Top 3 Phoenix guided hikes from a Scottsdale adventure tour company owner

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • April 25, 2021

“We found Wild Bunch Desert Guides online when planning a getaway in the Phoenix area. Our guided hiking tour was easy to book and the feedback and follow up was prompt and very personalized. Laurel, the owner, made sure we got exactly what we wanted out of our trip and even followed up afterwards to make sure we were 100-percent satisfied. Our tour guide was great at telling us about the local area, terrain, plant and animal life along our hike. He also made us feel comfortable and gave much attention to safety, even providing us with snacks and plenty of water. Bonus of this hike was ending at Starbucks at the base of the beautiful mountains/desert. After our hike, we enjoyed sitting outside, gazing at our accomplishment and enjoying a beverage!”
Alisa on Tripadvisor, Feb. 2019

Wild Bunch guests enjoy a birthday hike to Tom's Thumb.

Whether flying into Phoenix or driving into The Valley of the Sun, Camelback Mountain is the landmark everyone sees.

Camelback is the Golden Arches at McDonald’s or the Mouse Ears at Disney.

So, that iconic symbol of the Great Southwest is automatically the most popular hiking destination.

If you are in Phoenix or Scottsdale or really anywhere here? EVERYONE feels the need to go, so Wild Bunch Desert Guides offers a special Camelback Mountain hike.

HOWEVER, as Stephen A. Smith interjects into every rant on SportsCenter or First Take, guided Camelback Mountain hiking tours are not for everybody as I explained in my most-popular “Tales from the Trail” Blog to date.

To summarize: Camelback is a tourist trap. It is Wrigley Field in Chicago. Or Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Or the beach on either coast.
Camelback is insanely busy because of this blind popularity, so hikers have to start early in the morning, or they will not get in the Conga Line to the top, nor will they find a place to park at the trailhead.

Also, the challenge is not physically appropriate for everyone.

Despite the many compelling positives, a Camelback Mountain guided hike unfortunately does not offer fun for the whole family.
So, there are several other hikes Wild Bunch likes to take guests on as better alternatives.

Typically, as the owner of a highly rated Phoenix adventure tour company, I do not like giving out trailhead names because I am afraid visitors will be tempted to try to hike in the Sonoran Desert by themselves without the safety a guide offers.

So be forewarned, the hikes listed below should be guided because of their mixture of difficulty and potential danger.

Also, please note, these are all half-day hiking options. None are offered as 90-minute hikes in the booking process because they are all challenging because of their distance or difficulty.

This is where customizing your guided Scottsdale hike comes into play in the booking process. The top three hikes listed are good for repeat customers looking for something different, a little more difficult, a little more radical.

Wild Bunch guests enjoy the view from the grotto on Holbert Trail
Why Phoenix guided hiking?

Quite simply an outing with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides is a worry-free guarantee to ensure guided Phoenix hiking is the best possible experience for our guests in The Valley of the Sun.

Guides are there and know exactly what to do in case a hiking party incurs a Rattlesnake on the trail.

Guides also warn against but know how to fix the sticky situation should a guest happen to brush up against a Teddy Bear Jumping Cholla and the cactus pod sticks to them.

The natural human reaction is to grab the pod with your hand and get it off you, but Wild Bunch guides know better and are able to turn that painful and frustrating situation into a crisis quickly overcome.

A guide will have tweezers and pliers and duct tape for that situation in their backpack.

In fact, like Batman with his utility belt, a Wild Bunch guide has seemingly everything guests might need so they can just hike and have some worry-free fun.

One of the best Phoenix adventure tour companies knows all about the desert, so we know what to do if this or that surprise happens.

Wild Bunch also makes sure guests remain hydrated, so they avoid any heat-related problems in the pottery-kiln “dry heat” of Arizona.

Our guides are medically trained to handle any emergency situations as well as being extremely knowledgeable about their surroundings, so they can educate and explain the desert, and offer history and insight of the trails, as well as offer other local highlights to consider experiencing.

Speaking of hot tips: Up until June 1, Wild Bunch offers morning and afternoon options so there are amazing sunset and sunrise hiking times available.

I highly recommend a sunset hike.

If you do a sunrise hike, you get up early and get your hike in to free up the rest of the day. You also get to see one of the most beautiful sunrises in the United States.

But what Arizona really is known for is our kick-ass sunsets.

Wild Bunch takes guests high enough in elevation to really appreciate the sunset, making sure to begin our decent to the desert floor as the sun is setting. It is a beautiful, majestic sight with the cotton-candy pinks, the purpliest purples you have ever seen and the Mandarin Oranges – talk about off-the-charts beautiful. An Arizona sunset is so picturesque you would swear they were painted by the world’s greatest artist.

NOTHING is cooler than seeing an iconic Saguaro Cactus silhouetted by a desert sunset – and Wild Bunch is so pleased we can help make that happen for our guests.

When the calendar turns to June 1? We dial back to 7 a.m. or earlier start times for guided Scottsdale hiking, so we avoid the blast-furnace heat of mid-day, which limits the number and variety of hikes we offer.

