The Best trails in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Nov 2016

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona is a unique slice of untainted open desert. The preserve is home to diverse desert flora and fauna, sweeping views of the surrounding landscape, and hundreds of miles of multi-use trails popular with Arizona’s mountain bikers, hikers, trail-runners, and horseback riders. The McDowell Mountains rise above the city of Scottsdale, four thousand foot peaks nestled on 27,800 acres of protected land. Our Arizona home office and bike rental shop are conveniently located a short distance away from the Gateway to the Preserve trailhead, making it one of our favorite places for guided hiking tours and advanced single-day mountain biking trips.

The preserve itself comprises nearly one quarter of the area of the city of Scottsdale, and the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and city planners have been careful to ensure that the many diverse areas of the preserve are accessible by an extensive network of well-maintained trails anchored by numerous trailheads. We make maps of the preserve available to travelers renting mountain bikes from the REI Co-op Adventure Center.

A group hiking through giant cactus and boulders

Tom’s Thumb Trailhead

In October 2012 the Toms Thumb Trailhead was opened, creating access to some of the most popular trails in the northern half of the Preserve including the Toms Thumb trail, the East End trail, and the Marcus Landslide trail into the McDowell Mountain Regional Park. Toms Thumb is a unique granite rock formation that juts up into the sky and is popular with rock climbers around the valley. Hike up the Toms Thumb trail and you find yourself in a veritable sculpture garden of natural granite formations with access to popular rock climbing routes, the Gateway trailhead on the west side of the preserve, and East End – the highest peak in the McDowell Mountains. Off the main trail you can explore the hermit cave, also sometimes known as “Ogre’s Den,” where it appears a squatter once lived high on this peak in solitude, sign his journal and take in the view for yourself.

Toms Thumb – McDowell Sonoran Preserve


Brown’s Ranch Trailhead

Expansion of the preserve further north over the last five years has made the incredible granitic terrain of North Scottsdale more accessible to residents and tourists, while simultaneously creating a wilderness corridor stretching from the southern part of the preserve all the way into the Tonto National forest to the north and east. The new trails at Brown’s Ranch offer fun mountain biking riding with whoopty doos and climbs accessible for the intermediate to advanced rider, as well as jeep trails for the less adventurous beginner. Check out the amphitheater off the Cholla Mountain Loop trail and take a rest from your ride while enjoying the breathtaking views of granite and cactus studded rolling desert.


Gateway Trailhead

Gateway trailhead in the west of the preserve is perhaps the most well-known, popular, and accessible of all access points in the preserve. The 4.5 mile Gateway Loop Trail is a favorite of early morning hikers ,as well as Scottsdale’s mountain bikers and equestrians. LEED Platinum certified trailhead facilities offer water, bathrooms, information and regular events held by the Conservancy Stewards and the location has received accolades for its Bajada Nature trail – barrier free and wheelchair accessible!

McDowell Sonoran Preserve- Gateway Trails



No matter where in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve you choose to hike or mountain bike it is easy to see the amazing intricacy of the landscape. The McDowell Mountains were formed millions of years ago by volcanic activity and plate tectonics which created what we now know as basin and range topography. The mountains here were once much much taller and the valleys far deeper but over time, erosive forces wore down the faces of the mountains carrying alluvial soil into the valleys and raising the floor to the moderate grade it is today. The McDowell Mountains are rich in plant and animal life, home to bobcats, woodpeckers, hawks, rattlesnakes, mule deer, cotton tail rabbits, and diverse desert plants including ocotillo, prickly pear cactus, palo verde and mesquite trees, and Arizona’s iconic giant saguaro cactus.


Ways Explore the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

To find out more about the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, consider taking a or renting a mountain bike and riding some of Scottsdale’s most popular trails. 

Hike on your own

Check out the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy for info.

Take a guided tour

We offer half day guided hiking tours or mountain biking tours in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.