Explore all that mcdowell mountain regional park
Splayed across 21,099 acres of the magnificent Sonoran Desert, McDowell Mountain Regional Park attracts thousands of visitors each year. They come to enjoy the endless skies, breathtaking scenery, and great outdoors of central Arizona. Nearly 70 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding wend their way throughout the park, all against the spectacular backdrop of Weaver’s Needle, the Superstition Mountains, and the Four Peaks – Maricopa County’s tallest mountains.
Origins of a Desert Park
The name of the park – McDowell – harkens all the way back to the closing days of the Civil War, when Camp McDowell was founded on the west bank of the Verde River. The camp and its fort were used as a military outpost until 1890. Since the presence of the fort offered protection for settlers, the population in the area grew, and Maricopa County was created in 1871. Plans were first laid for a county park system in the 1940s. By 1945, certain land acquisitions and leases had already been completed. The land for McDowell Park – 18,273 acres – was leased in 1958 and later expanded to its present size. Today it is one of the largest and most scenic parks in the county.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park is a hiker’s and biker’s paradise. No fewer than 27 different trails meander their way through the park. Some trails are shared use (any non-motorized transport is allowed, including horses), some are hike/bike only, and three trails are for hikers only. These trails range in difficulty from easy to strenuous. The longest is the 15.4-mile Pemberton Trail, a shared-use loop trail. The shortest, at just half a mile, are the Chuparosa and Hilltop Trails.
For those looking for an easy hike, the 3.1-mile North Trail – the most popular trail in the park – is a good choice. A good, moderate workout can be had on the Scenic Trail (3.5 miles) and the Bluff Trail (2.2 miles). Along with the Pemberton Trail, two other trails are rated difficult – the Shallmo Wash Trail (1.7 miles) and the Stoneman Wash Trail (4.3 miles). The Visitor’s Center has helpful information to assist hikers in deciding which trail is best for them.
Hikers, bikers, and riders on these trails are immersed in the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. The park is full of desert wildlife; deer, javelina, rabbits, butterflies, wild horses, over 20 species of birds, and coyotes can be seen. Up to 15 different kinds of cacti can be found, including the saguaro, Arizona’s largest and most majestic cactus, which can grow to an impressive 40 feet. And when the desert wildflowers bloom, the landscape is simply awash with color.
Along with the 24 trails where bikes are allowed, the park also contains three competitive tracks for mountain bikers: the Long Loop for average riders (8.2 miles), the Sport Loop for intermediate and expert riders (3 miles), and the Technical Loop for expert riders (2.9 miles). Joggers and horseback riders are also allowed on the tracks. Each loop has a variety of obstacles to test riders’ skills. The Technical Loop, for example, features swooping turns, technical descents, and steep inclines.
The park hosts four camping areas. The E. I. Rowland Family Campground has 76 sites for tents and RVs. It can accommodate RVs up to 45 feet, and the south loop has handicapped-accessible restrooms. Each site has water and electric hookups, a dump station, picnic table, and fire ring. There is a 14-day stay limit. The Group Campground is a three-acre area with 30 sites for RVs, and no hookups. It can be reserved for day or overnight use. There is a covered ramada shelter with six picnic tables, and the restroom has flush toilets and hot showers. Four Peaks Staging Area is good for primitive overnight stays by camping groups with horses or mules. The Youth Group Area is available to Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other youth groups. All camping areas can be reserved online.
A staging area is available near the east entrance at McDowell Mountain Road. Twelve of the twenty trails – totaling nearly 60 miles – are open to horseback riders.
The park has two day-use areas for picnics. The Ironwood and Palo Verde areas offer a total of 88 sites, each with picnic tables, restrooms, barbecue grills, and a playground. No reservations are needed. Ironwood is open year-round, while Palo Verde is closed from May-August. Also available are the two group picnic ramadas next to the trailhead staging area. Each has four picnic tables. Reservations are needed.
Various programs and activities are held in the park throughout the year. These include stargazing, sunset hikes, ranger-led educational hikes on a variety of topics, fitness hikes, archery instruction, and reptile feeding. The official website www.maricopacountyparks.net/mcdowell-mountain-regional-park/ has details about monthly programs.
Hiking in the desert can be an exhilarating, cathartic experience. But it can also quickly turn dangerous. Stay on the designated trails. Always remember to bring plenty of water, including water for your dog if you have one. When your water is half gone, turn around and head back. Proper footwear is essential; closed-toed shoes or boots are strongly recommended. Never hike alone, and be sure to tell someone where you will be. Bring your cell phone with you. Use maps, know where you are, know your limitations, and know what kind of terrain you’ll be hiking. Remember that in the hot, humid months of summer, trail difficulty will be at least one level higher than noted.
The park is open 365 days a year, Sun.-Thur. 6 am-8 pm and Fri - Sat 6 am-10 pm. Entry fee is $7 per vehicle, payable at a self-pay station at the park entrance. McDowell Mountain Regional Park is located about an hour north of Scottsdale at 16300 McDowell Mountain Park Dr., Fountain Hills. For more information, talk to your concierge or call (480) 471-0173.