McDowell Mountains Hike


It doesn’t look like much, does it - that big rock sticking up in the background?

Well, allow me tell you about it.

It is called Tom’s Thumb. It is in the Scottsdale, AZ McDowell Sonoran Preserve. which is a part of the McDowell Mountains in North Scottsdale and East of Phoenix. 


Saturday, May 5, I REALLY needed to get outdoors and get back to nature. While I’ve done my more typical hikes right out my own door and into the Phoenix Mountain Preserves, part of which is on either side of my home, this day I wanted to venture further away from home and either hike some new trails (of which there are hundreds within 40 miles) or re-familiarize myself with some old favorites. As I threw my daypack with water, power aid drink and snacks in my truck, I intended to go West to the White Tank Mountains and hike The Goat Canyon Trail, maybe even attempting a long circular hike that would connect with other trails, but lead me back near to my starting point. The last time I did that at the White Tanks, I bit off almost more than I could chew, as it became an ALL day hike, at a time when I had been experiencing some hip stiffness and a slightly sore knee. THAT day, was a v-e-r-y long day and after it was over I found I had hiked 13 miles. At the time that was a record, and with some physical ailments, it was challenging. By the time I returned to my vehicle that time, my legs were already tightening up as the muscles stiffened and ached.  As I drove out of the White Tanks that day, the sun was setting. 30+ miles later, I was very happy to be home where I could attend to my aches and pains.

But I digress.

As the garage door opened, sitting in my truck and facing East I abruptly changed my game plan and remembered the McDowell Mountains as being a great place to hike. No hesitation on my part, today was not going to be a “Head West” day, rather “Heat EAST” and see about conquering the Tom Thumb Trail. Besides, these mountains are closer and quicker to get to than the White Tanks, being able to use the interstates for most of the drive of about 17 miles.

A little after 11 a.m. I was parking in the Gateway Trailhead parking lot, along with a whole lot of others. Not wasting any time, I stopped at the visitors center only to look at the huge diorama of the park to get a feel for the lay of the land, the trail system and a glance at the Tom Thumb Trail description. (On my return, later, I read a more thorough description of the Tom Thumb Trail).

And so, I was off on another of my hikes. The weather was great, low 80’s, some puffy white clouds, a slight breeze. Who could ask for a better day? First off, though, activity on the first trail, Gateway Trail, was busy. Well, I thought, I’m getting a late start and most of these people are completing hikes, runs or bike rides on this fine day. Who could fault anyone for being outdoors, being active, enjoying the awesome Arizona Springtime? The traffic on the trail stayed steadily busy well into the hike, but by the time I reached the next trail intersection, Windgate Pass, leading me further and further, deeper and deeper into the wilderness, it slackened. At the intersection with Tom Thumb Trail, there were far fewer participants on the paths. The trail also did climb, not steeply, but steadily with many switch backs, some sections more level, giving me a chance to breath with less exertion, then on and on for over another hour. Of course I did stop frequently to snap some photos, drink water and admire the views. 


Early on in the hike, a hiker on his return stopped to let me know a desert tortoise was just ahead on the trail. A few others were standing there, around a bend, and, sure enough, a desert turtle was at the edge of the trail. As those of us watched, he started across the trail, about 4 feet wide. Amazingly he crossed it much more quickly than I thought he could. Once across, he parked himself under a brushy area and just stopped. It looked like he wanted to just get in the shade and rest. It was good to see he was safe, as a careless bike rider could have hit the poor fellow and heaven only knows who would have faired worse, the biker or the turtle. 

Once I reached the intersection with Tom's Thumb Trail, I had already hiked 2.6 miles. Signage there said my destination was 3 miles away. Somewhat  surprised at the remaining distance to Tom’s Thumb, and having some doubts about continuing, I shoved aside any concerns and happily hiked ahead. What the heck, I was out to enjoy my day, my feet felt fine, no hot spots had developed (meaning, for me, no indication of blisters forming), and I had planned for a whole day being here, so onward and upward.

…and upward, and upward.


Tom’s Thumb is a large rock formation that can be seen from miles away, from the Loop 101, Scottsdale, Pima, Dynamite and many other roads and locations. It is obvious, as I said, from some distances away, and, you might say “sticks out like a sore thumb”. I am unsure how it received it's name, but sticking out, it certainly does. And I was on MY way to get up closer to it and see it first hand.

Rounding several bends in the trail and in and out of sight of the Thumb, I could also see the landscape higher up looked a bit greener. The vegetation also was changing, more blooming plants and more grasses. I learned later that at nearly 4000 feet this area of the park mountains does get a bit more rain. It also was breezier up there. 

As I looked back to the West, I could look down between the hills at the sprawling expanse of the “developed” area of North Scottdale and out in the far distance were those White Tank Mountains that had originally been on my radar for the day’s hike.

Getting closer to Tom’s Thumb, not only did the vegetation differ, but the rocks were massive granite boulders and huge slabs of granite, many looking like huge blocks that a giant had played with and left strewn about. 


