As we head out for any adventure, big or small, we keep our destination a secret from the kids. Most of the time, we’re going places they haven’t been, so if we did tell them, it wouldn’t register. Plus, not knowing adds a little extra magic to the moment.
When they see us pull out and fill up seven hydration packs, they know a hike is part of the plan. And that’s when the guessing begins: Have we been there before? Is it far? What snacks are we bringing?
With five kids between the ages of 5 and 12, one would think it tough to find hikes that are both challenging and doable for everyone. But it’s easier than you might think, because we live in a mecca of incredible trails set against a breathtaking, mountainous landscape.
That’s where the awe is — in the shadow of the mountains that ordinarily, for kids, loom so large on the horizon. Once they’re close enough to feel them, and climb in a wilderness that lives alongside these towering giants, they make a connection.
As the trails fade into the distance on the ride home, they can look back with pride and know they accomplished something significant and memorable. They feel like they’ve conquered something, but they also have become better acquainted with the natural landscape. Both are pretty cool byproducts of hitting the trails.
We’ve tackled many hikes, in Arizona and beyond, with kids and without. Here are some of our favorite destinations, with hopes they will inspire others to head out. There’s no better time of year, and there’s really no excuse not to. It’s time to see what you’ve been missing!
Easy does it
Double Butte Loop and Hole-in-the-Rock Trail at Papago Park
Next to the Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden, Papago Park has a distinct appearance, and because of its accessibility, it’s easy to hike up and get a good look at the unusual rock formations. A 2.3-mile loop takes hikers around the buttes on a fine-dirt trail. Before you head home, take the short path to Hole-in-the-Rock near the Papago Park Visitor Center for a few fun photos and a killer view of the skyline. Find the Double Butte Loop trailhead in the Papago Park West parking lot, 626 N. Galvin Parkway. Hole-in-the-Rock is in the east lot, 625 N. Galvin Parkway.
Pinnacle Peak in north Scottsdale
This popular, easy trail near the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale offers a moderate incline and a fair number of fellow hikers along the way amidst lots of desert wildlife and great views. Don’t even sweat the possibility of an uneven climb. The 1.75 mile trail (each way) is well-maintained and is a great starter spot for beginners. Pinnacle Peak Park, 26802 N. 102nd Way, Scottsdale.
The Wind Cave Trail in east Mesa
This is an easy-to-navigate and easy-to-hike trail where you’ll find plenty of other hikers, a panorama of desert landscapes and the friendliest chipmunks around. The 2.6-mile trail is an out-and-back route that gains more than 800 feet in elevation and gets a little more challenging once you’re closer to the cave, which is where most people take a break, enjoy the view, snap some photos and giggle at the chipmunks. $7 per vehicle at the Usery Mountain Regional Park entrance, 3939 N. Usery Pass Road in Mesa.
Soldier Pass Trail near Sedona
If you’re willing to take a drive, or if you’re already in Sedona for the day, consider venturing out to the Seven Sacred Pools from Soldier Pass Trail a mile north of Sedona. Besides being nestled in Sedona’s spectacular red rocks inside Coconino National Forest, this trail takes you past Devil’s Kitchen, which is an impressive sinkhole not far from the trailhead. And depending on seasonal rainfall, the seven pools for which the hike is named may be flowing into each other. Even if they aren’t, it’s a unique spot. Hiking is free, but parking is extremely limited and a prepaid Red Rock Pass ($5 per day) should be displayed on your windshield. Take 89A west to Soldier Pass Road. Go right 1.5 miles to Rim Shadows Drive, then right 0.2 miles to a gated entry road to trailhead parking on the left.
Middle of the road
Lookout Mountain in Phoenix Mountain Preserve
Lookout Mountain, accessible from Arizona State Route 51 and Greenway Road, isn’t a long trail at about 1.2 miles round trip. But it does include a quick incline, which can get your heart going. Expect fewer crowds here than at some of the more popular summits around town (such as nearby Piestewa Peak), giving you a little more elbow room for family photos at the top. Lookout Mountain Trailhead, 15600 N. 16th St., Phoenix.
