with tiny legs trying to scrabble up a very steep final bit of the trail to reach the cave and that same steepness on the way down leading to a few scrapes, and to top it all off I got stung by a bee or wasp on the way down.. and yet- the memory of that hike will stay with us for a very long time. And the pictures we have from that day are stunning and made us feel like we’d gone on a BIG adventure. Still… I don’t think we’ll be going again unless it is without children that we have to haul up… so either we’ll go back with friends or maybe one day as a family again when those children have all grown enough to scrabble up on their own! (PS this picture isn’t the iconic “wave” part of the trail but it does give you a better idea of the amazing views you experience in person that doesn’t show up on instagram as often…)
I truly believe there’s a trail out there for everyone. If you have tried hiking before and hated it- it could just be you weren’t on the right trail for you and I hope you’ll think about giving it another go. Whether it be a summit trail vs. circumference, loop vs. out and back, solo vs with kids, rocky vs. packed dirt terrain, busy vs not, all of them have different gifts, but some of those gifts might fit one day better than another.
Do you have a favorite type of trail? Or, if you have a single favorite trail, what makes it your favorite? I’d love to hear.
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