City parks offer everything from a gentle stroll to challenging mountain hiking, as well as many recreation facilities. Tourist offices may have brochures, and you can contact the main Parks, Recreation, and Library Dept. office (Phoenix City Hall, 200 W. Washington St., 16th Fl., Phoenix, AZ 85003, 602/262-6861, www.phoenix.gov/parks, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.). City parks have free admission; they're for day use only.
This 222-acre oasis (two miles northwest of downtown Phoenix at 2605 N. 15th Ave. at Encanto Blvd., 602/261-8991) of lakes and trees features picnic areas and many recreation facilities. The southern section has tennis, racquetball, volleyball, basketball, a swimming pool, playgrounds, and picnic areas. Free Coffeehouse Concerts entertain on Wednesday evenings year-round at the clubhouse. You can check out sports equipment from the Recreation Building south of the swimming pool; parking is off 15th Avenue south of Encanto Boulevard.
The family amusement park Enchanted Island (602/254-1200, www.enchantedisland.com) offers a carousel, train, and other rides on weekends and some weekdays. Parking is north of Encanto Boulevard between 7th and 15th Avenues.
The northern section of Encanto has a clubhouse for special events (check the bulletin board or call 602/261-8993), picnic areas, playgrounds, a small lake with boat rentals (602/254-1520), an urban fishing program, and a golf driving range; parking is off 15th Avenue north of Encanto Boulevard. Two golf courses lie farther north: an 18-hole course at 2775 N. 15th Ave., 602/253-3963; and a nine-hole course—excellent for beginners—at 2300 N. 17th Ave., 602/262-6870.
Once designated a national monument because of its desert flora and Native American history, this large park (602/256-3220) on the east edge of Phoenix offers numerous attractions, such as the Phoenix Zoo, Desert Botanical Gardens, Arizona Historical Society Museum, an 18-hole golf course, Phoenix Municipal Stadium, and a baseball field. Enter Papago Park from Galvin Parkway, which runs between McDowell Road and Van Buren Street/Mill Avenue.
The park also has a recreation area with picnicking, easy hiking, a bike trail, and small lakes where children 15 and under may fish without a license. Hole in the Rock provides a scenic window onto Phoenix; you can hike up into it on a short trail. Continue to road's end for the short walk to the white-tiled pyramid tomb of George W.P. Hunt, seven times governor of Arizona. The recreation area is east off Galvin Parkway; turn in at the zoo entrance, then turn left. You'll find softball and baseball diamonds and an archery range in the northeast corner of the park near 62nd and Oak Streets.
Phoenix Mountains Park & Recreation Area
Piestewa Peak crowns a group of desert hills in the Phoenix Mountains, nine miles northeast of downtown Phoenix. Formerly known as "Squaw Peak," it honors a Hopi servicewoman who died in the 2003 Iraq war; you'll see both names used. The park (602/262-7901) offers some great hiking trails as well as picnic areas with water and shaded tables. Saguaro cactus, palo verde, creosote bush, and barrel and cholla cactus thrive on the rocky hillsides. Turn onto Squaw Peak Drive from Lincoln Drive between 22nd and 23rd Streets.
Summit Trail #300 climbs to the top of 2,608-foot Piestewa Peak in 1.2 miles one way with a 1,200-foot elevation gain. You'll enjoy a superb panorama and lots of company—it's probably Phoenix's most popular trail. The path has steep sections, but it's well graded and easy to follow. On Sunday the peak hosts a remarkable crowd of teenagers, families, joggers wearing headsets—all puffing along. No dogs or bicycles allowed, though. In the warmer months, be sure to carry water and get an early start.
Freedom (Circumference) Trail #302 makes a scenic 3.7-mile loop—it's one of Phoenix's best hikes. In some of the beautiful valleys you may forget that you're in the middle of an urban area. The trail climbs two saddles, so you'll get a good workout and gain 720 feet at the highest saddle, where you'll meet the Summit Trail, 488 feet below the top. To reach the Circumference Trail, either take Summit Trail #300 to the saddle or drive to the end of the park road and take the trail signed #302. Note that dogs cannot go on the Summit Trail section.
Piestewa Peak Nature Trail #304 and a section of Trail #302 make a 1.5-mile loop from the end of the road. Signs identify some plants, but the beautiful desert scenery will be the main attraction; you'll cross two passes with views and a 180-foot elevation gain.
