These scenic areas ring the Valley with picnicking, hiking trails, mountain-biking tracks, equestrian facilities, and campgrounds. Interpretive programs take place at all of the parks; call or check the website for the schedule. Leashed pets can come along on the trails and in the campgrounds. The main office (411 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85004, 602/506-2930, www.maricopa.gov/parks, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.) in downtown Phoenix provides excellent maps and brochures, though staff may not have first-hand knowledge of all areas. You can usually reach individual park offices seven days a week, though staff will all be out on patrol at times. The entry fee of $5/vehicle ($1/cyclist) is credited toward camping fees of $10, or $18 if the site has electricity. Estrella and Lake Pleasant also offer free primitive camping that's included with your $5 entry fee and is good until 1 p.m. the next day. Only groups can reserve sites; campgrounds have a 14-day stay limit. A variety of annual day-use passes can be purchased. Weekends in the cool season, especially in early spring, see the most visitors; you'll find more solitude on a weekday visit. Few people come in summer, and sections of parks may close.
Estrella Mountain Regional Park
Spanish explorers named the range Estrella ("Star") after the pattern of deeply carved canyons radiating from the jagged summits. This 19,840-acre recreation area (14805 W. Vineyard Ave., Goodyear, AZ 85338, 623/932-3811, www.maricopa.gov/parks/Estrella, $5/vehicle) southwest of Phoenix offers picnicking, camping, many miles of trails, a rodeo arena, and a golf course. The huge, grassy picnic area has playgrounds and covered picnic tables. It's also popular with groups, who can rent picnic ramadas, the two ballfields, an amphitheater, and the rodeo arena; they can also arrange camping. You may catch a rodeo or horse show at the rodeo arena. Families and individuals can camp in the grassy area (no showers or established sites) at no additional charge or stay in the tiny RV section ($18 w/hookups). Entry to the park includes primitive camping (good until 1 p.m. the next day). From Phoenix, head west about 20 miles on I-10 to Estrella Parkway Exit 126, go south about five miles on Estrella Parkway, then turn left on Vineyard Avenue just after the Gila River bridge; the golf course entrance is on the right after half a mile, the main park entrance is just beyond, and the Estrella Competitive Track entrance is a few miles farther east.
The rocky foothills of the range provide a scenic backdrop for the trails, all of which form loops. Gila Trail, the easiest walk, is a half-mile, barrier-free loop that begins near the grassy area; for a longer stroll, you can continue on the 1.7-mile Baseline Trail loop. The main group of trails starts from two trailheads south near the rodeo arena; hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians have many options; the shortest loop begins at the west trailhead and climbs over a ridge with good views in 3.9 miles, or you could continue on other trails for as long as 19 miles without retracing your steps. Estrella Mountain Competitive Track appeals to mountain bikers, runners, and equestrians looking for a challenge; it has a 1.6-mile Junior Loop for beginners, a 9.5-mile Long Loop, and a 4.7-mile Technical Loop (experts only); slow users yield to fast ones on these one-way loops, which have a separate entrance east of the main park gate. The Estrella summits in the park have no roads or trails—they're as rough and forbidding as when the Spanish explorers passed by! Climbing them can be hazardous. You must obtain a permit for off-trail travel or for camping in the backcountry.
Estrella Mountain Golf Course (in the northwest corner of the park, 623/932-3714) has 18 holes, a pro shop, and a snack bar.
White Tank Mountain Regional Park
Inviting trails here (P.O. Box 91, Waddell, AZ 85335, 623/935-2505, www.maricopa.gov/parks/white_tank, $5/vehicle) wind back into the White Tank Mountains on the west side of the Valley. Infrequent flash floods have roared down the canyons, scouring out depressions (tanks) in the white granite, giving the park its name. Elevations range from 1,402 feet at the park entrance to 4,083 feet on the highest peak. Archaeologists have identified seven Hohokam village sites and numerous petroglyphs. The county's largest park at about 30,000 acres, it offers picnic areas (some with covered tables), group ramadas, family and group campgrounds, and interconnecting trails. A visitor center, on the right after you enter the park, provides information, maps, a few exhibits, and a gift shop. The family campground ($10/night) and one of the group campgrounds have showers but no dump station; a few sites have hookups for $18. Campers can watch the vast spread of lights coming on across the Valley at sunset, then admire the golden glow of the mountains at sunrise.
To reach the park from Phoenix, head west on I-10 to Cotton Lane/Loop 303 Exit 124, go north seven miles to Olive Avenue, then west 4.5 miles. From the north Valley, take the 101 Loop to Olive Avenue, then turn west.