Wild Bunch always reminds our guests to prepare for their Scottsdale hiking tours. Here is a quick check list:
  1. Make sure to drink a lot of water before arriving.
  2. Make sure to have shoes with tread if you have them available, but if not, DO NOT go out and drop $200 on hiking boots.
  3. Athletic apparel is always a good idea for loose, comfortable clothing.
  4. Sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen all should be worn.
  5. Make sure your cellphone is fully charged for pictures and any possible emergencies or communications.
  6. Water is key, so bring some yourself, although the guides carry a lot, as well as electrolyte powder.
For those wondering why they should consider hiking in the desert during their trip to the Phoenix area: This is a chance to see amazing scenery and fascinating creatures only seen in my personal playground.

A guided Phoenix hike also is the perfect pandemic-fighting activity.

You need social distancing? Some of the hikes Wild Bunch offers has guests feeling as if they are the only human beings in the Sonoran Desert.

There is so much to be said about getting back to nature, getting the chance to unplug and relax, and get better in touch with yourself and loved ones.

The solitary serenity and silent solace of the moment is amazingly cleansing for the body and mind.

A one-on-one meeting with a majestic Saguaro Cactus is highly recommended.

And you take an expert guide with you, so you have no worries.

Now, the drum roll please as we count down my all-time three favorite Phoenix hiking tours

(Top) Another gorgeous Arizona sunset. (Bottom) The rocky Holbert Trail at South Mountain.

No. 3 – Holbert Trail at South Mountain

This is in the City of Phoenix Mountain Preserve. The hike is on slabs of rock for most of the hike. You are intermittently on a single-track trail and then on rocks. So Holbert Trail is a really cool guided Phoenix hike.  

The journey is really beautiful because it is like you are in a canyon. You are enclosed, so when you talk, there is an echo … echo … echo.

The views of downtown Phoenix and the surrounding area are really incredible.

Once you get to the top, there is a cool stone hut where you can take pictures from and the views are outstanding.

This is not a hike we offer hardly at all with Wild Bunch, but it is one of my personal favorites.

This hike is really limited to guests that are in good shape, that can hike 2-3 hours at a moderate pace, and be OK with a quick elevation gain.
Guests also should have some hiking background, so the terrain change from a trail to slabs of rock does not throw them off or seem daunting to them.

If you are staying anywhere in downtown Phoenix – such as the Renaissance or Hyatt – Wild Bunch will suggest taking you to Holbert first because it is closest for you.

The same goes if you are at Ahwatukee or picked up an Airbnb in Tempe, this would be a hike Wild Bunch recommends.

One of the things Wild Bunch Desert Guides does is to take guests to Phoenix guided hiking trips or guided Phoenix mountain biking tours closest to where they are staying. This keeps guests from wasting their valuable time driving through the greater Phoenix area when the perfect trail for them is waiting out the proverbial backdoor of their hotel or resort.

That said, Wild Bunch rarely does this hike because a large of our guests are staying in Central to North Phoenix and in Scottsdale.

But if you are in downtown Phoenix and looking for a cool challenge? We will suggest Holbert first.


(Top) A rocky trail at Gateway Loop. (Bottom) A stunning view at Gateway. 

No. 2 – The Gateway Loop

This is in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in North Scottsdale. You can do the loop, which is about 6 miles in distance, or you can go to Tom’s Thumb the long way, which is nearly 12 miles. Or you can hike on Bell’s Pass, or Wingate Pass, or Inspiration Point.

If guests are staying at the Scottsdale Fairmount Princess, this is a place we will typically try and take them.

Gateway allows guests to have a lot of options, gain a lot of elevation, and see some incredibly beautiful sights.

So, this is a hike guests can really personalize.

You can do a loop that is easy where you can take kids. The best trails for families are called Horseshoe and Saguaro.

And then there is the Bajada Trail, which is a wheelchair-accessible educational trail appropriate for all ages. It is a gravel trail that is a great place to take someone handicapped or unable to walk great distances so they can experience the beauty of the Sonoran Desert.

There are a lot of different paths at Gateway where you can go left or right and find yourself on a longer, more difficult path, so that is why you book with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides to make sure you have an expert to show you the way.

Gateway Loop is a good starter for most, because it offers a gentle elevation change, but those other off-shoot trails with bigger challenges breaking off for more serious hikers allows a Wild Bunch guide to customize the Scottsdale guided hike to offer more difficulty, distance and elevation change to fulfill the wishes of any guest.

For the most part, the terrain is rocky and chunky in some spots. It is not flat or single-track trails like Tom’s Thumb, where there is one way up and one way back.

Highlights include true desert Flora and Fauna. The Saguaro Cactus. All sorts of species of cactus and some really beautiful views of Scottsdale.

(Top) Wild Bunch guests offer a thumb's up on their hike to Tom's Thumb. (Bottom) The
trailhead's namesake rock formation

No. 1 – Tom’s Thumb

This is my favorite as a hiker myself whenever friends or family visit The Valley of the Sun. I also love taking out my Plot Hound Daisy Mae on this trail because we always get a great workout in together.

From Gateway Loop, Tom’s Thumb is on the other side of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in North Scottsdale.

