An Adventure of Geological Wonder and Desert Splendor: The Tom’s Thumb Trail Hike, Arizona

Tom’s Thumb Hiking Trail

Clement winters filled with bright, sunny days are what make Phoenix, Arizona, one of the most attractive places to visit in the world with the beautiful months of January and February the peak of its infamous “snow bird season”! Though its temperate winter climate remains the primary draw for many winter visitors who come from all corners of the world, what they soon discover is that Arizona is not just about warm, sunny weather and beautiful golf resorts, its really an extraordinary state and region rich in diversity. No where else on the planet will you find the range of topographical, geological and geographical diversity that you find here within the state of Arizona. With its seemingly endless variety of scenery, places to go and activities to do, virtually anytime of the year, Arizona is a land of wonder and adventure for anyone who loves nature and the outdoors.

If you’re someone who’s been thinking of planning a trip to visit Arizona soon, or if you live in Arizona or the Phoenix area and you’d like a recommendation for a great place to go, a really unique and interesting adventure that’s a lot of fun and moderately rated, filled with geological wonder and Sonoran desert mountain splendor, and best yet, its located within a scenic wilderness backcountry area with fewer crowds and less traffic, yet its still close to town and located within minutes of Phoenix, an outdoors hike I highly recommend checking out, is the Tom’s Thumb Trail Hike, in the McDowell Sonoran Wilderness Preserve, Scottsdale, Arizona.

Hiking Tom’s Thumb Mountain in Scottsdale, Arizona | Monika Salvan

It was on a clear, brisk early February weekend morning that I drove out to North Scottsdale to meet up with a great group of friends and experienced hikers from the TLC Hiking Club, a local Phoenix hiking & adventure group organized and led by Eric Kinneman, and where I’d begin my first hike and adventure out to a place interestingly called “Tom’s Thumb”, located in the far northeast area of Scottsdale, in the McDowell Mountains, and within a remote backcountry area called the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a very scenic mountain wilderness preserve consisting of 17,000 acres and which I had heard was particularly famous worldwide for rock climbing. I met up with the TLC Hiking Club that day for the “Tom’s Thumb to the Ogre’s Den Hike” and by about 7:45am, after everyone had arrived, we were ready to set off together for the Tom’s Thumb Trailhead.

Heading north on Pima Road, we turned right at the intersection of Happy Valley Road. Then from there it was a zig zag series of turns through the north east Scottsdale residential area called Troon. From Happy Valley road, you’ll turn right on Alameda, then make another right at 119th way, then make a left at Casitas Del Rio Drive, and another left at Paraiso Drive. From there and for the remaining 1.5 miles or so, just look for and follow the signs for the “Tom’s Thumb Temporary Trailhead”. Although construction plans are underway to develop a new and much larger trailhead and parking area with easier access, it is not expected to be completed until May, 2012. In the meantime, in order to reach the Tom’s Thumb “temporary” trailhead and parking area, it is recommended that you preferably have an HCV vehicle as the last quarter to half mile portion is an all dirt road, which although mostly well graded, it still had a few spots which could be hard on a regular vehicle. Having successfully navigated through the maze of directions and also found a place to park in the limited parking area available, by 8:30am we had all arrived at the trailhead and were packed up and ready to start our day’s hike and adventure out to the infamous Tom’s Thumb!

View at the peak of Tom’s Thumb with tourists and hikers in the McDowell Mountain range in the Sonoran Desert | Isabel Eve

Located in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve’s remote northern access area, the Tom’s Thumb Trail immediately begins ascending up in elevation through a series of wide but still very moderate level switchbacks. As you continue to make your way up in elevation, when you look back behind you, the views looking back over the parking area below and the surrounding landscape behind it were absolutely beautiful the higher up you were. Looking forward and up at the trail in front of you, you start to notice yourself surrounded by huge rocks and boulders and many interesting and even oddly shaped rock formations. Wow, really amazing!

In the beginning and for the first mile or so, the Tom’s Thumb trail, I would best describe it as being a good workout. With its wide switchbacks, twists and turns, the trail climbs in elevation for about 1000 feet and at roughly about 3600 feet in elevation, you top out at a saddle area. Once you arrive at the crest and saddle area, you’ll just want to stop for a few minutes, because the scenery and views in front of you of the town of Fountain Hills below with the Superstition Wilderness in the background are absolutely breathtaking and spectacular! Wow! After a short break to catch our breaths and take a few pictures, I teamed back up with my friends and fellow TLC hikers, and we ventured on.