Hiking trails range from two short barrier-free trails to rugged all-day loops high into the hills. Backcountry campers must register first. The popular Waterfall Trail leads to pools and a seasonal waterfall deep in a box canyon; it's a cool spot even in summer. Petroglyphs cover some of the big boulders along the way. The first 0.4 mile to Petroglyph Plaza has barrier-free access, then it's another 0.5 mile to the waterfall for a roundtrip of 1.8 miles. Black Rock Trail offers two options: a half-mile, barrier-free interpretive loop and a 1.3-mile loop. A short connector trail links Black Rock Trail's 1.3-mile loop with Petroglyph Plaza on the Waterfall Trail.
For a longer hike, consider one of the four interconnecting trails that lead deep into the range. Ford Canyon Trail in the north starts out with gentle grades, then becomes rougher and meets the upper ends of the other three trails; it's 5.6-7.9 miles one way depending on where you start. Mesquite Canyon Trail climbs steadily with good views over the Valley, crosses over a ridge, enters its namesake, then continues up some steep sections with loose rock underfoot to the head of the canyon in 3.3-4.1 miles one way, depending on which trailhead you use. Willow Springs, at the site of a former ranch outpost, is a popular destination near the upper end of Willow Canyon Trail, reached from either Mesquite Canyon or Ford Canyon Trails; a hike via Mesquite Canyon Trail from the Ramada Road trailhead to Willow Springs and back is seven miles roundtrip and takes about four hours, or you could make it an all-day excursion by looping back on one of the other trails. Goat Camp Trail in the south offers the greatest challenge as well as good views; it begins at Black Canyon Drive near the entrance station, enters the canyon, and climbs high ridges before ending at a junction with Ford Canyon and Mesquite Canyon trails in 6.3 miles one way.
Mountain bikers and other fast users head for the Sonoran Loop Competitive Track in the north of the park. The many loop possibilities range from 2.5 miles (suitable for beginners) to 6.9 miles; experts can tackle the one-mile-long technical segment. Equestrians have a staging area but only short sections to ride, as most trails get too rough higher up.
White Tanks Riding Stables (623/935-7455) will take you out on the trails; look for their sign on the right just before the park entrance.
Lake Pleasant Regional Park
On the west shore of this large reservoir just northwest of the Valley, the park (41835 N. Castle Hot Springs Rd., Morristown, AZ 85342, 928/501-1710, www.maricopa.gov/parks/lake_pleasant, $5/vehicle plus $2/watercraft) offers year-round camping, picnicking, boating, and fishing. It sits among saguaro-studded hills with a backdrop of the rugged Bradshaw Mountains. Fishing and camping draw visitors during the cooler months, and boaters stream in to cool off in summer. The lake's open waters provide excellent conditions for sailing. Anglers seek out largemouth bass, white bass, catfish, bluegill, sunfish, and crappie. Jet-ski races, sailing regattas, and fishing tournaments take place annually. Few people come to the lake for hiking, but you can follow Pipeline Canyon Trail, two miles one way, between the north and south recreation areas. A few short trails begin near the visitor center.
Completion of New Waddell Dam in 1993 raised the lake level to about 1,700 feet in elevation with a maximum surface area of about 10,000 acres. The lake level peaks March and April, then drops 100 feet or so by September or October of each year as the water goes out to irrigate desert farms. Eagles nest in the Agua Fria River arm in the northeast from mid-December to mid-June; no visitors may enter while they're there.
Take the main entrance for Lake Pleasant Visitor Center, which has information, a great panorama of the lake, exhibits, and a gift shop. On the way you'll pass turnoffs for picnic areas, two campgrounds, and a 10-lane boat ramp. In summer a concession near the boat ramp offers boat rentals. Desert Tortoise Campground has showers and sites for both tenters ($10) and RVers ($18 with water and electricity); a dump station is near the turnoff. Roadrunner Campground, close to the visitor center, provides showers and water/electric hookups, all $18. Groups can reserve campsites and day-use areas. Primitive camping is possible for both vehicles and boaters along the lakeshore; there's no additional charge for this.
Turn in at the north entrance for picnic areas, shoreline camping, and a four-lane boat ramp. Unpaved backroads from Castle Hot Springs Road farther north lead to the northernmost reaches of the lake, though you'll still need to pay the park entry fees.
The park is about 30 miles northwest of Phoenix; take I-17 north to AZ 74 (Exit 223), go west 11.5 miles on AZ 74, turn north 2.2 miles on Castle Hot Springs Road, then turn right into the park. The north entrance is three miles farther north on Castle Hot Springs Road. To reach Lake Pleasant from Sun City, head north 15 miles on 99th Avenue to AZ 74 and follow signs.
