Jetting high into the sky, Thumb Butte sits proudly as a distinctive landmark of Prescott, Arizona. Nestled in the Prescott National Forest, Thumb Butte is so prominent that it’s difficult to miss, even many miles out. Hiking Thumb Butte is popular, although when we went, we only came across about 8 people along the entire 2ish-mile loop. We went around 3pm on a Saturday during Memorial Day Weekend. One reason it wasn’t crowded might be because Prescott was hosting an art show in the town square that weekend. My brother and I were in the square about an hour before going on the hike and it was poppin’. It was very crowded.
So, take that it was rather empty with a grain of salt because I think we just got lucky. According to the USDA Forest Service and the popular hiking website, AllTrails, Thumb Butte Trail 33 (the main loop trail around the butte) is ranked “heavily trafficked”. Just be prepared.
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 am experienced, and I would disagree with this assessment. In my opinion, it should be rated as “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 almost immediately. My brother and I had visited Sharlot Hall Museum earlier in the day (blog on that coming up!) where one of the museum docents told us to “make sure you go right”. We didn’t know why, but we figured it’d be wise to take a Prescott local’s advice on the matter.
We were glad we did because the advice was sound. While you almost immediately go uphill when going right, it’s a gradual process for most of the hike to the butte, with some downhill parts for a small reprieve. While it was technically gradual, that’s not to say that there were no steep inclines, many of which were quite rocky and easy to slip and fall on if you are not mobility blessed. I run around 4 to 5 times a week, and even I was huffing and puffing quickly into this hike. The higher elevation also has something to do with this, as I live in Phoenix, which is notably lower in elevation than Prescott. It’s just something to be aware of if you’re from the lower elevations and come to this area to hike.
We realized on our way down why the museum volunteer said what she did. The left side of the loop is much, much more vertically uphill, and not at all gradual. My brother and I found ourselves having to actually run down parts of it, because that’s just how steep it was and how much our momentum was pushing us. Those who like to do weight training use this side of the trail, and we saw a guy running up and down it with a 25-pound weight attached to his backpack. There are handrails at certain, more-steep-than-the-usual-steep parts, but again, someone who isn’t mobility blessed might have a difficult time navigating the steepness. The only plus is that this side of the trail is paved, although that may not mean much since a lot of the pavement is uneven and sometimes even sticks out high, a total tripping hazard if you’re not paying attention.
There are benches sprinkled throughout the trail, some placed 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 on either side (different sides of the valley). Going up the right side, you will see the south side of the valley, which is nice but also more littered with homes and buildings. Going up the left, viewing the north side, you see a wide-sweeping view of the gorgeous mountains and the Prescott National Forest. It’s a nice place to stop, catch your breath, and take in the fact that you’re staring at beautifully forested mountains in a state known for its blistering deserts.
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! 🤗
My brother and I did the entire 2-ish-mile hike in about one hour. I say 2-ish-miles because there is disagreement among the hiking aficionados as to how long the trail really 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 (very stupidly) forgot to wear my Apple watch, where I’d usually track the hike in the exercise app. I guess we’ll never really know! 🤷🏻♀️
Two important notes: bring lots of water and a $5 bill to pay the entrance/parking fee. We (again, stupidly) did not look up whether there was a fee and were caught off guard when arriving. It’s $5 CASH and no, there isn’t an ATM nearby. I had only a $20 bill, and my brother had only a $10. Obviously, we went with the $10, as going all the way back into town for $5 would have wasted more gas than it was worth.
The way it works is that you fill out this little envelope, stick the money inside, and then rip off the tag to put in your car window. You then stick the envelope into this little metal slot. You must list the dates you are there, as well as your car’s make, model, and license number. We pondered doing it at all, because how would they know unless a park ranger came at the exact moment we were there and checked the envelopes versus the cars in the parking lot. But we didn’t want to take any chances. So, the state of Arizona got an extra 5 bucks from us. You’re welcome, Arizona.
As for the water, bring at least 2 to 3 bottles in a backpack. You may think you only need one but like I’ve extensively mentioned above, it’s a steep climb either way, and it’s important to stay hydrated and not pass out. We both brought only one and had to be very conservative with it (Again, so stupid!). We didn’t realize how abrupt the climb actually was. It was only around 80 degrees the day we went, but it still got very hot, quickly. It’s best to be overprepared than under.
Overall, I recommend hiking Thumb Butte Trail 33 if you are in search of breathtaking views and a hard workout that will push your endurance. I personally don’t recommend it if you have issues walking or with balance, or are not in the best of shape, as it is so elevated and rocky in many places. However, that’s simply my personal opinion! But if you are up to the challenge and are ever in the area or passing through on your way to Jerome or Sedona, please take some time to stop and hike to the top of one of the most recognized buttes in Arizona. With views like this, you won’t regret it.