This is high season for hiking in Arizona. With our unseasonably warm weather and all-too-brief “winter” this year, our trails are all the more attractive to locals and visitors in desperate need of Vitamin D, gorgeous scenery and a little outdoor cardio.
So, it can get crowded out there.
Being around crowds is the opposite of what we’re all trying to do right now in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, and it’s generally what people try to avoid when they head out on hikes. Usually, hikers are looking to connect with relative solitude and a beautiful landscape rather than throngs of other outdoor enthusiasts.
Hiking without having to navigate crowds can be tricky. But there is a way. Here are a few tips.
Since it seems that most days we have to beat the heat in Arizona, it’s common to fall into that habit of starting a hike early, even when it’s chilly. But, if you try a later start time, you may miss some traffic. And later start times are particularly helpful when hiking with kids. Just be sure you know you can finish in daylight, or be prepared with a headlamp to navigate in darkness, which we don’t recommend.
We recently hiked the Wave Cave, a 3.2-mile hike near Gold Canyon in the Superstition Wilderness, and we didn’t start until early afternoon. The hike was a birthday “adventure” idea to my youngest from her best friend. With the drive factored in, it was much later than we generally would begin a hike, but we ended up experiencing only light traffic on the trail, which gave way to a very thin crowd inside the cave at the trail’s summit.
You want some time to enjoy the summit of any hike, but especially ones that offer cool photo opportunities. With a limited number of people in the cave, we were able to goof around on top of the “wave” and take a bunch of different photos without worrying about having to hurry off so someone else could get their turn.
Light traffic meant we didn’t have to worry about our pace one bit, even though our pace generally doesn’t hold anyone up. But it’s a nice detail to cast aside when you start a hike, with kids, off peak.
Explore something different
To avoid crowds, avoid the most heavily-trafficked trails. There are 46 trails alone in the Superstition Wilderness, not all of them suitable for kids, but still. Just that one area has dozens of options. South Mountain Park and Preserve in south Phoenix has 50 miles of trails, and the Sonoran Preserve in north Phoenix has 36 miles of trails.
All of this is to say, you can attempt to avoid crowds by giving some love to trails that aren’t plastered all over Instagram. All Trails (alltrails.com) offers good user recommendations on trails and can be a solid guide when trying to discover new routes. We use it quite a bit.
Phoenix doesn’t corner the market on incredible hiking trails. If you have the time, take a short drive out of town and discover a new landscape, and any number of quieter trails that aren’t crawling with out-of-towners. From Strawberry to Payson to Prescott to Flagstaff and Sedona, there are endless possibilities for exploring — and that list isn’t even complete. While you’re there, wherever you are, explore the town, too. It’s how we’ve discovered our favorite pizza and burger joints.
- Wave Cave. Take Highway 60 Superstition Freeway east toward Gold Canyon. Go north on Peralta Road for 6.5 miles and access Wave Cave from the Carney Springs Trailhead or travel another half mile to the permit-free lot of the Lost Goldmine East Trailhead. Find other trails in the Superstition Wilderness Area at fs.usda.gov/detail/tonto/specialplaces/?cid=fsbdev3_018739
- South Mountain Park and Preserve, 10211 S. Central Ave. in Phoenix, is one of the largest municipally managed parks in the nation comprising more than 16,000 acres, three mountain ranges and more than 50 miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Dobbins Lookout, at 2,330 feet, is popular for its unobstructed panoramic view of the Valley. phoenix.gov/parks/trails/locations/south-mountain
- Sonoran Preserve in North Phoenix, comprises more than 9,600 acres and three trailheads: Desert Vista, 1900 W. Desert Vista Trail; Desert Hills, 705 W. Carefree Highway and Apache Wash, 1600 E. Sonoran Desert Drive.
- Alltrails.com offers curated trail maps, driving directions and detailed reviews and photos from hikers, campers and nature lovers.