The folks in Maricopa County, Arizona showed considerable
foresight in the mid-1950s when they set aside approximately
120,000 acres of land in ten regional parks that ring the metro
Phoenix area. Each park is unique in regards to its history,
geology, vegetation, wildlife, and recreational opportunities.
Some of the parks are primarily desert, while others have
wetlands, lakes, or streams. Many are mountainous.
The goal of the parks and rec department is to "provide
recreational and educational opportunities while protecting park
resources . . . for a safe and meaningful outdoor
experience." There are guided hikes to examine the flora, learn
about native wildlife, explore ruins of the Hohokam Indians who
inhabited the area until 1450 A.D., interpret petroglyphs
chipped into rocks, or hike under the full moon. Activities
available in some or all of the parks are hiking, running, and
riding trails on foot, bicycles, or horses; camping in
tents or RVs in developed and/or primitive campgrounds;
golfing; picnicking; birding; photography;
fishing and boating; archery; volleyball; shooting
Equestrians enjoying the Pemberton Trail at
McDowell Mountain Park on 1-12-08
Check this website for details about each park:
Estrella Mountain was the first regional park to be developed.
We will probably stay there when we run Across the Years the
next time because it is fairly close to Nardini Manor on the
southwest side of Phoenix. Unfortunately, we didn't take the
time to visit it while we were on that side of town a few
weeks ago and we didn't want to drive back after moving two
hours east. We
now know that it has campsites suitable for our rig.
We drove through Usery Mountain Regional Park on January 9 when
we did a large loop on the eastern side of the metro area. As
the crow flies it is only about fifteen miles from McDowell
Mountain Park. It's considerably longer to drive to it,
View from entrance to Usery Regional Park.
Entrance fees are required in each park; our sticker
for McDowell got us into Usery without another fee.
We drove through the campground at Usery but didn't check out any of the
Campgrounds in the park system have a two-week limit when they
are busy. Fortunately, we have had no problem staying here at
McDowell for almost three weeks even though it is more full this
weekend (January 18-20) than it was earlier in the month because of a mountain bike race in the
park If we had to move, we would've tried Usery next since
it is closest.
Cyclists on the Pemberton Trail at McDowell
Mountain Park on January 4
The largest park in the system is
Park, where we are camping. It has over 21,000
acres and about fifty miles of trails and dirt roads to run and
hike or ride bikes or horses. Since we stayed here for about a week in February, 2004
for the Pemberton 50K race, we knew how nice the campground and
trails are and we wanted to come back. It's been great!
You've already seen some photos of the park in the last three
entries and know how beautiful it is. I'll show more new photos
in this entry. We have thoroughly enjoyed
exploring the place on foot and watching the changing weather
systems come and go. The desert scenery is beautiful from
to sunset, especially with the almost-full moon rising on January 14:
Both of those photos are from our campsite, looking southeast
toward the Goldfield and Superstition Mountain ranges. This park
in the lower Verde River basin is surrounded by mountains. Elevations at the low end of the park are about 1,800 feet
and rise to about 3,000 feet at the high end, affording some
wonderful panoramic views.
The stars on clear nights are as mesmerizing as the kaleidoscope
of colors on the mountains at dawn and dusk. Too bad we'll be leaving a couple
days before the ranger-guided Full Moon Hike next week. We've walked around
the campground loops at night to enjoy the star
show but it'd be more educational with a ranger reminding us
which constellation is which!.
EARLY INHABITANTS OF THE PARK
Although there is historical evidence of pictographs and
petroglyphs in the Red Rocks area north of Phoenix from the
ancient Paleo period (11,000 to 9,000 B.C.), there is much more
evidence in the McDowell Mountain Park area from less ancient
ancient inhabitants: nomadic big-game hunters, Hohokam
Indians, and Mexican immigrants who lived here from about 2,000
years ago to 1450 A.D.
The availability of water has always been an issue in the
Sonoran Desert. Two rivers converge east of Phoenix proper, very
close to the McDowell Mountains -- the Salt and the Verde.
The Hohokam people left a lasting legacy by figuring out a way
to tame the arid valley: they built a maze of irrigation
ditches for intensive farming and drinking water. It is
estimated that between 4,000 and 10,000 Hohokam Indians lived in
the area surrounding McDowell Mountain Park at the peak of their
culture. The remains of several hunting and gathering sites are
still visible within park boundaries.
Then the Hohokam mysteriously disappeared around 1450 A.D. That
was about fifty years before the Spanish arrived in the area
under the leadership of Coronado. Later other Native American
tribes settled here: the Mojave, Apache, and Yavapai..
Now jump to the
mid-1800s when the land that is now McDowell
Park was part of the rugged, sparsely populated Arizona
Territory. White settlers and military troops to protect them
began arriving in the Phoenix area, although the town wasn't
named "Phoenix" until the 1860s. Someone suggested the name
because a new city was being built on the remains of the
vanished civilization of the Hohokam people, reminiscent of the
mythical bird that rose from its own ashes.
