Superstition Mountains at sunset, from Lost Dutchman State Park in Arizona


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"I don't see the desert as barren at all; I see it as full and ripe. It doesn't need to be flattered   
with rain. It certainly needs rain, but it does with what it has, and creates amazing beauty."
~ Joy Harjo
This is the first of three longer desert loop hikes I did solo while we were camped in the park in January.

Why solo? Well, neither of our Labs is trained for 8+ mile hikes right now and Jim is still resting up from his 100-mile walk at Across the Years in late December. However, each day we walked the dogs two or three miles in the campground and on nearby trails, so no one was slacking off!

I thoroughly enjoyed all three hikes and took lots of photos of distant mountains, old saguaro cacti, pretty flowers, colorful rocks and berries, and whatever else caught my eye. That's harder to do when I'm hiking with another person or dog.

Bright brittlebush in bloom along the Pemberton Trail

The weather was perfect all three times, too -- sunny and 60s F.  Not bad for January, eh??


The trails in this loop in the middle of the park are all ones that I've run or hiked previously but I haven't done this particular loop for seven or eight years. It measured 8.4 miles long today from our campsite and back. It would be longer from the other campground loop or from one of the parking areas at McDowell if you aren't staying in the campground.

Here's the park trail map with this loop highlighted in yellow. Click the link for a larger map.

Today I went clockwise: southeast on the Granite Trail (GR) to Pemberton (PB), south across Stoneman Wash (SM-W) to Tonto Tank (TT), west to Pemberton (PB), north to Bluff (BF), and back east on Bluff to the campground.

All these trails are fairly smooth packed sand except Pemberton, which has a few more rocks and ruts. Elevations varied from about 1,800 to 2,400 feet, mostly with gradual climbs and descents.

Near the top of one of the climbs on the Pemberton Trail near Rock Knob

Both Pemberton and Bluff are popular with cyclists, especially Bluff in the downhill (eastbound) direction. Years ago I rode Bluff on my cyclo-cross bike and loved it.

Today I saw only eight cyclists, all riding singly, and just two other hikers while I was hiking between 11AM to 2PM. There are a lot more cyclists, hikers, runners, and equestrians using these trails on winter weekends when the weather is nice.

In this entry I'll show photos from each of these trails, mostly in order as I hiked CW around the loop.


It was about 1.5 miles from our campsite going gradually downhill on the Granite Trail to its eastern terminus at the Pemberton Trail. This trail is moderately wide and pretty smooth.

Teddy bear AKA "jumping" cholla on the left, so-called because those little  pieces
fall to the ground and get blown around by the wind; the barbs are very sharp!

Bench with a view over Stoneman Wash and toward the McDowell Mountains;
an interpretive panel out of view explains the historical significance of this wash.

During this hike I could see the large fountain in the town of Fountain Hills four different times that it was turned on. It runs for about 15 minutes at the top of each hour. Although it is about 10 miles from the farthest point on the loop I hiked today, it is visible from many locations in McDowell Mountain Regional Park.

The next photo of the fountain is from the Granite Trail, the first time I saw it while hiking today. I used the zoom on my lens so it shows more clearly:

The next picture shows what the fountain looked like up close when we took the dogs into town this morning to play at the nearby dog park. It's about 260 feet tall here, not as high as it can go when all the pumps are running on special occasions:

Before long I was at the end of the Granite Trail and turned right on the Pemberton Trail, which loops through the park for 15.3 miles.


I was on this eastern section of the Pemberton Trail for just 4/10ths of a mile before reaching the Tonto Tank Trail.

This part of the Pemberton Trail has some loose sand because it crosses Stoneman Wash and is located at the low end of the park's extensive natural drainage system. The trail through here is fairly wide and had ruts in it today from recent rains. It's also popular with equestrians, so I saw lots of hoof prints.


This is the only place in the park I've ever seen mounds this shape and color,
almost like mine tailings.

Halfway through this short section of Pemberton Trail I crossed Stoneman Wash, which also is a horse trail. You can hike on it but it has deep sand that is hard to negotiate on foot:

Part of the wide Stoneman Wash Trail; these old saguaros survived a fire that destroyed
lots of vegetation in the center of the park (including part of the campground) several years ago.

When I reached the Tonto Tank Trail, I turned right again and walked west toward the other side of the Pemberton Trail loop.


Tonto Tank runs 2.7 miles, bisecting the southern part of the Pemberton Trail loop (see map above). It's an easy, gradual uphill hike or bike/horse ride going westbound as I did today and very fast on a bike going downhill.

This trail is relatively smooth and more narrow than either Granite or Pemberton. Not to worry; most days there aren't many people using it.

View SW toward the McDowell Mountains; teddy bear cholla in foreground

Above and below:  A few desert sentinels (saguaro cacti) guard the trail.


Orange globe mallow blooming in the foreground, yellow creosote farther ahead

At the western end of Tonto Tank Trail


OK, we're back to the Pemberton Trail again.

As noted earlier, this 15.3-mile long trail forms a loop through the middle of McDowell Mountain Regional Park. I've run and hiked on all of it several times in the past but today the section I hiked on the eastern side of the loop was just 4/10ths of a mile, and on the western side about one mile.

I love this trail because the terrain is so varied -- smooth and sandy here, rocky there; narrow here, wide there; flat here, hilly there. The views and vegetation are also varied. This one-mile section offered all of the above.

You won't get bored on any long segment of the Pemberton Trail. Here are a few more pictures from this segment (I already showed two at the beginning of this entry):

A bench dedicated to Geri Kilgariff is located near the Tonto-Pemberton intersection. She is
an ultrarunner we know who founded the Javelina 100-mile trail race that is run in the park.


Above and below:  lots of brittlebush in bloom on this segment today


Going up a hill toward Rock Knob

Looking back at Rock Knob and the McDowell Mountains


Looking back (south) at the hill I just came down on the Pemberton Trail


Now we're on the home stretch. Bluff is one of my favorite trails in the park because it's on a scenic ridge and the views are great -- down into Stoneman Wash and small canyons, as well as panoramas out across the desert to the various mountain ranges surrounding the park.

This two-mile-long, smooth, easy trail often undulates and curves around, making it particularly fun on a bike in the downhill direction.

That's both a promise to cyclists . . . and a warning to hikers and runners! I've been all three. I'm especially careful hiking in either direction on this trail when I've got a dog with me because cyclists love it and some go quite fast over and around blind spots.

Going eastbound from the Pemberton Trail intersection is a short uphill (above) to a knoll  
with a great view and a bench (below); the remainder of the trail is mostly downhill.


Above and below:  The trail winds through a section of boulders.


Good views in this direction to the Four Peaks Wilderness

Another type of cholla cactus

Stoneman Wash is 25-30 feet below the rim on the left (north).

Some blue columbines were in bloom along this trail (and in the campground).

I saw bright golden poppies on this and several other trails, too.

The Bluff Trail ends at the Granite Trail a little west of the campground loops.

I took Granite and two campground spur trails about half a mile further to get back home:

Our Cameo is in the center of the picture.

That was a fun hike that took me almost three hours with all the photos I took. But the next two loop hikes that included a couple trails that are new to me were even more interesting . . .

Next entry:  8.7-mile loop hike incorporating the Granite, Delsie, Pemberton, and Lariat trails

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Casey-Girl, and Holly-Pup

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2019 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil