McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Photo: Flickr, Dru Bloomfield - At Home in Scottsdale

Experience The Desert At Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is 21,400 acres of land located just outside of Fountain Hills. The Preserve is full of geological discoveries, desert wildlife and a large selection of plant species.

The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy was created to work with the City of Scottsdale in collecting data of the area. The Preserve is currently looking to add another 6,400 acres of state land to the north of the Preserve and then another 24,000 acres in 2013. Visitors to the park can expect to see a number of different landscapes from dry deserts to lush underbrush.

“The initial idea behind the Preserve started in the 1960s when Scottsdale development started to move north, and they were concerned that some of the mountains would be built on,” says Scott Hamilton, who works for the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy’s Preservation Division.

An environmentally sensitive land ordinance was then created, and in the 1990s, they worked at acquiring and setting land aside to protect it from being built on. In 1995, the first sales tax of .2 percent was approved in Scottsdale, and the money that was generated from the sales tax was used to buy land on the mountains. At first, the Preserve was not open to the public, but they created a second tax of .15 percent in 2005 that was used to purchase land as well as provide funding to create trailheads.

Hamilton says that the public is a strong part of the Preserve. “The Peserve was created by the public and continues to be shaped by the public as we go into the future,” he says.

Tom's Thumb Trailhead, McDowell Sonoran PreserveThe preservation planners work with contractors and volunteers to create and manage trails throughout the Preserve. Volunteers can work through the Conservancy to attend “new steward classes” where they can work in an area of their interest such as building trails, maintenance and construction.

The most recently renovated trail was Tom’s Thumb Trailhead, which opened on Oct. 18. The work for Tom’s Thumb Trailhead began three years ago when the planners worked with contractors and architects to design the structures at the beginning of the trail; they then began working on creating the trail.

Each of the trails throughout the preserve is rated depending on difficulty. There are volunteers who work to hand out maps of the trails, and they also provide visitors with trail recommendations depending on what type of hike they are looking tackle.

“The program is pretty innovative,” Hamilton says. “I get calls from other land managers in other states that are looking to do what we do here. We’re really lucky; it’s still perpetuated by the citizens through volunteers and tax votes. The citizens in Scottsdale are very active and willing to spend their money and their time.”

The preserve is open daily, starting 30 minutes before sunrise and closing 30 minutes before sunset. A list of the exact times can be found at

Tom’s Thumb Trailhead at McDowell Sonoran Preserve

23015 N. 128th St.
Scottsdale, AZ 85255
(480) 312-7013