Fort McDowell AKA Camp Verde (after the Verde River) was
established just east of the current McDowell Mountain Park
property in 1865 and was manned until 1891. Pioneer John Smith
established a hay-growing operation on a nearby Hohokam site and supplied
forage to the outpost.
THE HISTORICAL STONEMAN ROUTE
Just a bit more history. Remember when I mentioned the term "wash" in the
last entry? Here's the story behind one of the washes in McDowell Park.
Stoneman Wash cuts a diagonal through the park and is listed
on the map as a trail. We didn't find it to be a good running surface, however, nor
would you want to ride a bike there. It's just not packed down firmly
enough to get decent traction, at least when we were there. Even after the rain
it was very loose and soft. It's better suited to the equestrians who also
share most of the trails at McDowell Park.
According to a military
history brochure we picked up in the visitor's center, when early pioneers and
military troops arrived in the area in the mid-1800s they had to follow rudimentary roads and
trails made by the Native Americans that had
lived here for centuries. It would take some time to build roads that were
for wagons to travel.
Pemberton Trail at the intersection with Stoneman Wash
also looks like a wash.
Colonel George Stoneman was appointed as the first military commander of the Arizona Territory
in 1870. Soon after his arrival he ordered a strategic military road built
along the Indian trails near Stoneman Wash to provide a direct route between
Fort McDowell and Fort Whipple, near Prescott. The road became known as the
Stoneman Route. More than 7½ miles of the old
route are currently within the boundaries of the park.
Fort McDowell and nearly 30,000 acres of land next to it were deeded to the
Mojave-Apache-Yavapai Indian Tribe in 1902. The tribal lands are now called the
Fort McDowell Indian Reservation or the Yavapai Nation. We drove through the reservation a couple
times to get back to our campsite after doing laundry at a private campground
near the tribe's casino on State Route 87. Most of the tribal land is used for
grazing, farming, and orchards.
Tribal orchard at dusk on 1-9-08
You can see part of the reservation and its orchards in the Verde River
Valley from the lofty Scenic Trail in McDowell Park:
The paved road through the reservation morphs to dirt and back to pavement just
before the upscale town of Rio Verde, which lies adjacent to the northeastern
corner of McDowell Park. We got brief views of houses in Rio Verde and Asher
Hills from the northern part of the Pemberton Trail between Cedar Tank and Granite
Tank, but they are barely noticeable if you're going CCW on the trail. I turned
around to get this shot:
Limited view of the town of Rio Verde
from the Pemberton Trail going clockwise.
This is as close as houses ever get to the Pemberton Trail:
If I hadn't been walking up a hill I wouldn't have even noticed them.
The northern and far northwestern portion of the Pemberton Trail also borders some ranches. At one
point the trail follows fencing near Granite Tank, which you run along in both
the Pemberton 50K and Javelina Jundred races. I didn't see any critters grazing
there this trip, though. Horses often wander into the park
to graze from an adjacent ranch near Cedar
Tanks and a spur trail that sort of connects to 158th Street (which is a dirt road
in a very rural area, not in a city like it sounds). I'll show photos of the
horses I saw at Cedar Tank below and in
We really appreciate the wilderness feel of all the trails in McDowell Park, although
from the higher points you can see signs of civilization like the park campground (good for getting our
bearings) and the fountain in Fountain Hills. I love the panoramic views of
all this gorgeous park land -- about 21,000 acres of it -- and beyond.
"TANKS" AND "RAMADAS"
I mentioned Cedar Tank and Granite Tank above. What the heck is a
"tank?" you may ask . . .
The closest definition I could find in my handy-dandy American
Heritage dictionary is a "pond." The Maricopa County Park system brochure
describes a "depression" scoured out by infrequent heavy rains and runoff. One of the
ten parks is at White Tank Mountain, named for its numerous tanks in the white
McDowell Park has at least three areas named Tank (the
third one is Tonto Tank, near the bench honoring Geri Kilgariff). I saw water in only Granite Tank. It appeared to be used by
Here is a picture of one edge of Cedar Tank on the north side of the park.
Some of the nearby ranch horses were grazing inside the park boundary
when I passed by today on the Pemberton Trail:
Another term I've heard only in this area (except for the motel
chain!) is "ramada," which refers
to the covered shelters in the county parks. The largest ones at McDowell are at the
Trailhead Staging Area where the start/finish lines of the Pemberton and Javelina races are located:
The picnic area is fenced to keep horses, bikes, and other
A caretaker lives at this location in a large RV (in an area to
the right of the photo above). There is a large parking area,
restrooms, hitching posts for horses, and room for overflow
RV parking when both campgrounds get full.
We got a big laugh out of this hand-printed admonition on the
board at the main staging area:
Trail runners and hikers, when's the last time you saw an
equestrian pick us his/her horse's poop on a trail???
(OK, I admit we're bad about the dogs-on-leash rule.)
Next entry: lots more scenic photos of McDowell
Park's trails that I took on various runs and hikes. I never could get Jim to
carry a camera . . .
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil