Enjoy Handicap Accessible ADA Hiking Trails in Phoenix | Wild Bunch Desert Guides

Enjoy Handicap Accessible ADA Hiking Trails in Phoenix

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • October 21, 2021

“Laurel and her team were true professionals. Our hike was tailored to our group which ranged in ages from 2-66! We were provided with water, back packs, snacks, sunscreen -- basically anything you might need. Our guides were knowledgeable about topography, wildlife and vegetation unique to the area. I would go again in a heartbeat!!” – M.H, New York, N.Y., on Tripadvisor, March 2020

No matter the age, ADA accessible hiking trails in Phoenix allows every member of a family to experience the beauty and once-in-a-lifetime memories of a Phoenix hiking tour. Here with the sun poking over the horizon, two women from the same family celebrate a 40th birthday party with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
No matter the age, ADA accessible hiking trails in Phoenix allow every member of a family to experience the beauty and once-in-a-lifetime memories of a Phoenix hiking tour. Here, with the sun poking over the
rocky landscape, two women from the same family celebrate a 40th birthday with beaming smiles during a hiking tour with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

One of the coolest calls I have ever received in the five-plus years of running my own Phoenix adventure tours company came from the concierge at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.

The call was asking if my Wild Bunch Desert Guides could accommodate a legally blind couple wanting one of our guided Phoenix hiking tours of the Sonoran Desert.

“I know and believe in you to be the absolute best possible choice to deliver on this special request,” the concierge added.

That was incredibly nice to hear, but in truth, he had me at hello.

I am always up for doing anything for a friend – plus, I have a bit of a Tinkerbell complex; I love doing good things for all of the right reasons, and this was a supremely high honor to be entrusted with taking special care of these super special guests.

I will never forget the way I felt that day when I hung up with him and excitedly called my guide Don, who in turn I knew was the absolute perfect person to handle this special assignment.

I had tears in my eyes realizing what an incredible responsibility we had been given.

Don also was ecstatic about the request – and eager for the challenge of painting his vision of the desert’s unforgettable beauty inside the heads of our blind couple.

Suffice to say, that guided hike in Scottsdale remains one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences in the history of my small mom-and-pop specialty shop.

However, the Wild Bunch has been fortunate since then to be part of dozens more of these special Arizona adventures for guests with special needs.

Thankfully, I live, work, and own a business in a caring community that has placed a priority on providing handicap accessible trails in the pure spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – a 1990 federal law that promotes diversity by helping ensure everyone has the same opportunities to access everything from employment to public facilities.

Scottsdale’s own McDowell Sonoran Preserve alone offers four ADA hiking trails – with a fifth in the beginning planning stages in 2022, according to Scott Hamilton – not the Olympic figure skater! – who is the preserve’s longtime manager.

The most recent of these handicap accessible trails near me is being dedicated Oct. 31 at the Fraesfield Trailhead in the name of former Scottsdale mayor Kathryn “Sam” Campana, one of the founding pioneers of our incredible Preserve.

With trees, vegetation and a Saguaro Cactus providing a backdrop, a look at a portion of the picturesque path cut through the Sonoran Desert by the new Camino Campana Nature Trail at the Fraesfield Trailhead.
With trees, vegetation and a Saguaro Cactus providing a backdrop, a look at a portion of the picturesque path cut through the Sonoran Desert by the new Camino Campana Nature
Trail at the Fraesfield Trailhead.

Handicap hiking trails near me
When I moved to the Phoenix area from my Midwestern roots a decade ago, I was amazed to discover ADA trails in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.

From my many travels, though, I know Scottsdale especially is way ahead of the curve nationally in progressive thinking such as offering wheelchair accessible trails for EVERYONE from ages 3 to 93 to enjoy.

Hamilton, the City of Scottsdale, and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve call their fully accessible creations “interpretative trails” – and they have used professional trail builders to bring their ideas to life.