Camelback Mountain Trail/Echo Canyon Recreation Area
The steep, rough Camelback Mountain Trail to the 2,704-foot summit will challenge kids and a lot of adults, yet most seem to make it to enjoy the spectacular views. The adventure starts on the northwest side of the mountain in Echo Canyon Recreation Area (602/262-4837). In 0.3 mile you'll reach a minor ridge. Continue up along the base of 200-foot cliffs to the Camel's Neck, from which additional steep climbing takes you to the summit, 1.2 miles one way total and a 1,264-foot elevation gain. On a clear day you can take in countless aspects of the vast Valley; you won't need a map to identify the edge of the Salt River Indian Reservation to the east—it's the line where the city ends and irrigated fields begin. For a much easier walk, there's a short trail to Robby's Rock, a popular area with rock climbers. Beautiful rock formations provide a bonus for either hike. Carry at least a quart of water on the summit trail; it's a good idea to get a very early start in summer and avoid the trail after rain, when it becomes slippery.
From Phoenix, head north on 44th Street, which curves east and becomes McDonald Drive, then turn right (south) on E. Echo Canyon Parkway just 200 feet past the Tatum Boulevard junction. The Recreation Area has water but no restrooms or other facilities. On weekends and holidays, you'll either be lucky or wait a long time to snag a parking space.
Cholla Trail, approximately 1.5 miles one-way, climbs 1,200 feet in elevation from a trailhead at about 6200 E. Cholla Lane; the first section is easy, then the going becomes very steep. Some parking is available along the west side of Invergordon (64th St.).
North Mountain Recreation Area
This desert park (10600 N. 7th St., 602/262-7901) features many family and group ramadas along a loop road, plus a playground and basketball and volleyball courts. The easy Penny Howe Barrier-Free Trail #40 has interpretive signs about plants along its one-third-mile loop; the trail starts from the northwest corner of the Havasupai parking lot. For a workout, many locals head up North Mountain Trail #44 from Maricopa Picnic Area at the north end of the road loop; it climbs to a road that leads to the summit (2,104 feet). You can make a loop by taking Trail #44A to the left of the towers and southeast along ridges to the Quechan Picnic Area on the southwest part of the loop road. The hike is about 1.6 miles long (roundtrip or the loop) with an elevation gain of 614 feet.
Christiansen Trail #100 offers more areas to explore for hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders. You can start from a trailhead opposite the Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs, 1.4 miles north of the North Mountain entrance on 7th Street; the trail leads west to Shaw Butte and southeast to Piestewa Peak in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. Altogether, the easy-to-moderate trail is 10.7 miles one-way, with elevations ranging from 1,290 to 2,080 feet; many other trails loop off it. The west trailhead is on the north side of Mountain View Park at 7th Avenue and Cheryl Drive. East trailheads are at Dreamy Draw Recreation Area, 40th Street (south from Shea), and Tatum Boulevard (opposite Tomahawk Dr.).
South Mountain Park
The world's largest city park, South Mountain encompasses 16,500 acres of desert mountain country. A paved road winds to the top for great views of the Valley. On the way you'll pass several picnic areas and trailheads. Hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers can explore 58 miles of trails in the backcountry. A park map shows roads, facilities, lookouts, and trails; pick one up outside the ranger station or at the visitor center. A stable just outside the park's entrance offers trail rides, and there's an equestrian area inside the park. An activity center on the left just inside the entrance hosts special events. The Environmental Education Center (on the left just inside the gate, 602/534-6324, 9 a.m.- p.m. Tues.-Sun.) offers maps, literature, some exhibits, and picnic area reservations. A short nature trail nearby introduces the desert's flora and fauna. South Mountain Park lies seven miles south of downtown Phoenix on Central Avenue.
After the ranger station, roads branch off on both sides to covered picnicking areas, some of which can be reserved. San Juan Road forks right two miles inside the park, leading four miles through a valley to a trailhead and a low overlook of Phoenix. Take the Summit Road left at the fork to reach the heights. The road climbs to Telegraph Pass, then on past several lookouts on the left, of which Dobbin's has the best views of the Valley. Continue to the end of TV Towers Road for panoramas to the south from Gila Valley Overlook.
The 18 trails, many of which form loops, present a range of lengths and challenges. Besides the views, you may spot prehistoric petroglyphs. National Trail extends the length of the park, climbing from low elevations at each end to high ridges in 14.3 miles one-way; it's not recommended for equestrians. Hidden Valley, a popular half-day trip through a landscape of giant granite boulders and stately saguaros, is 3.5 miles roundtrip via National Trail. To reach the trailhead, go two miles past the park entrance gate, turn left onto Summit Road and follow it four miles (keeping right past the turnoffs for two lookout points), then stay left at the next fork to Buena Vista Lookout. The first quarter mile of trail follows a ridge east with good views before gently dropping into a valley. After a mile or so, some large slick rocks must be negotiated before entering wide, bowl-shaped Hidden Valley. Near the lower end of the little valley, you'll pass through a natural tunnel about 50 feet long. This makes a good turnaround point, or you can explore more of the valley and surrounding hills. In summer carry extra water and avoid the heat of the day.
On to Maricopa County Parks