Mesa: Desert Trail Mecca

Lately we’ve been fixing for a proper desert hike. Our dream destination? The trail mecca that is Mesa, Arizona where miles of trails weave through arid desert landscapes, cactus-studded “forests” and amid dramatic peaks and canyons. We want to hike into the desert under an inky sky flooded with moonlight. We want to admire the joyful colours of wild flowers after a spring shower. And then there’s the promise of panoramic vistas, petroglyphs, prickly flora and wild fauna. Yes, we’ve heard the siren call loud and clear and are drawing up our itinerary. Hope to see you in Mesa….

Mesa’s Best Hiking Trails

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Usery Mountain Regional Park


Trail network: 29 miles of mixed-use trails (hiking, biking & horseback riding)

Length: 0.2 miles to over 7 miles

Difficulty: Easy through difficult

Why go here? Usery Mountain Regional Park is a 3,648 acre parcel located adjacent to Tonto National Forest. It also sits at the western edge of the Goldfield Mountains. Here, hikers can admire a variety of desert flora and animals. Trails at Usery at well frequented because they provide hikers with enough elevation gain to enjoy incredible valley views.

Entry fee: $6.00 per vehicle, per day

Campground reservationsMake one here

Notes: Stop by the Nature Centre to grab a detailed trail map. Find it at 3939 N. Usery Pass Road (off Ellsworth Road).

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Usery highlight: Wind Cave Trail

wind caveMandy Snell via Visit Mesa

Length: 3.2 miles (return, out-and-back)

Elevation gain: 800-feet

Difficulty: Moderate

About Wind Cave Trail: This moderate trail is a popular one, terminating at a cave. A steady seep of water from the cave’s roof supports rock daisy blooms. The cave lies along a seam where volcanic tuff meets granite. Due to scorching summer temperatures, the best time to visit Wind Cave is October through April.

Parking: Lot available but fills up on weekends/other peak times.

Notes: Ascending the trail takes much longer than descent. However, loose pebble means one should take caution when coming back down. 

Read more about Wind Cave Trail: Click here

Our other favorite Usery Mountain hikes:

Long & difficult
: Pass Mountain, 7.5 mile loop
Details: A scenic loop with a total elevation gain of 600-700 feet. Doing the loop counter-clockwise offers better views: the back end of the trail weaves through a mountain pass and then places you in front of a wide open desert. It is less crowded than the Wind Cave Trail, and following rain it presents good opportunity for wildflower viewing.

Medium & moderate: Cat Peaks + Cat Peaks Pass, 1.1 miles (moderate) and 0.3 miles (moderate-difficult)
Details: Scrambling up Cats Peak Pass affords hikers great views of Usery and the mountains to the north. This is a point to point trail, accessed from Blevins Trail, Meridian Trail or Pass Mountain Trail. See map here.

Short & sweet: Desert Hawk, 0.5 miles
Details: A gentle trail perfect for young hikers, and those who are young at heart. Total elevation of only change of 30 feet. Easily access the trailhead from Buckhorn Camp Drive.

Lost Dutchman State Park

superstition mountains mesa arizona

Credit: Visit Mesa

Length: 0.2 miles to over 7 miles

Difficulty: Easy to difficult

Why go here? How can a hiker resist a name like Superstition Wilderness? Several of the trails in Lost Dutchman State Park lead into Superstition Wilderness Area, and into the surrounding Tonto National Forest. This area is the stuff of Old West legends, after all the park is named for a famous gold mine.

Entry fee: $6 per vehicle, per day

Campground reservationsMake one here

Notes: Visitor centre (6109 N. Apache Trail, Apache Junction) complete with a gift shop and exhibits. Also: restrooms, picnic areas with electricity and shaded ramadas. (Can be booked in advance.)

Lost Dutchman State Park website: Click here

Our favorite Lost Dutchman hikes

Long & difficult
: Siphon Draw Trail, 4 miles (total)
Details: Don’t be fooled by the relatively short distance, this trail weaves up into a canyon (Siphon Draw) and requires some hand climbing. The reward is a very scenic view of the area. It is possible to hike up the Flatiron, however that spur can be considered a wilderness one at times. We advise being an experienced hiker with a good level of fitness. Allow 3 hours for Siphon Draw and five hours to the Flatiron and back. Good hiking boots are imperative. Follow the white and/or blue dots to ensure you remain on the trail.

Medium & moderate: Treasure Loop Trail, 2.4 miles (total)
Details: Hike this trail for a close view of the Superstition Mountains and Apache Junction, all set against the desert expanse. Enjoy rock formations at mile 1 or admire the view from one of five benches found along the trail. Following rainfall, Treasure Loop Trail is a great place to see colorful spring blooms. This is rated moderate due to an elevation gain of 500 feet. Extend your hike by a half mile by exploring the spur trail that winds up to the Praying Hands rock formation. Note that this short spur is more strenuous than the gentle grade of Treasure Loop Trail.