According to Hamilton, these interpretative trails all share four key similarities for users:
  1. None of them are longer than a mile.
  2. All of them are fully accessible by everybody relying on anything from wheelchairs to walkers, and from scooters to strollers.
  3. Each offers an easy-to-navigate layout that features a solid surface (such as stabilized decomposed granite, pavement, or packed dirt) instead of the hard-to-handle gravel and rocks seen on some other Phoenix hiking trails.
  4. Every one of the interpretative trails are full of signage explaining the portion of the desert illuminated by the path or featured view.
However, Hamilton points out, “They all have different aspects and orientations and elevations. There is a lot of variation between them. So, it is not like if you have seen one, you have seen them all. They all feel very different and have their own unique character and theme and look and feel.”
  1. The first fully accessible trail built at McDowell was the Bajada Nature Trail, which opened in 2009 at the Gateway Trailhead.
Bajada is full of desert Flora and is a beautiful place to see several of the towering Saguaro Cactus – the trademark of the Old West.

While Bajada “architecturally meets all the guidelines for ADA compliant trails,” said Hamilton – none of the path slopes at over a 5-percent grade – the McDowell’s second addition in 2013 technically falls just shy of the ADA stamp.
  1. The Jane Rau Trail at the Brown’s Ranch Trailhead is named after the Matriarch of the McDowell movement.”
Long before the McDowell Sonoran Preserve became a reality in 1995, Jane Rau herself plodded along that natural path with her beloved dog during weekly Friday walks near their home.

“It’s pretty close to ADA compliant, but there are a couple sections steeper than 5 percent, where the Jane Rau Trail gets up to a 7-8 percent grade,” explained Hamilton.

“So, it falls instead under the United States Forrest Service’s accessibility guidelines, which offers a little more flexibility in recognizing these are natural areas and you can’t always bulldoze your way down to 5 percent and still preserve everything.

“The ADA doesn’t mean it’s going to have to be flat, either. The ADA recognizes when you are dealing with a natural area like the preserve that if to achieve full ADA access you destroy what you are trying to protect then you do not have to make it accessible. You just have to be as reasonably accommodating as you can.”

Hamilton adds a big part of that balancing act has been to provide information at the beginning of these trails that talk about the grades and slopes. That way, if there are visitors with wheelchairs, strollers, or walkers, they can read and decide for themselves if the trail is do-able for them.
  1. The third interpretative trail opened during Hamilton’s tenure is the Kovach Family Nature Trail at the Lost Dog Wash Trailhead, which is on the south end of the preserve.
The Kovach splits into two separate loops – so you reach a point where you can go left and do one loop or go right and do the other loop.

So, that is a key difference between Kovach and the other fully accessible trails.

Kovach is not a consecutive loop, whereas the others tend to be in the shape of a lollipop. That makes Kovach a popular launching point to more difficult hikes for the more-daring portions of a family or group.
  1. On Oct. 31, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is hosting a dedication ceremony for their fourth interpretative trail – the Camino Campana Trail at the Fraesfield Trailhead.
The Campana Trail opened without the usual signage in the spring of 2020, just before the CoVid-19 pandemic hit to halt progress on the finishing touches.

Included, Hamilton said, was sending out the McDowell’s incredible volunteer trail stewards to walk the trail and experience it firsthand before offering feedback on the trail’s most interesting features.

“Our stewards are all amateur experts in geology and cultural history and things of that nature – folks who retired from their careers and have since done ridiculous amounts of research into these different topics,” Hamilton explained.

“So, we used them organically to develop the interpretative program for the trail. What we produced was ‘seeing the unseen desert’ – there are so many things you will never see, like what happens under the ground. So, we have a cool stop where there’s a side panel showing a cross section of what the holes look like from different burrowing animals.”

Also, completely unique about the Campana Trail?

Hamilton said the preserve gave their professional trail builder some simple parameters.