Hidden Valley via Mormon Trail in South Mountain Park
This hike is longer than most, but at 4 miles round trip, it is still doable for families. It does lean toward the more difficult side, but it offers a scavenger-hunt feel with petroglyphs that dot the trail. Kids will be psyched over the cool rock formations and the natural tunnel. South Mountain Park, 8610 S. 24th St., Phoenix.
Siphon Draw Trail in Apache Junction
The Superstition Wilderness inside Lost Dutchman State Park is one of those magical places that brings together rugged mountains, an abundance of desert vegetation and Sonoran wildlife. And, it offers options. The Siphon Draw Trail, which eventually leads to the challenging summit known as The Flatiron, also leads to a series of other moderately difficult trails ranging in length from less than a mile to the 2.4-mile Treasure Loop Trail. The footing is rocky, but the trails are solid and safe, and the way they all connect makes for a choose-your-own-adventure-style outing. $7 per car at park entry. 6109 N. Apache Trail, Apache Junction.
West Fork Trail in Sedona
West Fork is one of our favorites, because it is always changing, it’s absolutely gorgeous (especially in fall when the leaves change) and it’s challenging in length but not elevation. The trail runs along Oak Creek and crosses it a number of times, which means hikers should toss a pair of dry socks in the car and warn kids at the beginning that if they get wet, they’re going to stay wet until you return to the car. West Fork is a trail that allows kids to find their own way across the creek, feel consumed by the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness (which is one of the coolest names ever) around them and it doesn’t really have an end. The maintained section of the trail is about six miles round trip at the bottom of a canyon, offering incredible photo opportunities. The trail is busy though, and parking is extremely limited. $10 per car if you get lucky enough to score a trailhead parking spot; walk-ups are $2 per person over age 11.
We’re climbing that?!
Camelback Mountain’s Cholla Trail
Families looking for a challenge, and an accomplishment on an iconic landmark, should give the Cholla Trail on Camelback Mountain a go. While the entire hike is just shy of a mile each way, it feels longer, because it requires a half-mile walk from your roadside parking spot, and most of the hike is pretty vertical. This challenging trail includes a skinny section with a sizeable drop-off, and families should navigate it carefully. The top of the trail includes some large boulders, requiring sporadic climbing on all fours. That said, there is no better place for a picnic than at the top. And the kids will feel pretty rugged once they get there. Parking is extremely limited on Invergordon Road. 6131 E. Cholla Lane, Phoenix.
Havasupai Falls inside the Grand Canyon
This hike has been celebrated far and wide as an adventurer’s paradise, and it’s not only for adults. While we haven’t taken our crew down to the falls yet, we plan to, especially after going ourselves and seeing a number of kids, some as young as 9, handling the trail just fine. The 10-mile hike in is challenging because of its initial downhill grade, and the distance requires you to carry overnight gear. Families can lighten the loads by choosing to skip camping in favor of staying in the no-frills Havasupai Lodge. This multi-day hike, which leads to incredible waterfalls, is a life moment for anyone, including younger hikers. Because of that, plan ahead. Watch for the reservation window to open many months in advance and book immediately. Hiking the trail is free, but the only hiking allowed requires overnight accommodations at a reserved campsite or at the lodge. Update: Havasupai has temporarily suspended tourism for the campground and lodge through April 14, 2020.
What we’ve learned hiking as a family:
• Gear up: Outfit each of the kids with their own hydration pack so their hands are free for difficult spots. Taking enough water is essential for any hike.
• Pack snacks: A few calories can be lifesavers for mood and pace along the trail. Our go-tos include jerky, homemade protein balls, goldfish crackers, PB&J, pretzels and fruit snacks.
• Teach trail etiquette: Remind kids to stay on the trail, pack out all trash (including biodegradables like apple cores and orange peels) and allow faster hikers to pass.
• Go early: Popular trails get busier as the day goes on. Get out early to beat the crowds and the heat.
• Set boundaries: Remind kids before hitting the trail of your specific rules like “no running” or “stay close.”
• Learn more: Find more hiking tips at phoenix.gov/parks/trails/take-a-hike-do-it-right
Lisa Van Loo is a freelance journalist. Ron Abelar is an avid outdoorsman and photographer. They are parenting five children in Gilbert. Follow them on Instagram @RaisingOutdoorKids
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