San Tan Mountain Regional Park

San Tan Mountain Regional Park


Trail network: 8+ miles of multi-use trails

Length: 1.1 miles through 5+ miles

Difficulty: Easy to strenuous

Why go here? Explore San Tan for its escarpment terrain (southern portion of the park) and its Lower Sonoran Desert landscape. The park measures 10,000 acres, is anchored by Goldmine Mountain it the northern area. The flora ranges from creosote flats to thick saguaro forest.

Park entry fee: $6 per vehicle, per day

Facilities: Picnic tables, restrooms at the visitor center (6533 W. Phillips Road, Queen Creek)

Notes: All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated and users are encouraged to practice good trail etiquette. 

San Tan Mountain Regional Park websiteClick here

Our favorite San Tan Mountain hikes:

Long & Difficult:
Outer Loop, 14 miles
The Outer Loop presents the longest challenge to hikers in San Tan. The trail is made up of the San Tan, Malpais, Dynamite, Goldmine and Littleleaf. As such, this hike traverses dynamic terrain. Weave through mountains, and over washes and rolling lowland. The Petroglyph of San Tan and Saguaro are trip highlights.

Medium & Moderate: San Tan Trail, 6.4 miles
Details: This route brings hikers through Broken Lands and Central Valley portions of San Tan. It also puts users on top of the Goldmine Mountains. (Enjoy the view!) This trail is rated moderate for length, but also because some caution should be used on washes, soft soil and slick or rocky steep mountain slopes.

Short & sweet: Littleleaf-Goldmine Trail, 1.3 miles
Details: This trail  makes for a casual walk, perfect for an all age adventure. Take in the Sonoran Desert landscape or catch a sunset. The route encounters a few small hills at the end of Littleleaf but the rest is pretty well flat; gradual elevation gain of just 50 feet.

Tonto National Forest

superstition mountains mesa arizona

Credit: Visit Mesa

Difficulty: Easy to expert

Why go here? Tonto is a big deal; it boasts the fifth largest forest in the United States. (3 million acres!) It’d rate even higher if you were only counting contiguous USA. Its close proximity to Mesa and other cities make it one of the most visited ‘urban’ forests in the country. Tonto National Forest is an outdoor recreation Valhalla. It contains eight wilderness areas, represents Lower Sonoran sub-desert, and contains lakes, reservoirs and pine forests.

Park entry fee: Tonto Pass $6 per day, per vehicle

Campground reservationsMake one here

Notes: Mesa Ranger Station located at 5140 E. Ingram Street, Mesa. Find picnic areas here; equipped with varying amenities. 

Tonto National Forest website:

Our favorite Tonto National Forest Hikes

Short & sweet: Prospector’s Trail, 0.7 m
Details: Enjoy a climb up the western slope of the Superstition Mountains. Turn around and admire the valley views below. Look up and see rock formations above. As you ascend, keep your eye out for Saguaro Cacti and PaloVerde.

Short & sweet: Hieroglyphic Trail, 1.1 miles
Details: An easy hike up to an area where Indian petroglyphics are. Trail begins at the forest boundary.

Medium & Moderate: Saddle Mountain, 4.5 miles
Details: An elevation gain of 500 feet qualifies Saddle Mountain as moderate. It’s a varied trail that is easy to follow. It terminates at the abandoned “Story Mine.”

Medium & Moderate: Pine Creek Loop, 3 miles
Details: This loop trail passes through Sonoran Desert vegetation and into pockets of semi-desert grasslands. Pine Creek runs seasonally through landscapes of mesquite and cottonwoods. There are some interesting sandstone rock formations to be found at the trail’s edge.  Spring brings an host of colourful wildflowers – you’ll certainly want to bring the camera.

Long & Difficult: Alter Creek Trail, 12 miles
Details: Fans of Alter Creek trail love the diversity of landscapes it weaves through. Transition completely from arid desert to pine forest. The trail earns a difficult rating due to its length, but also because it can be washed out or overgrown in places. The hike will bring you along the southern slopes of Four Peaks before following Alder Creek and climbing to Black Bear Saddle.

Long & Difficult: Ballantine Trail, 10 miles (20 miles out-and-back)
Details: Head off to Ballantine Canyon and take in the diversity of the Sonoran Desert. Explore sandstone rock formations and desert riparian areas. Ballantine Trail is long and slightly difficult to navigate once hikers have exited the canyon. Bring a map.

hiking group

Credit: Visit Mesa

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