Now that the weather has gotten cooler here in the Valley of the Sun, the many local outdoor destinations have been calling my name. As much as I love getting out of town to do some hiking or camping in Northern Arizona, I absolutely adore the desert landscapes right here in Phoenix. One of my favorite hiking areas is the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The Preserve is a large, protected, desert habitat area with many interconnected multi-use trails. It’s a favorite spot for hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. It’s uniquely beautiful in the way that only the high desert is.
The Preserve is no fee, welcomes dogs (on leash), and is open from sunrise to sunset every day. There are a multitude of interconnected trails and multiple trailheads available – some with paved parking and access to water and restrooms. The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy has a network of volunteers available at specific times and places to help you plan your visit.
The Preserve is divided up into South, Central, and North Areas. Quartz Trail is located in the South Area. One-way the distance is 4.9 miles (and since there’s no way to get back to civilization without hiking back – you’re really committing to 9.8 miles round-trip.) It’s also listed as an “easy” hike with an 1104 foot elevation change. It’s a beautiful, mostly smooth trail with a nice gradual elevation change throughout. There’s a spot where you can turn off the trail onto a very steep hill and climb up to a huge quartz outcropping (I’ll show you where in the pictures below.) It’s a very steep incline and not at all easy. However, if you stick to the proper trail for the entire length – it’s a nice, easy hike.
Quartz Trail is a bit unique because the first part of the trail actually runs through a suburban housing development called McDowell Mountain Ranch. I realize that sounds strange, but a protected natural area runs right through the middle of the development and that is where you’ll find this trail. Quartz Trail has its own paved trailhead parking lot (33.626806, -111.856973), directly between a small business park and an elementary school.
As you prepare to exit the parking lot on foot – there is also this huge map. It’s a good overall picture of the surrounding area, but Quartz Trail is well marked so it’s easy to follow.
To get on the actual trail, you simply cross the street and find this marker.
You loosely follow along the street for the first tiny bit, but you go down a small hill into the brush so can’t see the street. You’ll change direction when you get to this sign.
You’ll go down a short hill, then back up and this is what you’ll see. Keep in mind you’re in the middle of a neighborhood. Hard to tell huh?
The saguaros are majestic along the trail.
You’ll pass underneath a street as part of the trail.
And you’ll come up next to one of the community centers for the neighborhood (it’ll be on the right)…at a slight distance. But honestly, you can barely see it through the brush.
The trail continues to wind through the wash areas for quite some time. It’s gorgeous and usually quiet. You’ll run into some mountain bikers and the occasional hiker, but the beauty of this trail is that it’s not as heavily used as some others in the area are. There are a few junctions where you need to pay attention and make sure you continue on Quartz and not veer off onto Lost Dog Wash Trail.
You’ll be crossing back and forth over a large wash area. It’s easy to see just how much water this area can see when it’s monsoon season. I’ve seen these washes look like raging rivers. If you’re hiking when it’s rainy or gray (or during monsoon season which is usually late summer) – use caution in these areas. These washes flood quickly and unexpectedly.
Keep an eye on the trail for interesting things to see…one of which is scat! Sounds gross, but you’ll see a lot of different varieties. The herbivore scat is usually very different looking than the carnivore scat. This shot is scat from what I’m guessing is a carnivore – it was mostly made of hair!
Soon you’ll start to feel a bit of the elevation gain. For most of this trail, it’s very, very gradual. As you wind your way out of the wash (and the neighborhood), you’ll gain elevation quickly.
If you’re like me, I usually just keep plugging forward admiring what is in front of me. But with this trail – you gotta remember to turn around and see where you’ve just been. Since the elevation change sneaks up on you – it’s easy to miss the gorgeous views.
Another thing to look for is the crazy awesome rocks alongside the trail. They look like they were chopped and covered with rust.
Now, you’re completely into the wilderness area and there’s one last trail marker to watch for. You want to follow the bottom sign – since we’re following this trail to it’s end.
Suddenly the mountains look a lot closer! It’s completely quiet and serene this far out. Keep your eyes peeled for hawks and other birds of prey. If you’re going during the warmer months – also be cautious of snakes.
Here’s another spot to glance back at where you just came…look at those views!
Now you’re high enough up that you’ll see why this trail is named for quartz…it starts to show up everywhere.
The trail technically continues on into a box canyon and dead-ends. But there’s a lovely little spot where you can climb up a very steep short trail and get right up next to a massive quartz deposit on the hillside. The picture below shows the turn-off point if you want to climb up to the quartz deposit. The whole way up the trail is littered with big bits of quartz. In the sunshine – it really sparkles!
Here’s a slightly closer shot to the quartz deposit. You can see it right by the saguaro cactus at the top of the picture (look for the big giant white rock.)
And if you turn around – you’ll see this.
If you’d kept going around the curve and on into the box canyon – the trail is gorgeous…and much easier. However, the views aren’t quite as spectacular. Here’s a shot looking back at the trail after turning the corner around the mountain (i.e. taking the route to the box canyon.)
There were some awesome rocks sticking up right next to the trail.
One of them even had a lovely purple barrel cactus growing out of it.
My friend and I did this hike in November so it was a very cool 73 degrees at the hottest point in the day. If you hike this area during hotter months – be very aware of the temperature and bring enough water (at least 1 gallon per person.) This is a great hike to do early in the morning during the hotter months. All told, it took us about 2 1/2 hours round-trip. It was a blast!
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- Red Rock State Park – Sedona, Arizona
- Tonto Natural Bridge State Park – Payson, Arizona
- Maverick Trail, Brown’s Ranch – Scottsdale, Arizona
- Tuzigoot National Monument – Clarkdale, Arizona