Vicinity of Lake Pleasant
Pleasant Harbor (928/501-5253 or 800/475-3272) marina and RV resort on the east shore provides RV sites ($28-33 w/hookups), a convenience store, game room, horseshoe pits, volleyball, showers, laundry, pool, and hot tub. The full-service marina (602/977-7377, www.azmarinas.com) offers a ship's store and rentals of fishing, ski, patio, and jet-ski boats. Desert Princess II (623/815-2628), an 1880s Mississippi River boat replica, heads out on lunch or dinner cruises many days year-round. Follow directions to Lake Pleasant Regional Park, but turn north at the sign before crossing the Agua Fria riverbed and continue 2.2 miles. A $6 entry fee is collected for each vehicle and watercraft; additional watercraft cost $2 each.
Castle Hot Springs Road makes a scenic loop in the mountains northwest of the lake. It's largely unpaved and best suited for high-clearance vehicles. Along the way you'll see attractive grounds of the former Castle Hot Springs Resort, now closed to the public. Turn north from AZ 74 near Lake Pleasant Regional Park or north from AZ 74 or US 60 near Morristown.
Hells Canyon Wilderness protects rugged mountains northeast of the lake. The easiest access, which you'll probably need directions and a map to find, lies off Castle Hot Springs Road. The BLM Phoenix Field Office (623/580-5500, www.az.blm.gov) has information on this area as well as the 50-mile-long Black Canyon Trail, located east of the lake.
Cave Creek Regional Park
In the north Valley, just west of the town of Cave Creek, this park (37019 N. Lava Lane, Cave Creek, AZ 85331, 623/465-0431, www.maricopa.gov/parks/cave_creek, $5/vehicle) nestles in picturesque rocky hills. Turn left after the entrance for the family campground, which has showers and water/electric hookups for $18; there's a dump station near the entrance. Groups can reserve a separate campground and picnic ramadas. From the Carefree Highway between I-17 and Cave Creek Road, turn north 1.6 miles on 32nd Street.
The popular Go John Trail makes a 4.8-mile loop around a 3,060-foot peak—the park's highest—from the day-use area. A pass on the west side of the loop has great views of the Valley to the south and forested mountains to the north; it's just one mile roundtrip and offers a quick workout. Overton Trail to the west connects with the Go John to make a 3- or 6-mile loop. Slate Trail also begins from the day-use area, but heads southeast to the park boundary in 3.2 miles roundtrip, returning the same way. Flume Trail branches off one mile along Slate and continues 1.5 miles one way to the southeast corner of the park. The easy Clay Mine Trail begins at the family campground, climbs a bit to a white clay deposit, then continues to the Overton Trail in 0.8 mile one way. Be aware that the several mine shafts in the park are dangerous—and illegal—to enter.
Equestrians enjoy the park and have a horse staging area just south of the day-use area. There's a rodeo arena in the southwest corner of the park; look for the sign on 32nd Street before the park entrance. If you don't have your own steed, you can go with Cave Creek Trailrides (623/742-6700 or 877/942-6700), on the left before the day-use area.
Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area
This primitive park—famed for its beautiful Sonoran Desert uplands and prehistoric Hohokam sites—lies in scenic hills northeast of Cave Creek Regional Park. The Conservation Area (480/488-6601, www.maricopa.gov/parks/spur_cross, $3/person) had its grand opening in January 2004. Currently you can explore three trails, and more are in the works. Guided hikes go to riparian and archaeological sites not otherwise open to the public; call or check the website for the schedule. There's no camping allowed in the Conservation Area, but you could camp in the Tonto National Forest to the north.
Spur Cross Trail (open to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians) follows an old road north 1.2 miles to Cave Creek, a popular spot for families to splash in the shallow water; the road continues about two miles into the Tonto National Forest and connects with the Cave Creek Trail system. The SR Trail branches to the northwest near the beginning of Spur Cross Trail and follows an old road 1.4 miles. At its end, you can continue on Elephant Mountain Trail, a rugged 2.9-mile (one way) route that climbs over a pass and descends to the south boundary of the Conservation Area; these last two trails are for hikers and equestrians only. You can make a fine 5.8-mile loop with trails in the national forest: follow SR Trail to its end, turn north half a mile into national forest land to a trail junction, turn east via Page and Limestone Springs to Cave Creek, then follow the creek downstream and continue south on Spur Cross Trail back to the trailhead.
