Just 10 miles north of Fountain Hills Arizona lies the 21,099 acre McDowell Mountain Regional Park. This park is one of the largest in the Maricopa County Park System. McDowell Mountain Regional Park is probably best known as a mecca for mountain biking enthusiasts from across the country, yet it is also a fantastic place to hike, horseback ride, camp, RV, picnic, birdwatch, stargaze, take photographs or just get out and enjoy nature. Please note that there is a $6.00 per vehicle fee to enter the park! If you visit frequently then you might want to obtain a Maricopa Mountain Parks Annual Pass.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park has over 50 miles of trails within its boundaries, and to make things even better the western edge of the Park borders the McDowell Sonoran Preserve which has an additional 50-plus miles of hiking and biking trails!
Location & Geography
McDowell Mountain Regional Park is situated in the lower Verde River Basin, a beautiful and sparsely populated desert valley east of the McDowell Mountains. The park’s eastern boundary starts a few miles west of the Verde River and continues right up to the foothills of the McDowell Mountains and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The southern edge of the park shares Fountain Hills northern border. The northern extent of the park lies a few miles south of and parallel to Dynamite Blvd/Rio Verde Dr. Elevation ranges in the park start at 1600 feet MSL at the eastern edge and reach 3000 feet MSL in the McDowell Mountains at the western edge.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park is probably most famous for mountain biking. Not only are there over 50 miles of general purpose trails in the park that can be used for mountain biking, hiking or equestrian use, but there are three loop trails specifically designed as Mountain Bike competitive tracks ranging from almost 3 to over 8 miles in length. The three tracks respectively offer challenges appropriate to the average, intermediate and expert rider.
The 8.2 mile (13.3 km) Long Loop of the track was designed for the average rider, The 3.0 Mile (4.8 km) Sport Loop is for intermediate riders and experts. The 2.9 Mile (4.6 km ) Technical Loop is for the expert rider. This portion of the track offers swooping turns, very technical descents, and steep inclines.
If you would prefer a more gentle ride through the park to enjoy the scenery rather than test your mettle against rock and cactus, there are over 50 total miles of trails in the park. For example, the 15.4 mile Pemberton trail is a wide and generally smooth ride that takes you to the western edge of the park close to the McDowell Mountains. Most of the trail is hard-packed dirt with an occasional rocky or sandy section.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park has over 50 miles of trails within its boundaries, and the adjoining McDowell Sonoran Preserve has an additional 50 plus miles of trails. If you are looking for great elevation gain and a tremendous workout you may find the trails in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve more to your taste. If you are looking for a beautiful walk in the desert, many of the McDowell Park trails will satisfy you.
One of the most beautiful hikes in the Park is the appropriately named Scenic Trail. This trail starts at the Equestrian Staging area at the end of Shallmo Dr. Start at the northwest corner of the parking lot on the Pemberton trail and start hiking north. After about 0.2 miles one end of the Scenic Trail heads off to the east. The Scenic trail then parallels a wash habitat between two ridges that rise about 250 feet above the wash. At the end of the ridges the trail ascends the eastern ridge and ends up on the top. The view from the ridgetop is beautiful – stunning views of the McDowell Mountains and the Park to the west, and the Verde River to the east. The trail follows the ridgeline to the north and then descends back to the Pemberton trail. After reaching the Pemberton again you must walk a level mile back to the parking lot.
Another very enjoyable hike with great views is the Lousley Hill hike. To get there take McDowell Mountain Drive (the main park road) past the visitors center to Lousley Dr. This hike is fairly short but has an incredible lookout to the east at the top.
RVs & Camping
McDowell Mountain Regional Park is a fantastic place to enjoy your RV or camp! The RV and camping areas are situated well within the park boundary and are far away from any major signs of civilization so you get as true of a nature experience as you could at an official park campground facility.
The Park offers family camping and group camping areas. The Family Campground consists of 76 camping sites for tent or RV camping. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45′ RV and is considered a ‘Developed Site,’ with water and electrical hook-ups, dump station, a picnic table and a 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 are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Group Campground – 3-acre parking area can accommodate 30 RV units for day use or overnight camping. 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.
- Trailhead Group Area – For groups larger than 30 RV units. 2 large covered ramadas, each with 4 picnic tables and large barbecue grill. A large fire ring is centrally located between the 2 ramadas for group gatherings. This area is ideal for overnight camping groups with horses or mules.
- Youth Group Area – For Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other youth groups. Large parking area with port-a-jons, water, picnic tables, flagpole, and large fire ring. This area is ideal for overnight scout camping trips.
As with all Maricopa County Parks, equestrians are welcome into the park riding their own horse and must stay on designated trails. All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated. All trail users are encouraged to practice proper trail etiquette. The horse staging area can be found at the end of Shallmo Drive, which intersects with the main park drive soon after the visitor center.
The Park offers two picnic areas totaling 88 picnic sites. These areas are found by taking the main park road, McDowell Mountain Park Dr, past the visitor center and almost to the end of the road. The Ironwood picnic area is found off of Lousley Dr exit, and the Palo Verde picnic area is found off of Asher View Dr. Picnic sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Flora & Fauna
The park sits at the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert, the desert ecosystem that occupies about one third of Arizona as well as small parts of southeastern California and northwestern Mexico. When visiting McDowell Mountain Regional Park you will see plenty of the iconic Saguaro Cactus, as well as varieties of Prickly Pear, Ocotillo, Palo Verde, Barrel Cactus, & Hedgehog Cactus. Desert trees such as the Palo Verde, Ironwood and Acacias are quite common.
