Of all the hiking America has to offer, some of its most rewarding is found in the desert with the heat cranked up to ten. Pack extra water because this list doesn’t have much of it. Follow us to Arizona and Palm Springs for some of America’s best desert hiking trails.
Tahquitz Canyon Trail
The Tahquitz Canyon Trail is a relatively easy two-mile loop trail in the Coachella Valley south of Palm Springs. The canyon has been inhabited by the Native American Cahuilla tribe for roughly 2,000 years. Legend has it that the demon Tahquitz lived in the San Jacinto Mountains in what is now called Tahquitz Peak, and was banished by the Cahuilla people, but still inhabits the canyon. The 350-foot climb is somewhat steep and rocky and requires a good pair of shoes. The trail has eight different points of interest, including a massive sacred rock and a water crossing with a bridge built of rocks. The destination is the beautiful 60-foot Tahquitz Falls, one of Southern California’s nicer waterfalls. On the way back down, you can really appreciate the views of the canyon and Palm Springs in the background.
Length: 3.5 miles
Time: 2-3 hours
Lost Palms Oasis at Joshua Tree National Park
You know California’s iconic palm trees? The ones lining so many of its beaches and boulevards? Often they’re the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the Golden State. Here’s a dirty little secret: those are not native to California. Palm trees actually come from the Colorado desert and were imported to California at the turn of the 20th century simply for aesthetic reasons. Today, they’re a California icon, but the truth is, they’re not authentic. The only type of palm tree native to California is a species called Washingtonia filifera, better known as the California fan palm. The fan palm is a flowering plant that can be recognized by its waxy fan-shaped leaves. Now that you know their significance, you can appreciate the hike up Lost Palms Oasis to a 491-foot high overlook filled with those very fan palms—the highest concentration of fan palms you’ll find in all of Joshua Tree. Other than that view of the fan palms—which you can now take as an opportunity to impress your friends with a fun fact—look out for bighorn sheep and, if you visit in spring, wildflower blooms.
Length: 7 miles
Time: 3 hours
Cactus to Clouds Trail at San Jacinto Mountains
Just west of Palm Springs, the San Jacinto Mountains provide one of the most difficult hiking trails in the country. Only experienced hikers ready to commit to the challenge should attempt this walk. Its highest point, San Jacinto Peak, is the second highest point in Southern California and is one of the Four Saints, the nickname given to SoCal’s four mountains reaching higher than 10,000 feet, each one named after a Catholic saint. The naturalist John Muir, known as the Father of the National Parks, deemed the view from San Jacinto Peak “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!” He was right, but it comes at a cost.
This epic hike starts in the desert behind the Palm Springs Art Museum and ends on the top of San Jacinto Peak, a climb the height of eight and a half Empire State Buildings. One of the steepest climbs you’ll find, Backpacker Magazine ranked this the fifth toughest day hike in America, so it’s not for the faint of heart. But boy, is the reward worth it. Wear warm boots and gloves (it gets cold at the top) and pack lots of water.
Length: 20 miles
Time: A full day
Deadman’s Pass Trail, Coconino National Forest
The Sedona area, with its red rocks and vast landscapes, is one of the more scenic parts of Arizona, and if you’re new to hiking but want to find an incredible view, Deadman’s Pass Trail in Coconino National Forest is for you. Not nearly as intimidating as the name makes it sound, Deadman’s is perfect for beginners. Just a quick 30-minute jaunt on foot, the trail can be biked as well, or you can ascend by horse! The trail connects Boynton Canyon Trail and Long Canyon Trail, so if after completing Deadman’s Pass you want to continue, you can hike for another few miles.
Length: 1 mile
Time: 30 minutes
Inner Basin Trail to Humphreys Peak
At 12,637 feet, Humphreys Peak is the highest point in the state of Arizona. It’s a spectacular hike at any time of year, but it doesn’t really get any better than it does during the fall when the leaves are changing. North of Flagstaff, the hike begins at Lockett Meadow, which is one of the best campgrounds around. Inner Basin Trail is grassy and green and picturesque, and if you’re lucky you may spot porcupines, elk, or black bears.
Climbing through ponderosa pines and aspens, the hike up is challenging and only recommended for advanced hikers… and their dogs, which are common on the trail and allowed as long as they are kept on a leash. But the view from the top is rewarding and one of the most scenic viewpoints in the San Francisco Peaks. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Grand Canyon from the top.
Length: 12 miles
Time: A full day
Flatiron at Superstition Mountains
Arizona’s Superstition Mountains are east of Phoenix, and the Flatiron trail begins at its westernmost side. It’s called Flatiron because its most prominent rock features are shaped like an upside-down iron. But its official name is Siphon Draw because of the way it funnels water down from the mountaintops. For that reason, it is not recommended to hike the trail after heavy rainfall. The trail takes you through the Sonoran Desert, and in spring your hike includes a row of pretty yellow wildflowers. To the east, the rock formation is intimidating to look at, but just know that the 360-degree views from the top are so worth it. When you reach the pinnacle, you’ll get a look at the east portion of the Superstition Mountains, and on the other side, Arizona’s East Valley including Phoenix.
Length: 6 miles
Time: Half a day