Hiking Trail Review: Gateway Loop Trail, Scottsdale, Arizona

 McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, Scottsdale
Park here: 18333 N. Thompson Peak Pkwy
Public Transport: N/A

Hike Distance: 7.25 kilometres 
Elevation Gain/Loss: 200 metres (655 feet)
Hike Duration: 2 hours
Difficulty: Moderate
What makes it moderate? A steady inclined route with uneven steps makes this a proper workout.
Trail website: Click here

Hiking probably isn’t the reason you’re visiting Scottsdale, but outdoorsy travellers shouldn’t miss the chance to venture into the Sonoran wilderness. The desert that hugs the city is blessed with hikes, from pulse-pumping Camelback Mountain to the 362 kilometres of trails that trace the 12,343-hectare McDowell Sonoran Conservancy. For an invigorating walk offering a diversity of desert flora, Gateway Loop Trail is a fine choice. Pretty-as-a-picture, photographs of the cactus-studded descent are often used in marketing materials. A sunrise hike rewards adventurers with a kaleidoscope of pastel hues that eventually erupts into a bluebird sky.

How to find the Gateway Loop Trail Trailhead

Trailhead | Jenn Hubbert

The trailhead is located just beyond the parking lot at 18333 N. Thompson Peak Parkway, approximately a half-hour drive from downtown Scottsdale.

Upon arrival, you’re greeted with a large sign reading The Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Parking is free and the approach is fully paved. You’ll find restrooms, a water fountain and informational panels at the trailhead’s large ramada. The Preserve is open from sunrise to sunset, and during business hours you’re likely to meet helpful volunteer stewards who can offer hiking advice.

The Hike Itself

Saguaro cactus | palo verde leaves | Jenn Hubbert

Departing the trailhead, cross the footbridge and pass the all-ages, accessible Bajada Nature Trail area. (An innovative nature experience on a hard-packed trail measuring 0.8 kilometres in length, it’s suitable for wheelchairs, strollers and walkers.)

The first kilometre of the loop is gentle, giving you the feeling of walking through a desert garden. Almost immediately, hikers encounter multi-arm saguaros, teddy-bear cholla, barrel cacti and palo verde trees—Arizona’s state tree. Take a moment to admire its tiny leaves and note the green, chlorophyll-filled bark through which photosynthesis occurs. You may also notice hole-punched lattice “wood” scattered on the ground. These are the skeletons of dead cholla cacti.

Barrel cactus | Gateway Saddle | Jenn Hubbert

Not far into the hike, the route begins its steady ascent along the McDowell Mountains and the trail becomes rocky underfoot. (You’ll spend a lot of time looking at your feet, so don’t forget to admire the views from time to time!) Be mindful of prickly vegetation at the trail’s edge—though staff routinely trim it back.

Gateway Loop Trail | Jenn Hubbert

Hikers gain 655 feet in elevation to reach the apex: Gateway Saddle. Take a water or snack break here, casting your gaze across greater Scottsdale and Phoenix, toward distant mountains.

From the Saddle, it’s all downhill. The trail follows the backside of the mountain, looping back to the trailhead.

Before You Go

Jenn Hubbert

  • Practice sun safety on this exposed trail; wear sunscreen and a hat.
  • Hiking boots are not necessary but sturdy footwear is recommended for this rocky route.
  • Carry ample water—this is the desert, after all.
  • Gateway Loop Trail is equestrian and dog friendly.
  • Hiking in a clockwise direction means an uphill start and downhill finish but travelling in either direction is permitted.
  • The route is very clearly marked with signage throughout. Maps are supplied at the trailhead, making wayfinding a straightforward exercise.
  • Gateway Loop Trail is a popular hike. Expect it to be busy by midday and on weekends. It also means you’re not likely to encounter wildlife.
  • Stay on the trail. Desert flora is beautiful but sharp.

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