Jetting high into the sky, Thumb Butte sits proudly as a distinctive landmark of Prescott, Arizona (Prescott, Arizona: “Everybody’s Hometown”.). Nestled in the Prescott National Forest, Thumb Butte is so prominent that it’s almost impossible to miss, even from many miles out. Hiking Thumb Butte is popular, although we only came across about 8 people along the entire 2ish-mile loop. We went around 3pm on a Saturday during Memorial Day Weekend, so it may not have been crowded due to the art show in the town square. So, I’d take that it was rather empty with a grain of salt, as I believe we simply got lucky. According to the USDA Forest Service website and the popular hiking app, AllTrails, Thumb Butte Trail 33 (the main loop trail around the butte) is rated as “heavily trafficked”.
All the hiking sites and blogs rank Thumb Butte Trail 33 as “moderate” in difficulty. I don’t consider myself an “avid” hiker, but I’m experienced enough, and I would disagree with this assessment – it should be rated “moderate to difficult”. First, regardless of whether you go left or right (it’s a loop, so you are free to choose), you will be going uphill practically immediately. My brother and I had visited Sharlot Hall Museum earlier in the day, where one of the museum docents told us to “make sure you go right”. She was a Prescott local, so we took her advice.
We were glad we did because the advice was sound. Even though you almost immediately go uphill when going right, it’s a gradual rise for most of the hike to the butte, with some downhill parts for small reprieves. However, while gradual, there were a few steep inclines, all of which were quite rocky and easy to slip and fall if you’re not careful. Also, the higher elevation can play a factor – it can help tire you out or make it more difficult to breathe. It’s just something to be aware of.
Only once we started making our way down did we understand why the museum volunteer said to go to the right. The left side of the loop is much more vertical and not at all gradual. We found ourselves having to run/skip down some parts of it due to the momentum we’d gain. In fact, those who like to do weight training use this side of the trail, and we saw a guy running up and down the trail with a 25-pound weight strapped to his backpack. Also, while there are handrails at the very steep parts, I still believe those with mobility issues might have a difficult time. The only plus side? This side of the trail is paved, which doesn’t mean much, as much of it is uneven and sometimes sticks up quite high, which is a major tripping hazard. As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to both sides of the trail, and my best advice would be to just do the entire loop and experience it all! (But start by going to the right. 🙃)
Also, there are benches sprinkled along the trail, some to simply offer a place to rest and others for a spectacular view. That’s the goal of hiking Thumb Butte Trail 33 for many – to see the amazing view 🙌🏼. Whether you go up via the left or the right, you will have a wonderful view of the Prescott area, but simply different sides of the valley. On the right side, you’ll see the south side of the valley, which is nice but also littered with homes and buildings. On the left side, viewing the north side, you see a wide-sweeping view of the gorgeous mountains and the beautiful Prescott National Forest.
We did the entire 2-ish-mile loop in approximately one hour. Unfortunately, I cannot give a concrete distance, as there seems to be disagreement among the hiking aficionados as to how long the trail actually is. According to AllTrails, it’s 2.5 miles. Trip Advisor lists it as an even 2. The blogs Modern Hiker and AZ Utopia have it coming in at 2.1. Another hiking blog, Hiking Project, goes even lower, listing it as 1.9 miles. The official USDA Forest Service website apparently doesn’t care and doesn’t list a distance at all. I sadly forgot to wear my Apple watch, otherwise I would’ve tracked it on the exercise app, so it remains a mystery. 🧐
Two important notes: bring lots of water and a $5 bill to pay the entrance/parking fee. We did not look up whether there was a fee and were caught off guard when arriving. It’s $5 CASH and unsurprisingly, there isn’t an ATM nearby. I only had a $20 bill and my brother only had a $10, so we ended up putting the $10 in. As for the water, bring at least 2 to 3 bottles. It’s a steep climb either way you go and it’s always super important to stay hydrated. We both brought only one bottle each and had to be very conservative with it. We didn’t realize how straight uphill the climb was and figured it was only around 80 degrees, but it got hot very quickly. It’s always best to be overprepared than under!
Overall, I highly recommend hiking Thumb Butte Trail 33, especially if you’re in search of breathtaking views and a hard workout that will push your endurance. I personally don’t recommend it if you have mobility or breathing issues, as it’s very elevated and rocky in many places. But, if you are up to the challenge and are ever in the area or passing through, please take some time to stop and hike to the top of one of the most recognized buttes in all of Arizona. With views like this, you won’t regret it!
Last time for good measure… go to the right!!!