Once very near Tom’s Thumb where I needed to scramble a bit over and between some boulders, I could hear a swarm of bees. That stopped me. Looking over to Tom’s Thumb a group of people, with small children, were also hesitating due to the bee swarm. I was a hundred feet or so away from the group on the other side. It looked like a standoff as we both tried to determine our moves and not wanting to be attacked 

by a possible mutated African Bee swarm. Then one woman and another person from the opposite side ran for it, and crossed over to where I was. No swarm attack! Right after, the family very quickly raced over and all were spared any harm. By then the swarm seemed to be moving away, so I too, hastily hustled over to the base of Tom’s Thumb.

It was HUGE, over 100 feet high, at an elevation of nearly 4000 feet. 


On the east side of this area, the mountains simply drop down into a valley, North and East. Literally, I was on the far side of these mountains and I had hiked almost completely from side to side. It amazed me to see how the landscape changed, from the more typical desert mountain scene behind me to the West and, now on this Eastern side of behemoth boulders. The time when I arrive was around 2 p.m., so this was a fine location to sit atop a massive boulder and eat some of my snacks and food, and further rehydrate. As I sat there I became aware that behind a huge boulder before me and out of sight, people were about to start a climb up the shear face of the Thumb. In time they started making their way up with the aid of ropes and just grabbing finger and toe holds on a precarious ascent to the top. It was fascinating to watch as two people slowly, but surely, managed to scale the vertical surface to reach the top. Their task was completed in less than the hour I reposed down below. 

Taking in the fantastic views far below, I could see to the North 

of me was a parking lot and structure to the trailheads, very similar to the Gateway entrance where this hike began for me. While this side of the mountain looked like a very steep climb up, it also was obviously a much shorter hike, which prompted my to start thinking of tackling this side on my next hike in the McDowells.

Around 3 p.m. I knew I had to start on my return, and so, set off, back down the trail. From higher elevations and descending I got another perspective of these trails. They were steep and with a multitude of smaller rocks all over the trail, not unusual, but not a smooth walking surface. There is no way to avoid stepping on those obstacles. The problem is that the boot contacts are on the balls of the feet. After awhile, even in sturdy hiking boots, it is felt on the flesh. But I trudged on over the 5.2 miles and after 5 p.m. I was off the trail. 2 ½  hours down seemed like a breeze - in hindsight - even though I was not rushing it. In all, I had hiked 11 ½ miles roundtrip. That, I consider to be a long hike.

At the trailhead center I stopped to read more about the trails I had conquered. Much to my surprise, I read that Tom’s Thumb Trail was rated “Very Strenuous”. Considering my hiking ability, not claiming to be in the upper tier, the hike was “just” Strenuous, not easy, challenging, yes, but not a killer hike. Yet, I was happy to be off my feet. 


Over the next couple of days, I was sore, however and moved at a bit slower pace until my muscles relented and returned to normal.

As soon as I was feeling limber again, guess what I set my mind on doing?

Go hike Toms Thumb Trail AGAIN!

This time from the opposite side of the mountains. 

And I did, this past Saturday, April 12. 

The drive out into the desert in the North valley is awesome, through some high end housing nestled amongst boulder laced mountains, pinnacles and stunning vistas. The end of the drive is like a mini roller coaster ride, on a paved road rolling quickly up and down over little hill-ets until reaching the trailhead area. 


This days hike was steadily uphill, the first ⅓ kept rising, but not dramatically. Hiking up into the boulder fields from this east trail was simply fantastic. The landscape so enthralling it reminded me of watching the old cowboy shows on early TV with good guys and bad guys and Injuns hiding out, riding through, shooting at each other, making camp or otherwise romping around amongst huge boulders. 

The middle ⅓ of the trail was much more strenuous, up a multitude of switchbacks, steady, steep hiking until the last ⅓ which started to level out as the summit neared. 

Even with rest stops along the way and photo ops, I was at the base of my old friend, Tom’s Thumb in about 45 minutes, and I wasn’t even hurrying. The distance was about 2 ½ miles one way. 


This day, I explored much more around the Thumb, going around to the backside, scrambling on, over, around and, even under boulders. On the opposite side, no other hikers had ventured. As I enjoyed my solitude, I stopped, rested, and ate my meager lunch, looking to the West and East, comparing the differences from this vantage point. These are the moments that allow me to just take in all the beauty I behold before me, to reflect on the magnificence of our universe, how creation over billions of years has left a legacy for all to discover and explore - if you are willing to go to the mountain and claim the experience.

With more time to spend this day, I did explore around humongous, house sized boulders, sometimes underneath ones nestled against each other forming narrow passages and cavelike cubbies. For some time I then just spread out on top of a massive slab of granite, closed my eyes and absorbed the warming rays of sunlight. Not a care in the world. 

With all good things, an end comes, and with another 3 p.m. departure, I set off back down the trail. This was at a very relaxed pace and despite the 2 ½ miles was down again in less than an hour. Once at the trailhead structure and shelter, I read displays about the geology of the area, how the rock formations came about, and then also found more information about the trails. Two trials in this system are labeled double diamonds, which translates into their description as VERY DIFFICULT. Really, I thought? And in my three hikes in the McDowell Mountains, I have already hiked both ends of one of the most difficult trails, the  Tom’s Thumb. But, again, I did not find them extreme or even that difficult, just a really, really good workout - for me.

I certainly do hope that I manage to stay as fit now, at 66, for most of the last half of my years, so that I can discover and enjoy many, many more happy trails.

IMG_0136 © Donald E. Kline 2012                                         Disqus Comments