I think Tom’s Thumb is the bee’s knees – offering the most beautiful, scenic, panoramic views of Scottsdale, the Verde Valley, and the Mazatzal Mountain Range out of anywhere in the entire Valley.

The trail starts out pretty simple, but as you start to go up, the elevation gain is quick, and it is difficult at first.

But it balances out with some flatter terrain and then takes you back up again through some really beautiful bolder rock formations, and you feel so exhilarated when you finally reach the actual rock the trail is named after, which is shaped like a thumb.

And you have to touch the thumb for good luck. Tom’s Thumb also is great for pictures.

If you know what you are doing and go guided with Wild Bunch Desert Guides, there is a small a little off-shoot trail that leads to what we call the Ogre’s Den. It is a cave-type place where you feel like you are somewhere that Shrek would live.

SPOILER ALERT: Neither Donkey, Princess Fiona nor everybody’s favorite Ogre will be there, though.

That is another of the bonuses of going guided, though. Wild Bunch always stops there with guests.

Surprisingly, Wild Bunch does not take many guests on Tom’s Thumb, though. That hike really is by request only -- or becomes a topic during the booking process when guests with big hiking backgrounds are looking for an extra challenge.

Tom’s Thumb is a hike we try and take people in lieu of Camelback Mountain hiking.

Like Camelback, Tom’s Thumb is extremely difficult and requires 3-4 hours to complete. The difference is Tom’s Thumb is not so clogged with visitors.

The hike is about a 5-mile roundtrip that is extremely difficult because of the quick elevation gain and terrain change. The trails are loose, kitty-litter gravel single track, so you have to be careful coming down that you do not slip. So, hiking shoes with tread are a really really good idea. I would leave the Chuck Taylors or Vans back at the resort.

I also would avoid taking kids under the age of 10 because Tom’s Thumb offers a strenuous elevation gain. Tom’s Thumb is the same rating as guided Camelback Mountain hiking trips, but not as vertically challenging or treacherous, and I think the scenery is way better and more Sonoran Desert-ish than Camelback.

Wild Bunch does suggest Tom Thumb’s as Scottsdale guided hiking tours for guests staying at the Four Seasons or Rocks Club, which are two resorts using us for guided Scottsdale hiking trips and guided Scottsdale mountain bike tours.

A guide is SOOOOO necessary on this journey because the elevation gain is so quick. If you are coming from the Midwest or somewhere generally flat like that, you are just not used to starting a hike at 2,200 feet, much less tackling an elevation gain of over 1,000 feet within 1 mile.

So, a guide is going to slow you down and coach you through the hard parts, and then of course make sure you are drinking tons of water because the elevation change is going to wreak havoc on hydration.

Also, we always see Rattlesnakes somewhere on Tom’s Thumb trail during snake season, and we know how to handle that for our visitors.

That is our job at Wild Bunch Desert Guides – to keep you safe while showing you the coolest parts of the desert.


(Top & Bottom) Wild Bunch guests pause to take pictures with some of the
majestic scenery in the Sonoran Desert.

Honorable mention

The go-to hike for Wild Bunch Desert Guides is Quartz Ridge Trail in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve.

When guests book online or through TripAdvisor or Viator, this is where we start.

Guests meet our guides offsite, and we walk to Quartz Ridge. The reason why the Wild Bunch does that is the parking is so insane at the trailhead.

Quartz Ridge is perfect for Phoenix guided hiking tours for anybody from the beginner to the advanced skill levels because the trail starts out nice and easy and moderate, but we can make adjustments as guides to fit the fitness level and desired difficulty for our guests.

There are three off-shoot trails that we can take, so guests can decide as they go.

Do you want to make your guided Phoenix hike harder? Do you want more elevation? Do you want to transverse – or come down in elevation?

But any path you pick offers real Sonoran Desert terrain and surprisingly, despite the packed parking situation, Quartz Ridge is not heavily trafficked.

One of the really cool things out there is finding actual quartz and rose quartz on the trail.

Many, many years ago, parts of Phoenix were known for gold mining and quartz is a byproduct of that. So, you are hiking where miners hiked centuries ago. How cool is that?

The higher you go, the better the views of downtown Phoenix, Camelback Mountain, Papago Peaks, Tempe, Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium, and you can see Four Peaks in Tonto National Forrest and the Inspiration Mountains.

So, there is a lot of really cool things to see.

There are some “huggable” Saguaro Cactus along these trails, too. Other highlights include lots of Golden Barrell Cactus, lots of Creosote Cactus, and lots of Strawberry Pincushions along the way. So, you might get to both hug a cactus and eat some cactus, which makes this the perfect, kid-friendly hike for any age.

And that is another reason to book with one of the top-rated Scottsdale adventure tour companies.

All of our guides are knowledgeable about the desert, so we can show you the ins and outs. We are there to guide you along a path to ensure you get the most from your experience. We also keep you safe and make sure you are drinking your water and staying hydrated.

An expert guide can make sure to stay left or take a right when desired – to break you off to something harder or stay easy and simple.

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 or call 602-663-0842.


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