Located in the McDowell Mountains in the upper Sonoran Desert, right outside of Scottsdale, Arizona, sits the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy; an independent, nonprofit conservation. Created in 1991, it’s a massive area of around 30,580-acres, making it the largest urban preserve in the entire United States.
The conservancy was birthed in 1990 by 13 preservationists and outdoor enthusiasts, who were concerned when the combined populations of Scottsdale, Fountain Hills, Carefree, and Rio Verde began to grow, threatening to encroach upon the McDowell Mountains. For years, these Valley of the Sun residents could enjoy the mountains and surrounding areas unencumbered by people, homes, and cars, and they wanted to keep it that way. The McDowell Sonoran Land Trust (MSLT) was soon created, adopting in 2005 the new name McDowell Sonoran Conservancy.
It’s open from sunrise to sunset and offers approximately 120 miles of non-motorized, multi-use trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. The preserve offers an uninterrupted “wildlife corridor”, stretching from the north by the Tonto National Forest and meeting the McDowell Mountain Regional Park in the south. It’s believed that humans first started inhabiting the preserve around 7,000 years ago, mainly the Archaic people (5,000 BCE – 500 CE) and the Hohokam people (100 CE and 1450 CE). Since the preserve is so massive, there are 11 trailheads, so visit https://www.mcdowellsonoran.org/visit-preserve to find the best one for you.
We hiked the Tom’s Thumb trail, located at 23015 N. 128th St., Scottsdale, AZ 85255. It offers car and horse trailer parking, along with restrooms, a shaded ramada, and lovely signs with pictures and information related to the surrounding ecosystem. Unfortunately, there is no drinking water at this trailhead, so bring your own (you should always bring water with you while hiking, regardless of where you go or at what time of year). We arrived around 9:30am and it was already well on its way to being packed.
As with most locations in central Arizona, hiking is strongly discouraged during the summer months, so we had to get this hike in while we could. It was in the 70’s, which is still warm(ish) while hiking with the sun blazing down on you, but very doable. I would NOT recommend hiking in the preserve once the temperature rises above 90 degrees. There is extremely limited shade while out on the trails, save for a couple of large rock formations and the alcoves of the nearby mountains. Be forewarned, most of the trail is through open Sonoran Desert.
While I can only speak for the trails at Tom’s Thumb, they were very easy and accessible, and my friends easily pushed their stroller (made for off-roading). My 5-year-old easily traversed the trail as well. There wasn’t a ton of people when we hit the trail around 10am, but there were quite a few. The trail grew increasingly more popular as the morning wore on.
We ended up hiking approximately 1.3 miles before deciding to turn around, making it a decent hike of 2.6 miles. We could’ve gone further, but ya know, kids. 💁🏻♀️
Overall, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is a wonderful wildlife preservation that offers a great opportunity to view and appreciate the diverse wildlife and ecosystems of central Arizona. Again, I would not recommend hiking the preserve past 9am during the summer (June, July, August, and maybe even September), as the temperatures skyrocket, quick. It’s not unheard of for it to hit 90 degrees by 7am. If you do hike during these months, come as early as possible, brings LOTS of water, wear a hat and breathable clothing, and make sure someone knows you’re out there (if going alone). If you go to the preserve in any of the other months, just follow basic hiking safety and you will be fine! ☺️