Hiking the Trail
There are several variations on this trail theme, and in this blog post I have described five ways to slice and dice the Sunrise Trail for some terrific challenges. If you look at the map below you’ll see that the Sunrise Trail extends from the Sunrise Trailhead all the way over to the Lost Dog Wash area, terminating at the Lost Dog Wash Trail close to that trailhead. There is quite a variety of challenge in terms of distance and elevation gain to be had here, starting from either end and terminating at various points. Here are the hikes:
|Trail Name||Distance||Elevation Gain||Difficulty|
|Sunrise – Overlook||1.1 miles (2.2 miles return)||542 feet|
|Sunrise – Sunrise Peak||1.8 miles (3.6 miles return)||1,194 feet|
|LDW – Sunrise Peak||2.8 miles (5.6 miles return)||1,440 feet|
|LDW – Sunrise Trailhead||4.4 miles||1,356 feet|
|Sunrise – LDW Trailhead and return||8.8 miles||2,501 feet|
There are also a couple of really interesting hikes that emanate from the interior of the Sunrise trail. I’ve discussed each of these in separate blog posts, but for the sake of completeness I’ll list them here:
|Trail Name||Distance||Elevation Gain||Difficulty|
|136th Street Spur Trail||1.6 miles (3.2 miles return)||882 feet|
|Sunrise to Andrews Kinsey (AK) Trail||4.4 miles (8.8 miles return)||1,797 feet|
|Sunrise to AK Trail w Western Loop||10.7 miles||2,439 feet|
For an overview of the Preserve and location of all trailheads, see the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Trailhead Map.
Sunrise Trailhead to the Overlook
This is one of the favorite weekday training hikes of the Early Rise Hikers. It’s a short 1.1 miles to the top, and really starts your heart going with a climb right out of the parking lot. We hike it as fast as we can and get a great cardio workout in a 35 to 45 minutes return journey.
Of course, treating this hike as a magnificent treadmill is not the only way to go. It’s a beautiful trail which, after the first rise, has you winding into the McDowells. You will view houses for some distance, but they are well set in the landscape and don’t really detract from the Preserve setting. To the east you’ll see Four Peaks on the horizon, and some mornings it’s lit by the sunrise in such a way that we feel someone is trying to call us towards those Mazatzal Mountains.
After the first rise, you actually hike down, then gradually climb until you get to the very end of the trail where one quick switchback puts you on top of a ridge with views towards Phoenix and Camelback Mountain. You can go on from here to the peak (see below) or – smile to yourself that you’ve made it this far and head back!
Sunrise Trailhead to the Peak
Once you’ve been wowed by the views at the Overlook, you may want to push on for another .7 of a mile to get to Sunrise Peak. You’ll be well rewarded. As you start up from the Overlook the terrain (off trail) changes slightly – boulders are large and round, and several saguaros stand among them in stark color contrast. The challenge intensifies as you will be gaining around 650 feet in elevation over this short distance.
The path will be obvious to the saddle, and at that point you can turn off to your left towards the peak. Don’t let the quick near-scramble fool you into thinking this is it, however. Once you’re up to the top of a rocky area beyond the saddle, you’ll walk along a narrow path westward for some distance before you see another sign for the peak. Take that to the left, you’ll have one switchback, and you’ll be at the top.
Take care on the return not to make a left turn at that sign, and wind further to the west. If you happen upon a horse hitch, you’ve gone the wrong way! Simply turn around and follow the path you’re on to the east, and you’ll get back to Sunrise Trailhead.
Lost Dog Wash to Sunrise Peak
One of the most challenging hikes from the Lost Dog Wash Trailhead takes you to Sunrise Peak. The hike is shorter than the Lost Dog Wash to Quartz Trail hike, but has more elevation gain over that shorter distance. And while Sunrise peak can also be reached by starting at the Sunrise Trailhead, taking the trail from Lost Dog Wash offers more distance and elevation gain, as well as an alternative perspective on the Preserve. Views of the mountains as you really enter the interior of the McDowells make it worth the extra effort.
Start from the Trailhead on the Lost Dog Wash trail, heading towards the left on gravel instead of entering the paved and accessible interpretive trail. The first trail fork you meet is the turnoff for the Sunrise trail – turn right, and continue on this trail a bit north and mostly east. You’ll cross the north-south Ringtail trail, and sometime after that will start climbing into the hills. You’ll cross a ridge so that the view is no longer behind you – it’s more in front and to the left. Once you have climbed a long stretch of narrower trail beyond the ridge, and once you’ve passed the entrance to the Andrews Kinsey trail on your left and a horse hitch close by that point, you’ll come to a fork – take the right trail to climb to Sunrise peak.
