Hiking Arizona: Tom’s Thumb-Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve


Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve is one of my favorite places to hike for a lot of reasons; trails that vary from easy to extremely difficult, most of the views are nothing short of breathtakingly amazing, and the opportunity to see desert wildlife, plants, wildflowers (when they are in bloom) and cactus are endless. The Sunrise, Lost Dog, and Gateway Trailheads are an easy 10-20 minute drive from my home in Fountain Hills, so I tend to stick to them. I have my favorite “go to” hikes at each of these trailheads.

Last Monday I was feeling the stress from an upcoming buyer closing that was scheduled for Wednesday. The loan docs weren’t out of underwriting approval or at title yet. Rather than sit around freaking out or calling and texting the lender every 5 minutes, I decided to venture out to someplace I hadn’t been in a while, the Tom’s Thumb Trail. There are several different hiking options here. The Tom’s Thumb Trail is a 5 mile out, 5 mile back, extremely difficult, 10 mile round trip hike. I have not hiked it in its entirety yet. I have hiked out to the Thumb, over to the Lookout and back to the trailhead, a 5.9 mile round trip hike, and from the Tom’s Thumb Trailhead to the Gateway Trailhead, a 7.5 mile one way hike in the past. Since the drive there takes about 45 minutes and I was somewhat pressed for time, I planned to hike from the Trailhead to the Thumb and back. A fairly short, but challenging hike that I could complete in 2 hours.

The trail starts of easy. Some cactus were in bloom for me to enjoy as I started out.

Cactus in bloom on the Tom’s Thumb Trail

Cactus in bloom on the Tom’s Thumb Trail

.4 mile from the trailhead there is a turn off for the Feldspar Trail. Keep straight. The trail continues to get steeper and there are several switchbacks to climb. The next sign you will see says 1.1 miles to the Thumb (actually, it is another .3 miles in addition to that, but who’s counting?). You are about .9 miles into the hike at this point. Continue hiking up another .7 miles or so and you will reach the turn off for the East End Trail. Be sure to take in all of the unusual rock formations along the way.

Rock formations along the Tom’s Thumb Trail

Rock formations along the Tom’s Thumb Trail

Rock formations along the Tom’s Thumb Trail

Continue on from there another .3 miles. At this point you will come to a sign directing you turn to go .3 miles up to the Thumb.  Continue on for .3 miles and you have arrived!

Tom’s Thumb

Rock formations at the Thumb

Rock formations at the Thumb

Fountain Hills fountain can be seen looking East from the Thumb

I have been told that if you continue hiking to the left, or West of the Thumb and follow the trail almost until the mountain begins to drop, you will find Ogre’s den, a cave formed by fallen boulders. Inside the cave there artifacts and a hiker’s sign-in log book. I left that exploration for another trip.

Path leading to Ogre’s Den is between these rocks

To Get There: From the intersection of Happy Valley and Pima Road, head east on Happy Valley for about 4.25 miles. Turn right (east) on Ranch Gate Road and go 1.3 miles. Turn right (south) on 128th St, this part of 128th St is now paved. It’s at the end of 128th St, about 1 mile. There are signs for the trailhead.

DISTANCE: Approx 4.5 miles Round-Trip
Approximately 1,000 feet 
Difficult. This hike is NOT recommended for beginning hikers.
DURATION: 2-3 hours, depending on how fast you hike
TRAIL STYLE: In-and-out style 
DOGS: Yes, if leashed. 
FACILITIES: Bathrooms only, no water
WEBSITE: Trailmap
WHAT TO BRING: 2-3 Liters of water, plenty of snacks, and a camera

This entry is cross posted on Phoenix NE Valley: Real Estate, Lifestyle & Living

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About the Author
Michele Guss

Michele Guss is a REALTOR with Realty ONE Group, serving the Phoenix East Valley. Originally from Washington, D.C. (and still loves her Redskins!), now an AZ girl and an avid hiker. When she is not providing world-class service to her real estate clients she can often be found hiking, climbing and crawling over, on and through trails in Arizona's mountains and deserts.

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