To reach the Conservation Area, follow Cave Creek Road into the town of Cave Creek, then turn north 4.3 miles on Spur Cross Road (the last 1.3 miles are unpaved). Two stables near the Conservation Area offer trail rides.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park
You'll enjoy beautiful vistas at this park (P.O. Box 18415, Fountain Hills, AZ 85269, 480/471-0173, www.maricopa.gov/parks/mcdowell, $5/vehicle) near the eastern McDowells, 15 miles northeast of Scottsdale. A wide variety of desert plants grows at the 1,550- to 3,100-foot elevations, though two-thirds of the 21,000-acre park burned in the lightning-caused Rio Fire of July 1995. You can compare areas and see how the desert has recovered. From 1870 to 1890, the Stoneman Military Road ran through the park, connecting nearby Fort McDowell with Fort Whipple near Prescott. Today, 40.5 miles of recreation trails and 14.1 miles of competitive trails wind through the foothills and lower slopes, though not up the McDowells themselves. Two picnic areas with playgrounds lie about six miles in on the main park road. The family campground has showers and water/electric hookups for $18; an overflow area may be available if the campground is full. There's also a dump station. Groups can reserve picnic ramadas and camping areas. Take Shea Boulevard from Scottsdale (or AZ 87 from Mesa) to Fountain Hills, then turn north on Palisades Boulevard, Fountain Hills Boulevard, or Saguaro Boulevard (passes near the fountain), all of which join and become McDowell Mountain Road. Entrance is on the east side of the park, four miles beyond Fountain Hills.
Nursery Tank Trail (no bikes or horses) offers an easy barrier-free stroll to an old stock pond with a good view east to the Mazatzals; you may see wildlife here, especially early or late in the day; it's a half mile out and back. The popular and gentle North Trail (no horses) loops 2.9 miles through an unburned area with interpretive signs. The 1.2-mile Lousley Hill Trail loop (hikers only) offers good panoramas of the McDowells, Mazatzals, Four Peaks, and Superstitions. These trails begin near the day-use areas near the end of the park road.
The 15.4-mile loop Pemberton Trail is too long for most hikers, but will give mountain bikers and horses a good workout. Several interconnecting trails offer a variety of shorter loops with the Pemberton from the campground (hikers can park just outside the entrance at the Wagner Trailhead, near the main kiosk and telephone) or Trailhead Staging Area. One of these, the Scenic Trail, makes a 4.4-mile loop via a wash (too sandy for most bikers) and a ridge. For a short, 0.5-mile roundtrip hike with a 360-degree panorama, you can head up the Hilltop Trail (hikers only) from the Trailhead Staging Area.
McDowell Competitive Track, on your left just after entering the park, offers interconnected loops for mountain bikers, runners, and trotting horses: a 3-mile Sport Loop, an 8.2-mile Long Loop, and the challenging 2.9-mile Technical Loop. Slower users yield to faster on these one-way loops.
Usery Mountain Regional Park
Visitors enjoy this scenic setting with picnicking, trails, camping, abundant wildlife, and fantastic sunsets over the Valley. About 12 miles northeast of downtown Mesa, the park (3939 N. Usery Pass Rd., #190, Mesa, AZ 85207, 480/984-0032, www.maricopa.gov/parks/usery, $5/vehicle) includes more than 3,500 acres of Sonoran Desert with elevations from 1,700 to 2,750 feet. It takes its name from Usery Mountain in the northwest corner. King Usery, a cattleman who had difficulty staying on the right side of the law, lived in the area in the late 1800s. Mexican and Basque shepherds still herd flocks of sheep across Usery Pass in the spring and autumn. Picnic areas offer shaded tables. Kids can frolic in the playgrounds. The family campground has showers and water/electric hookups for $18. If it's full, you can stay in overflow sites (no hookups) for $10. Tenters have a separate area that they can use anytime for $10. A dump station is near the campground entrance. Groups can reserve their own campground and picnic areas. Equestrians have a horse-staging area. From the Superstition Freeway (US 60), turn north on Ellsworth Road, which becomes Usery Pass Road; the park entrance is on the right. The road continues over the pass with good views and descends to the lower Salt River Recreation Area.
The park has trails to suit almost everyone. For an easy stroll, try the barrier-free Merkle Memorial Trail—a 0.9-mile loop around a rocky hill in the picnic area. Vista Trail, with a 90-foot climb, follows a ridge 0.5 mile between the north and south ends of the Merkle loop. The popular Wind Cave Trail climbs 800 feet in 1.5 miles one way to shallow caves in the cliffs of Pass Mountain. The trail, for hikers only, offers views all along the way. Volcanic ash formed these light-colored cliffs of tuff, which are capped by a layer of basalt. Hikers, skilled mountain bikers, and equestrians can follow Pass Mountain Trail, a very scenic 7.1-mile loop around Pass Mountain; going clockwise works best as you'll be going down instead of up a steep 500-foot grade. A network of trails in the southern area of the park, such as the 2.9-mile loop Blevins Trail, crosses gentle terrain—good for beginner mountain bikers; several other loops branch off it for longer trips.
Archers can practice at a range near the entrance station. The Usery Mountain Shooting Range of the Rio Salado Sportsman's Club (480/984-9610) is one-third mile north of the park entrance.
San Tan Mountain Regional Park
The trail network at this park 45 miles southeast of Phoenix offers easy and challenging experiences for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians (480/655-5554).
On to the Tonto National Forest