This is a big one, folks – one of the best hiking workouts you can get in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve – and I would venture to say one of the most challenging urban hikes in the greater Phoenix area. This one will make you feel accomplished.
Hiking the Trail
It starts out lightly enough, with a gentle walk from the Gateway Trailhead along the south side of the Gateway Loop Trail. After you pass the turnoff to the loop trail on your left and start on the Bell Pass Trail the terrain picks up a little, but not so much until you reach the first large tool box (often referred to as the first “coffin” by one witty and less than optimistic hiker I know!). If you’ve read the blog post on the Gateway to Bell Pass hike [coming soon!] you’ve seen this part already. As you continue up you’ll see Thompson Peak on your right, seemingly a stone’s throw away, and as the crow flies, quite near. Don’t let that fool you – you’ll move far away from it before making the trek back up. A nice kick upwards towards the end will get you gasping, several switches, and you’ve made it to Bell Pass. Tap the sign to keep with tradition!
Having achieved the first hurdle, you head down the other side of the Pass (downhill!) towards Prospector Trail, on which you take a right and continue basically downhill, and still quite comfortably, until you reach the turnoff for Thompson Peak Road. Here’s where it gets serious. You’ve already hiked around 5 miles, and climbed up over 1,500 feet to cross Bell Pass. The start of Thompson Peak Road is a good spot to take that Gu energy (or equivalent) if you brought it.
The road up to Thompson Peak itself is relentless, and unbelievably steep in places. Pro tip – try to keep your heels at least periodically touching the ground (and where the trail is very steep, that’s hard to do) – you’ll save your calves from being completely shot.
You may not notice if you have your head down, maybe your music is playing, and your focus is on getting to the top – but the views from here as you climb are truly spectacular, and unlike anything else in the preserve. Keep your focus on getting up there – you can gape at the top, and you’ll enjoy the view all the way down.
Of course it feels great to reach the top, and the way down feels like the end of it all. But don’t forget Prospector Trail – remember all that downhill on the other side of the pass? Once you’re at the bottom of the Thompson Peak Road (and look carefully for the sign on your left!) you return uphill for around 900 feet back to Bell Pass. Only from there is it all smooth (if long) sailing back to the Gateway Trailhead.
Trail Statistics and GPS
|Total Distance||14.0 miles|
|Configuration||Out and Back|
|Elevation at Trailhead||1,720 feet|
|Highest Elevation||3,788 feet|
|Total Elevation Gain||3,838 feet (accounting for gain on the return)|
|Trail and Trail Surface||Well maintained and signed, wide trail, dirt, loose and embedded rock, occasional unevenness|
|Facilities||Water, restrooms, shade pavilion, map, parking, horse trailer parking|
|Location of Trailhead||18333 N. Thompson Peak Pkwy., Scottsdale, AZ 85255|
|GPS Coordinates Files: click to download||GPX KML GeoJSON|
Make no mistake – this is a long and strenuous hike. You’ll want to take plenty of water, and if it’s hot, consider planting extra frozen bottles of water along the way to drink on your way back. Most people I’ve hiked with take the opportunity to eat something – usually an energy bar or a piece of fruit, at Bell Pass. Another spot to consider refueling – but this time with a quick acting energy boost – is at the bottom of Thompson Peak Road.
Always be prepared when 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:
- I’ll say it again: 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.