A Hiker’s Paradise: White Tank Mountain Regional Park

A top notch location in the greater Phoenix area for a hike in the desert with thirty miles of trails that range anywhere from as short as a mile to several of them exceeding five miles or more

Nearly 30,000 acres makes White Tank Mountain the largest regional park in Maricopa County. Most of the park is made up of the rugged and beautiful White Tank Mountains on the Valleys west side. The range, deeply serrated with ridges and canyons rises sharply from its base to peak at over 4,000 feet. Infrequent heavy rains cause flash floodwaters to plunge through the canyons and pour onto the plain. These torrential flows pouring down chutes and dropping off ledges have scoured out a series of depressions, or tanks, in the white granite rock below, thus giving the mountains their name.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain History

Eleven archeological sites occupied during the time period A.D. 500-1100 were located within the boundaries of White Tank Mountain Regional Park. All of these sites can be attributed to the Hohokam Indians. The White Tanks were apparently abandoned by the Hohokam about A.D. 1100. There is no further indication of human occupation until the historic period when the Western Yavapai controlled the area.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ruggedness of terrain and scarcity of water restricted the sites to large canyons leading out of the mountains. In these canyons, the sites include seven villages varying from 1 to 75 acres in area, a rock shelter in the face of a steep cliff overlooking the white tanks, and several shard areas. Several of the villages appear to have been occupied for long periods by sizeable populations while the shard areas may represent temporary camps of hunters and gatherers.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the sites in the area are concentrated around the White Tanks themselves. The Tanks probably held water the year-round and thereby drew people to the region. Petroglyphs on rocks indicate the Indians were more than transients. Pottery shards along the Agua Fria and Hassayampa signify the presence of villages and the likelihood that an Indian trail connected the streams with the White Tank long before Europeans came into the area. The discovery of possible agricultural terraces or check dams indicates that farming may have been carried on in the various canyons of the White Tank Mountains by utilizing seasonal runoff and rain water.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About the Petroglyphs

Ancient Arizonans pecked hundreds of figures and symbols on the rock faces of the White Tank Mountains. Some may approach 10,000 years old. All have withstood sun, rain, and vandals for 700 or 800 years or more.

The Black Rock Trail circles through a Hohokam village site though the pit houses and trash mounds are hidden to all but the trained eye of an archeologist. The largest group of rock-art panels is along the Waterfall Canyon Trail at “Petroglyph Plaza”. Another big group is near the entrance to the box canyon that gives the trail its name.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A rock drawing was serious business to its maker. While no one can say precisely what most of them “mean”, we know they had important functions in the lives of their makers. They were not simply stone-age graffiti. The symbols recorded events and marked locations. They were a magical way to control nature so rain would fall or mountain sheep would let themselves be caught. Some served as trail markers and maps. Others represented religious concepts.

Do not try to make “tombstone rubbings” of the petroglyphs. It does not work and you will erode the dark areas making the petroglyph dimmer. Look at and photograph these figures and symbols of history but do not touch the petroglyphs as skin oils can also damage them. 

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain Hiking Trails

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers approximately 30 miles of excellent shared-use trails ranging in length from 0.9 mile to 7.9 miles and difficulty from easy to strenuous. Overnight backpacking with a permit is allowed in established backcountry campsites. Day hikes can provide some breathtaking views of the mountains and panoramas of the Valley below. Horseback and mountain bike riders are welcome although caution is stressed as some of the trails may be extremely difficult.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition, there are 2.5 miles of pedestrian-only trails. These include two short trails that are hard-surfaced and barrier free. Waterfall Trail is barrier-free for 5/10 of a mile. The handicap accessible portion now ends about 1/10 of a mile past Petroglyph Plaza. The short loop of Black Rock Trail which is about ½ mile long begins at Ramada 4.

All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated. All trail users are encouraged to practice proper trail etiquette. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.​ Heavy sole shoes are a must as well as sunscreen, and a large-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley hat).

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain Picnic Areas

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers 240 picnic tables with grills, 80 of which have a small cover. Eleven Group Picnic Sites are available for large groups. These ramadas can be reserved for a fee in four-hour increments. If not marked as reserved, they are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain Camping

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers 40 individual sites for RV camping. Most sites have a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and offer water and electrical hook-ups, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, a fire ring, and nearby dump station. All restrooms offer flush toilets and showers. All sites in the campground may be reserved online at maricopacountyparks.org.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain Regional Park

Directions: White Tank Mountain Regional Park is located at the very west end of Olive Ave about 15 miles west of the 101 (Agua Fria Highway).

NORTH: Take Highway 303 south and exit at PEORIA AVE. Turn right from the off-ramp and travel west for 1 mile on Peoria Ave to Cotton Lane. Turn left (south) onto Cotton Lane until you get to Olive Ave. Turn right (west) on Olive Ave and continue 4 miles to the park gate.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

SOUTH: Take Highway 303 north and exit at NORTHERN AVE. Turn left (west) at the light and off-ramp onto Northern Ave, traveling west for 1 mile to Cotton Lane. Turn right (north) onto Cotton lane and travel 1 mile to Olive Ave. Turn left (west) onto Olive Ave and continue for 4 miles to the park gate.

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes