A History of Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Nov 2013

Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a unique slice of untainted 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 for mountain bikers, hikers, trail-runners, and horseback riders. The McDowell Mountains rise above the city of Scottsdale, with 4,000-foot peaks nestled on 27,800 acres of protected land. REI Adventure Center Arizona’s main 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.

Mcdowell Sonoran Preserve

A Conservation Success Story

In 1991 a group of Scottsdale citizens got together to discuss their concerns about new home and commercial development on the outskirts of the city. They formed the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust and set about to find a way to protect the McDowell Mountains and surrounding desert from development. It was a landmark moment in 1994 when, as a result of the trust’s efforts, the city of Scottsdale dedicated the initial McDowell Sonoran Preserve, totaling 5 acres. Over two decades of hard work and advocacy by the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy (formerly Land Trust) have led to the development of new trailheads, a complex network of multi-use trails, and even a research initiative to monitor and track the flora and fauna of the preserve. In October 2013, the city celebrated the opening of the Brown’s Ranch Trailhead and the incorporation of over 50 miles of new trails.

Where to Hike, Bike, Explore

The preserve itself comprises nearly half 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 equestrian, mountain biking, and hiking trails anchored by numerous trailheads.

Toms 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. Trails include 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. You can also hike all the way to 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.

The Brown’s Ranch Trails

Expansion of the preserve further north over the last two years has made the incredible granitic terrain of North Scottsdale more accessible to non-residents. It has also created 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 riders, 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 trailheads 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!


Check out all detailed trail maps on the city of Scottsdale website.

What to See in the Preserve

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.

To find out more about the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, taking a guided hiking tour , or renting a mountain bike and riding some of Scottsdale’s most popular trails, give us a call at 1-866–455-1601.We love to share our favorite trails in Arizona and the Southwest, especially those right here in our backyard. We also offer guided road biking, kayaking, river rafting, and stand up paddle boarding right here in the Phoenix area.