From the saddle and now atop the beautiful McDowell Mountain Ridgeline, the Tom’s Thumb Trail levels out more but its journey continues winding and twisting, climbing back up and then back down again. We continued to venture on together continuing to enjoy the amazing geological scenery along the way, but now noticing the newly constructed signs to follow along the trail, until about a mile or so later, we finally reached our destination, the giant 140 foot solid granite pinnacle called, Tom’s Thumb! Looking straight up at Tom’s Thumb, it will definitely take your breath away because, it’s not until you get up close that you appreciate just how massive it really is. What an absolutely spectacular and awe-inspiring sight to see!

Tom’s Thumb as well as its surrounding area, I recently discovered, is also an excellent and very popular place for rock climbing too. As we approached Tom’s Thumb, we saw that there were several signs directing you for the turn off to the rock climbing area. However, we didn’t go check it out this time but instead enjoyed catching back up with Eric Kinneman and the rest of the TLC Hiking group, getting some pictures of the beautiful surrounding scenery, then getting together for a couple of group shots atop one of the massive sized boulders nestled along the base of Tom’s Thumb.

Hiking Trail to Tom’s Thumb in the McDowell Mountain Range near Phoenix, Arizona | Harry Beugelink

After checking out Tom’s Thumb and with Eric and the rest of the group on their way to the Overlook Trail by this time, we began the short and easy bushwhacking trek around to the side of Tom’s Thumbs to a cave popularly named, “the Ogres Den”. Along this roughly 200 foot stretch, the mountain top views and scenery along the way looking down over the northeast valley below, were absolutely gorgeous! We really enjoyed crawling down into the cave for a few minutes to see the decorative artwork painted on its rock walls and the many interesting artifacts that previous hikers have left over the years. Very interesting! We took a few pictures together, signed the log book then quickly proceeded on to our next hiking destination, the scenic Lookout Trail.

We bushwhacked our way back around the base of Tom’s Thumb, then headed back the way we had come but made a left to begin our journey on the Lookout Trail. The optional trek over to the Look Trail, added an additional mile or so to the day’s hiking distance. However, it wasn’t a difficult trek and I thought it was well worth the extra 30 minutes to 1 hour time that it took because the panoramic views from the top at about 3858 feet in elevation were absolutely breathtaking! On the western side you could see all of the northeast valley below, then when you turned around, on the other side you had the incredible views to the east of the Four Peaks and the Superstition Wilderness in the distance in front of you. Wow, gorgeous! In addition, if you looked straight down, you could see the town of Fountain Hills and within only a few short minutes, we saw its huge water fountain go off in the distance. Wow, really spectacular!

We thoroughly enjoyed spending a few minutes to break, eat lunch and take in the incredible views. However, after getting a quick group photo together, we decided it was time to start heading back again and meet back up with the rest of our group. It was only about 1.5 hours later that we had completed our fun journey back to the trailhead again and which according to our GPS, our total hiking distance for the Tom’s Thumb Trail, with the short trek over to the Ogre’s Den, then the journey over to the Lookout Trail and back again was a total of 5.5 miles, with an elevation gain of exactly 1000 feet and a total hiking time of 4.5 hours which included lunch a few breaks along the way as well.

Really a fun day and an excellent hike, well planned, organized and led by Eric Kinneman of the TLC Hiking and Adventure Club, that was nice moderate level hike, a little off the beaten path but a very developed trail with well posted signs and directions so you can’t get lost, along with its many amazing rock formations and incredible mountain top views, what a fantastic hike! So for a great place to go that’s close to Phoenix, and for a truly unique and interesting hiking adventure that’s filled with geological wonder and breathtaking desert mountain splendor, then you’ll want to be sure and check out the Tom’s Thumb Trail Hike, in the McDowell Sonoran Wilderness Preserve, Scottsdale, Arizona.

Laura K. Halik is a writer and published author with over 20 years experience of outdoors travel throughout the state of Arizona and the western region. She is passionate for nature, the outdoors, travel and adventure. Laura enjoys hiking, canyoneering, white water rafting, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, writing, and photography. She is also a co-hiking leader and organizer in a hiking and outdoors adventure club for advanced and experienced hikers.

Throughout her professional career in international business, Laura has worked and traveled frequently throughout the Latin American and Caribbean region. She lives with her family and pets in Phoenix, Arizona.

Source: Laura K. Halik

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