“We wanted it to be not more than a mile loop with sustainable grades and magnificent views,” Hamilton said. “Other than that, we said, ‘Go out and have fun laying this out.’”
  1. What is in store in 2022 when the McDowell begins planning a fifth fully accessible trail at Pima-Dynamite? There is no telling how many different directions this project can go, promises Hamilton.
“A couple of the interpretive trails, like Bajada, is one loop, but there is a short cut across in the middle in case you’re not up to doing the full loop or need to get back to the start quicker,” Hamilton said.

“There is some seating along the trails, too – like benches – so people can take a break if needed. At Camino Campana, we are putting a bench at the main view. We were going to put some signage there but after seeing it more and more we realized, ‘This is the money shot. This is where people can just chill and enjoy the view.”

Courtesy of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Conservancy, two women enjoy the completely accessible beauty of the trees and desert vegetation during a hike along the paved path of the Kovach Family Nature Trail at the Lost Dog Wash Trailhead.Courtesy of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Conservancy, two women enjoy the completely accessible beauty of the trees and desert vegetation during a hike along the flat, paved path of the Kovach Family Nature Trail at the Lost Dog Wash Trailhead.
Other handicap trails near me
The great news for those seeking wheelchair accessible hiking trails in the Phoenix area?

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is hardly alone, as this 2018 article in the Arizona Republic highlighted.

Visit Phoenix also has a similar list of wheelchair accessible walks in the Valley of the Sun.

In Scottsdale’s largest neighbor for instance, the Phoenix Parks Department also offers these ADA trails near me (click on the name to reach an individual trail link):
  1. Papago Park’s Crosscut Canal Path or Elliot Ramada Loop Trail
  2. Judith Tunnel Accessible Trail at South Mountain Park Preserve
  3. Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area
  4. Penny Howe Barrier Free Trail at North Mountain Park
  5. South Overbank Trail
  6. East Skip Rimsza Paseo and/or West Skip Rimsza Paseo
  7. Reach 11 Recreation Area
The State of Arizona and Maricopa County also boast several parks in the Phoenix metro area offering handicap accessible hiking trails near me. The list includes:
  1. Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park
  2. Nursery Tank Trail at McDowell Mountain Regional Park
  3. Merkle Barrier-Free Trail at Usery Mountain Regional Park
  4. Native Plant Trail at Lost Dutchman State Park
Meanwhile, back at McDowell, Hamilton also has added hand-bikes to the hikers and mountain bike riders enjoying the wide variety of trails in the preserve.

“We also work with a lot of people with disabilities that enjoy their hand-bikes and other equipment, and they don’t necessarily want to be restricted to the interpretative trails,” Hamilton said. “As cool as those trails are, these people are like, ‘Nah, that’s kid’s stuff – we want to be out in the preserve on more challenging trails.’ And I understand where they are coming from -- a couple of the folks I am thinking of are superb athletes – they just happen to have a disability.

“So, we’ve done some work over the last few years in the Pima-Dynamite area. It was old state land that had some trails all over it. So, when we bought it, we wanted to clean up some of the better trails and get rid of the crappy ones. But it also had like Jeep roads on it. So, we kept a few of the wider ones not only for emergency access, but there is one trail I am thinking of in particular, the Rock Knob, which is the perfect distance out from the trailhead to make a several-miles-long loop for people using hand-bikes.

“When we went through it, we widened it out to 5-6 feet. It was an old road at one point, so it worked well to grade it to that width, but it is not ADA compliant. There are some spots where you go down a steep hill and go across a sandy wash and there are ruts on the other side. So, it is wider than most trails, but it has some of the challenges that folks riding hand-bikes want, too.”

For Scottsdale officials, the continuing efforts are all about providing as much accessibility as possible for anybody visiting the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

“Any of us are literally one step away from needing an accommodation – whether it’s injury or age. We’re all that close,” Hamilton said.

