Nestled in the lower Verde River basin, this 21,099-acre park is a desert jewel in the northeast Valley. Elevations in the park rise to 3,000 feet along the western boundary at the base of the McDowell Mountains. Visitors enjoy over 50 miles of multi-use trails and spectacular views of the surrounding mountain ranges. A stroll through the park will allow visitors to likely see deer, javelina, birds, and coyotes.
McDowell Mountain History
Arizona… a place of legends still conveyed through movies, T.V., the written word, and many storytellers. Maricopa County through its Regional Park system encompasses areas where many stories originated. McDowell Mountain Regional Park is one such place where history is not only a form of speculation with its Indian petroglyphs and archaeological sites but considerable amount of it actually transpired and has been documented.
Over 2,000 years ago nomadic big game hunters spread into southwest North America. Next, the Hohokam Indians who evolved from the earlier Cochise culture plus immigrants from Mexico occupied much of Southern Arizona from about 2,000 years ago to 1450 A.D. The Spanish arrived between 1540 and 1542 under the leadership of Francisco Vázquez de Coronodo. At that time, the areas near the confluence of the Salt and Verde Rivers was home to between 4,000 and 10,000 Hohokam Indians. Native activities ranged from intensive agriculture with river irrigation to nomadic hunting and gathering. McDowell Park contains the remains of several such hunting and gathering sites within its boundaries.
In 1865, Camp McDowell was founded on the west bank of the Verde River. Remaining a permanent military post until 1890, it was the only fort inside present boundaries of Maricopa County. Remains of the fort still exist in the present day village of Fort McDowell, a few miles southeast of McDowell Mountain Park. Due to the presence of Camp McDowell and the protection it offered, settlement in the Salt River Valley was permanent. On February 12, 1871, Maricopa County was created to serve the growing population.
McDowell Mountain Hiking Trails
McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers over 40-miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails. Park Trails range in length from 0.5-miles to 15.3-miles and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous. Those looking for an easy hike should try the North Trail at 3.1-miles. Those looking for a good workout for themselves or their horses should try the Pemberton at 15.3-miles. 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).
On January 10th 1998 McDowell Park opened the 1st of 3 loops of a new competitive track. Today, the track offers three loops totaling 15 miles: one for the experts, one for intermediate riders, and one for the average rider. Each loop offers a variety of obstacles to test the riders’ skills. The track consists of steep inclines, swooping turns, technical descents, and rugged terrain. This competitive track is geared for mountain bikers who want to test their skills. Joggers and equestrian riders are welcome to give the track a try too. The Long Loop of the track was designed for the average rider but is used by all. The Sport Loop is for intermediate riders and experts. The Technical Loop is for the expert rider. This portion of the track offers swooping turns, very technical descents, and steep inclines.
McDowell Mountain Picnic Areas
McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers two picnic areas totaling 88 picnic sites. Each site has a picnic table, restroom, playground, and barbecue grill. Picnic sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Camping at McDowell Mountain
McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers 76 individual sites for tent or RV camping. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and is a developed site with water and electrical hook-ups, dump station, a picnic table, and barbecue fire ring. All restrooms offer flush toilets and showers. The south loop of the campground also offers handicapped-accessible restrooms. All sites in the campground may be reserved online at maricopacountyparks.org.
Large groups can reserve one of three campgrounds within McDowell Mountain Regional Park. The Group Campgrounds can be reserved for a fee and requires a commitment of six units to utilize the facility for dry camping. Group Campgrounds provide a 3-acre parking area to accommodate up to 30 RV units and offer restroom with flush toilets and hot water showers, a covered ramada with 6 picnic tables, a large barbecue grill, and a large fire ring for campfires.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park
Location: From central Phoenix, take Loop 202 east to Beeline Highway (SR 87). Continue northeast on SR 87 to Shea Blvd. Travel west on Shea Blvd. to Saguaro Blvd.; turn north. Continue through Town of Fountain Hills to Fountain Hills Blvd; turn right and travel four miles to the McDowell Mountain Regional Park entrance.
Admission: $7 per vehicle.
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