Lost Dog Wash to Sunrise Trailhead
An alternative to stopping at the peak is to continue on the trail to the left (the lower trail to the north) past the peak to the Sunrise Trailhead. This reduces the elevation gain by the small extra amount you take to get to the peak, but adds distance and some tricky downhill. Note that the trailhead at Sunrise is at a bit higher elevation than the trailhead at Lost Dog Wash. As a result, you gain 1,357 feet when hiking from LDW to Sunrise – but “only” 1,144 going the other way.
Bear in mind that you’ll be starting at one trailhead and ending at another. You will need to arrange a pick up, or even better: carpool with friends who are doing the hike with you, leaving a car at Sunrise, and driving down to LDW to start. At the end of the hike, the hikers who left their car at Sunrise can drop the hikers who left their car at LDW.
Sunrise to Lost Dog Wash Trailhead and Return
If I’m going to hike the full trail both directions I prefer to start at the Sunrise Trailhead simply because it means there are facilities available half way through the hike (when you reach Lost Dog Wash). But given that you hike the trail each direction, you’ll pick up the full exercise whammy either way!
I advise starting this hike early. It is arduous, and the trail has a high degree of sun exposure. Even in the cooler months the air and sun can become oppressive after several hours of hiking.
The distance/elevation graph below is the return half of the story for this hike – you start with the Lost Dog Wash Trailhead to Sunrise Trailhead profile above, and then add the profile below for the full picture. It’s quite a hike, and you’ll feel very accomplished when you manage it!
Trail Statistics and GPS
|Elevation at Lost Dog Wash Trailhead||1,755 feet|
|Elevation at Sunrise Trailhead||1,950 feet|
|Highest Elevation excluding Sunrise Peak||2,862 feet|
|Elevation at Sunrise Peak||3,011 feet|
|Trail and Trail Surface||Well maintained and signed, wide trail, dirt, loose and embedded rock, occasional unevenness|
|Lost Dog Wash Trailhead Facilities||Water, restrooms, shade pavilion, map, parking, horse trailer parking|
|Location of Lost Dog Wash Trailhead||12601 N. 124th Street, Scottsdale, AZ 85259|
|Sunrise Trailhead Facilities||Parking, horse trailer parking in overflow lot.|
|Location of Sunrise Trailhead||12101 N 145th Way # 1, Scottsdale, AZ 85259|
|GPS Coordinates Files: click to download|
|Sunrise Trailhead to Sunrise Peak||GPX KML GeoJSON|
|Lost Dog Wash to Sunrise Peak||GPX KML GeoJSON|
|Lost Dog Wash to Sunrise Trailhead||GPX KML GeoJSON|
The hikes listed here are strenuous, and you should be well prepared before embarking on any one of them. Be aware of your fitness level. I’m a firm believer in pushing yourself, and if you’re smart about it, the McDowells offer some splendid terrain for doing just that. However, if you’re not careful, and prepared, then what starts out as a pleasant hike can turn into a negative experience you won’t want to repeat.
Assess the trail you will be attempting to hike, and have a good idea of where you’re going. Grab a map online or at the trailhead (if available – usually they are at Lost Dog Wash but never at Sunrise), or use your GPS device. On longer hikes, being prepared also means carrying a few things with you in a backpack:
- Hydration system (eg. a CamelBak) in addition to water bottles.
- Snacks, preferably with some salt. You don’t want to be 7 miles from the trailhead and suddenly feel physically depleted.
- Hat, additional layer of clothing. High winds – which may come as a surprise at the top of a ridge – can cause you to loose body temperature quickly when you’re tired and sweaty.
- First aid kit.
Also, always be prepared for hiking in the desert. Be aware that even in cooler temperatures, dehydration can occur. For a full discussion, read Staying Safe on a Desert Hike – but here are a few quick tips to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience:
- Bring plenty of water. As a rule of thumb, take one liter per anticipated hour of hiking.
- Hike with a friend or group. There are many hiking groups in the greater Phoenix area – including Early Rise Hikers!
- If you are hiking on your own, let someone know where you’ve gone, and take a cell phone.
- During the warmer months, hike during the cooler hours of the day to avoid dehydration and heatstroke.
- Stay on the trail. This is the best way to avoid encountering snakes.
- When encountering any animal, give the animal space. Do not attempt a wildlife selfie!
The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is a fount of information on all aspects of the Preserve. You can access static information on their website as well as find out about events and volunteer education sessions. The Conservancy also announces discovery hikes, wellness hikes, and education sessions held at the Mustang Library on the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy Meetup site.