“People using a wheelchair are allowed to go anywhere the trails take them – and that includes power chairs or scooters. As long as you are not violating any other rules – like harvesting plants or smoking or off trail – you are entitled to have that access. Now, if somebody with a disability used a golf cart as their normal mode of transportation, we would be on solid ground to tell them, ‘Well, you can’t do that here. Because it’s completely contrary – the trails aren’t wide enough to make that safe.’

“But there are devices out there now that climb steps or travel over rocks, for instance. So, we are trying to get to this whole other level of ADA access on our other trails, too, where they are a little wider or we took out that giant rut so we can make it a little more hospitable to people using other devices that might have disabilities. That allows others to seek their thrills, too.”

Hamilton said the biggest barrier to any improvements or increased usage is striking a delicate balance with biological concerns – such as protecting the rocky hills the Chuckwalla lizards call home, but hand-bike and mountain bike users also enjoy.

Another goal for the near future, he added, is producing a map that can easily show visitors where, for instance, trail widths become narrower than six or three feet, “so people can make intelligent decisions, knowing they can go this far on a trail but then might need to turn around,” Hamilton said.

“We currently have 232 miles of trails in McDowell – and we have several hundreds more outside the preserve,” Hamilton added. “And that ranges from everything to the fully-accessible interpretative trails all the way up to Wingate Pass and Bell’s Pass with trails that lead up to mountain peaks.

“We also have technical-level mountain bike trails. So, I can say this with confidence: Whatever kind of trail you are looking for – steep, rocky, cross-country, smooth, fully-accessible – we have that plus everything in between.”

While taking a break on a bench during one of the Phoenix hiking tours from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, a woman has time for private contemplation while enjoying another unforgettable view of the Sonoran Desert.While taking a break on a bench during one of the Phoenix hiking tours from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, a woman has time for private contemplation while enjoying another unforgettable view of the Sonoran Desert. All of the ADA accessible handicapped hiking trails in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve have benches along their smooth paths for the same reasons.
Handicap accessible hikes near me
So how does my Wild Bunch Desert Guides fit into this picture of ADA accessible trails in the Greater Phoenix area?

As a small mom-and-pop specialty shop offering Phoenix hiking tours, the Wild Bunch has had the great pleasure of helping guide people with therapy dogs or other special needs and assistive devices.

The Wild Bunch also has helped many multi-generational families – those 3 to 93 age ranges Hamilton talked about -- enjoy hiking in Scottsdale thanks to ADA accessible trails near me.

After all, no one wants to leave anybody out of the once-in-lifetime family photo with an iconic Saguaro Cactus.

So, in our detail-oriented booking process, we need to know as much information as you are comfortable in sharing.

Let us know if Grandpa Joe or Grandma Georgina is coming along -- and what their capabilities or limitations might be -- so we can better discuss trails to fit your needs and ways to make your goals happen.

The more information you can offer is helpful as opposed to the element of surprise and a guide not anticipating someone in a wheelchair, for example.

Just like with any other Scottsdale hiking tours, we want to know as much as possible so we can match skill-level and fitness-level to the proper trail for the best possible experience for everybody.

I certainly do not want to make anyone feel different … or weird … or uncomfortable. But these are questions for all Wild Bunch hiking and mountain biking tours.
  1. What is your skill level?
  2. What is your fitness level?
  3. What are you wanting to do?
Matching all of these variables to the trail and adventure are imperative to getting the best experience.

I am in the business of showing you the way to fun – so help me by telling me any detail that can help in the planning of your adventure.

That is why you hire the Wild Bunch – to ensure you get the personal touch of a totally customizable experience.

You want the expert feedback to say – “Oooh, you should do THIS instead of THAT.”

You want the logistics to be handled ahead of time to perfectly match the adventure to your travel group, whether it is just you, your nuclear family or extended family, or your work group or friends.

You also need to hear the unvarnished truth – “That could be really dangerous,” or maybe, “I am worried that won’t be a comfortable situation for you.”