The predominant bush/shrubs found in the park are Brittlebush and Creosote. Although most of the time the Brittlebush is a rather nondescript and dead-looking plant, in wet springs this plant has beautiful pale green leaves and hundreds of medium size daisy–like yellow flowers resulting in thousands of square miles of lush yellow/green carpet on the desert floor. A rainy monsoon season you will also see all the plants green up beautifully although very few flower at this time of the year.
Being the desert, you can certainly count on reptiles and snakes being present during the warmer months, generally April through October. The Diamondback Rattlesnake, Bull snakes, King snakes as well as others might be seen. Many varieties of lizards can be seen sunning and skittering around. If you are lucky you might even see the legendary Gila Monster. Remember that most snake bites occur when people taunt the snakes or attempt to handle them. Stay on the trails where the snakes are relatively easy to spot, keep Fido on a leash and seriously consider getting your dog Rattlesnake vaccine.
During the monsoon months you may very well see a Tarantula. Scorpions are very common but mainly come out at night. Be very careful where you sit when out on the trails and NEVER pick up rocks or stick your hand places you can’t see! At night you can use a UV-light and the scorpions will glow!
Despite the ruggedness of this area and rarity of water, many larger animals thrive here. Mule Deer, Javelina, Coyotes, Bobcats and Mountain Lions make the Park home. Cottontail and Jack rabbits are common here also. Various mice, rats and even squirrels can also be found. Bald Eagles nest at the Verde River a few miles away and can be occasionally seen circling on thermals.
Almost 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 and Maricopa County from about 2,000 years ago to 1450 A.D. The Spanish then arrived in the early 1500’s under the leadership of Coronado. 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 the present-day boundaries of Maricopa County. Remains of the fort still exist in the village of Fort McDowell, just a few miles southeast of McDowell 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.
By early 1944, talk and correspondence originated regarding the establishment of a county park system. A committee was established, studies were conducted for choosing locations, the process of land acquisition was created and by 1945 certain land purchases and leases had been completed. An 18,273 acreage for McDowell Park was first leased in 1958, and patented in 1964. Through further land acquisition this has been expanded to now encompass 21,099 acres.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park runs a number of interesting and educational events throughout the year. Normally the park closes at sunset (except for those staying in RVs and camping), but Mountain Biking and Hiking by moonlight are popular scheduled events held during full moons. Many amateur and professional mountain bike races and competitions are held at the park. Interpretive walks and hikes are very popular, as well as star gazing events where the park provides a telescope and experts on astronomy. Archaeological events are also held as well as discussions on flora and fauna in the area.
These events make for great date nights or educational opportunities for adults and children alike. Some of these events require registration and extra fees in addition to the park entry fee so make sure to check the parks official site and call before coming out!
How to Get There
From Scottsdale Area: Take Shea Blvd to Fountain Hills Blvd and turn left. Follow the Fountain Hills directions to get to park.
From Mesa Area: Take Route 87, the Beeline Highway to Shea Blvd and turn left. Take Shea to Fountain Hills Blvd and turn right. Follow the Fountain Hills directions to get to park.
From Fountain Hills: Take Fountain Hills Blvd north from anywhere in Fountain Hills. Stay on Fountain Hills Blvd and it will lead you out of town and will turn into McDowell Mountain Rd. In about 5 miles after leaving the city you will see the park entrance to your left.
From Cave Creek and Far north Scottsdale: Take Dynamite Blvd east until it turns into Rio Verde Dr. Take this all the way to the stop sign at Forest Rd and turn right. Drive through Rio Verde and turn right on McDowell Mountain Rd at the edge of the town. In about 6 miles you will see the Park entrance to your right.
Things to Bring & Consider
There is currently a $6.00 per vehicle entry fee to enter the park. If you intend to frequently visit one or more Maricopa County Parks over the year you can get a Maricopa Mountain Parks Annual Pass for $75.00 ($65.00 for seniors.)
Bring enough water for your activities and a little extra. Remember that in the summer season temperatures can easily get up to 110 degrees in the park so be sensible and restrict your activities to the early morning or evening and carry lots of water if you choose hike or bike at this time. Closed-toe shoes are highly recommended for walking and hiking in the park.
Pets are welcome but must remain on leash for their own safety. Remember that dogs do not sweat so weather that may feel very comfortable to you can be life threatening to a dog. Hiking blogs on the web share tragic stories of pet owners on trails carrying their dog’s lifeless bodies back to the trailhead due to heatstroke. Acclimate your dog gradually to trails, don’t take them out when it is too warm and bring LOTS of cold water for him/her to drink and cool off with!
Monsoon season is a wonderful time to hike with building clouds and rain showers in the distance but be very alert when dark clouds build nearby. Cumulonimbus clouds will build slowly and quietly, but can unleash their furious rain and lightning in moments.
Open fires may not be allowed in the park during fire season, check the official site for further information.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park
16300 McDowell Mountain Park Dr.
MMRP Arizona 85255