Johnson: Sonoran Desert hiking, the best of Maricopa County

Column: Hiking Arizona

The most glorious display of wildflowers I have ever seen was in McDowell Mountain Park on the Scenic Trail. Well-named I might add. One of the most uncomfortable (scariest) hiking experiences of my life was near the Sierra Estrella unit of this park system when I ran into a bunch of people in white hoods and capes, carrying torches at night back in 1976.

There are units of this park system that aren’t even in Maricopa County. The Santan Mountains unit spills over into Pinal County and the Lake Pleasant unit with its Pipeline Trail, barely extends into Yavapai County.

And, while many units are named “Mountain,” most aren’t even in the mountains for which they are named, McDowell for instance. Therefore, the system is diverse, widespread, and very worthwhile from the standpoint of hiking. They are also all quite accessible. You can hike for hours over rugged terrain, then relax over a nice dinner just down the street. With so many options, it’s difficult to narrow it down to a single – “favorite hike” in this vast landscape.


Nevertheless, I would select the Ford Canyon Trail in the White Tanks unit as the “not to be missed hike” in the Maricopa County Park System. Why? First, it’s actually in the mountains. Of all the units in the system, this is the one that actually is a park with lots of mountains in it. This specific route involves connecting a number of trails together to make a ten mile loop.

The trail is obscure in spots, requiring good route finding skills. It involves lots of extensive uphill and downhill sections. You’ll get the feeling of being remote, yet turn the corner or top a ridge and there it is, the Salt River Valley spread out before you. The views are expansive, the vegetation rich, and the people, well, let’s just say that the hikers or bikers you encounter may be as interesting as the terrain.


My first hike on the Ford Canyon Loop was with my six year old son and my 16 year old nephew. A ranger warned me against hiking this trail with kids, due to the “dangerous” conditions. There are even signs warning you as you come around the northern portion of the loop from the east. Scrambling is involved.

Of course, we all loved it. I grew up on this type of terrain in Bisbee and I made sure my boys had that same opportunity, to understand how to take some risks and take responsibility for your choices, for your life. This route also provides a good illustration of what this mountain range was named for – white tanks. There are many solution pockets in the washes and they have been scoured white. You’ll probably find water in them too, even if it hasn’t rained for months.


On another hike here, I was just starting out from the trailhead and had gone less than a mile when I crossed paths with another hiker. She asked how far ahead the trailhead was. I asked her if she had a map. She responded, “What good would that do since I can’t read a map?” I thought, “A hiker who can’t read a map? How can this be?” Confident hiking involves being landscape literate. Lost art that it is, route finding skills are essential, even when hiking near town.

Next, hiking in Joshua Tree National Park.

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at