Just like Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men” -- You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!

I am never afraid to lose business – it is never about the bottom line for me. It is all about the safety and the experience of my guests.

My head never goes to liability first – it goes to being a human and caring about the other person. But I would NEVER do anything to endanger myself or my business or my guests.

So, I will be honest and direct – and if it is going to be a better adventure for them, I am more than happy to recommend guests to other activities and companies.

For instance, if a Van Tour makes sense, I will not hesitate to make that suggestion.

However, Wild Bunch is not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all bus tour like you might get at the big box Phoenix adventure tour companies.

We also hear sometimes – “Is it possible for you to put two guides out on our group, so our special needs members do the easier trail while the others do that harder trail? Or is it possible for us to split up at some point?”

That is possible, but if Wild Bunch is in the high gear of busy season, the chance of that happening is lower because we are a small operation and sometimes have too many bookings already pulling off too many guides on a certain day.

But we will absolutely do our best to try and accommodate every group.

For example, it can be a hard ask to put two guides on three people, but I would rather have the conversation and explore the options than having a guest wish later they would have asked the question.

Same with hand-cyclists who want more challenging trails. If you want that, we can certainly deliver one of our Phoenix mountain bike tours. You just have to provide your own hand-bike at this time.

Three different species of cactus loom over this stretch of handicapped accessible trail at the new Camino Campana Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
Three different species of cactus highlight this stretch of handicapped accessible trail at the new Camino Campana Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. 

Utilizing the ADA hiking trails near me
Hopefully, the Wild Bunch Desert Guides can book you for the perfect experience.

But if not? Business is not the bottom line for me.

Instead, my higher calling -- and the purpose of my passion -- is to serve our visitors by matching them to the most awesome adventure.

So guided or unguided, hire us or not, I just want to ensure as many people get to experience the beauty of the Sonoran Desert – especially those that might have felt that was impossible for them previously for one reason or another.

I sleep so well at night knowing I am always doing the right things in that sense ethically and morally and not just chasing a couple of dollars or treating our guests like a faceless number.

Everybody is unique, so no two Phoenix adventure tours should be exactly the same, either.

It is BRAVE when people call to inquire about doing something that could be out of their comfort level. And out of all the businesses that people can call in Phoenix, I am so honored that people are calling my company to help them take that big step.

I also am really proud to live in a forward-thinking community that puts a priority on people and offering the best amenities to all of our residents and visitors.

And I am extremely proud to be a permit holder helping to offer guided Phoenix hiking tours to all people – but especially those with a disability, so they do not have to feel left out from the unforgettable memories made during family or group functions.

I am honored to have entertained several guests with special needs in the past. That is an amazing feeling to be trusted so much to take care of people like that.

I find myself appreciating better the gifts I have and counting my many blessings a bit more. I also am never surprised by the resiliency and resolve of the human spirit when there is a challenge to overcome – or fun to be had.

About the Author

Laurel Darren is the founding owner of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, a 5-star rated adventure tour company that offers guided hiking tours and guided mountain biking tours in Arizona’s picturesque Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. Arriving in the legendary “Valley of the Sun” in 2012 -- from the home of John Deere in the Quad Cities of Eastern Iowa/Western Illinois -- this corn-fed Midwest girl brought 30 years of athletic chops under her chaps. A 3-sport high school standout and former college softball player – who won her conference’s Athlete of the Year award as a prep senior – Darren has graduated to competing in many races as an adult, from road running and cycling, to cyclo-cross and Mountain Bikes, and even Duathlon and Triathlon “Ironman” competitions. Darren was a popular, top-rated senior mountain bike guide at Arizona’s Outback Adventures before branching out to start her own small adventure business in 2016. To book a guided mountain bike tour or guided hiking trip – or a combination of the two adventures – please visit the home page www.wildbunchdesertguides.com or call 602-663-0842.


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