Usery Mountain Regional Park, one of 13 Maricopa County Regional Parks, is a 3,648 acre preserve at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains, adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. Located on the Valley’s east side, Usery Mountain contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home.
Usery Mountain is where my love of and discovery of The West began. That would be early April 1987 when we spent a week in site 48.
At that time, I wrote in my journal: “The spectacular desert mountain scenery here is breathtaking. When we first arrived in Arizona our reaction was why would anyone winter in this dreary, harsh, unforgiving desert environment, let alone live here. The Sonoran Desert grows on you with a beauty all its own. And the beauty of Usery Mountain is absolutely stunning.”
And we have enjoyed camping here numerous times since.
Along the most popular feature of the park, the Wind Cave Trail, water seeps from the roof of the alcove to support hanging gardens of Rock Daisy. The Wind Cave is formed at the boundary between the volcanic tuff and granite on Pass Mountain. Breathtaking views from this 2,840-foot elevation are offered to all visitors.
Usery Pass is known for being a major sheep trail leading from the high country north of Mt. Baldy south to the Salt River Valley. Flocks of sheep, led by Mexican and Basque shepherds with their dogs, present a picturesque sight in the spring and fall as they move into or out of the Coconino plateau region.
The traditional account of settlement of the Salt River Valley credits a former Confederate Officer and gold seeker, Jack Swilling, with the beginning of modern irrigation in central Arizona. Swilling came into the Valley in 1867 and noted the presence of ancient canal systems of the early Native Americans who had irrigated these lands.
Swilling presumably traveled between John Y.T. Smith’s hay camp a few miles east of downtown Phoenix and Fort McDowell in the summer of 1867 and came within sight of Usery Mountain Park, and even closer to the ruins of an old canal system and an ancient Native American village situated between the park and the Salt River.
Usery Mountain Regional Park became a park in 1967. Pass Mountain, also known as “Scarface” to the local folks, is the geological focal point of the park. The mountain itself was named for King Usery (sometimes spelled Ussery). “King” was his first name, rather than a title. He was a cattleman who was running stock in the area in the late 1870s and early 1880s. He had a tough struggle to survive and, apparently losing ground, moved up into the Tonto Basin country where his activities provided him a kind of unwanted security…behind bars.
Usery Mountain offers over 29 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to over 7 miles, and range from easy to difficult.
These trails are very popular because they have enough elevation to offer spectacular vistas of surrounding plains. Whether you are looking across the plain, flat land, south of the recreation area, or to the west or north, great distances and surrounding mountains can be seen and enjoyed.
Arguably the most popular hike at Usery Mountain is the 3.2-miles Wind Cave Trail up Pass Mountain. Although the elevation gain is 820 feet, it’s considered a moderate hike. Views from this 2,840-foot elevation are breathtaking.
If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike, the Merkle Trail is barrier-free. For a long more difficult hike, try the 7.1-mile Pass Mountain Trail. All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.
The park’s modern campground offers 73 individual sites. All sites are paved and have water and 50/30-amp electric service, a picnic table, barbecue grill, fire ring, and can accommodate up to a 45-foot RVs. Other facilities include modern washrooms with flush toilets and hot showers, and a dump station. All sites can be reserved online.
Nightly camping fee is currently $32. Non-refundable reservation fee is $8. For non-campers, the day use fee is $7.
Usery Mountain is best explored from late autumn to early spring as summer temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know that place for the first time.
— T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding