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Top Ten: Maricopa County Regional Parks

“Take a Hike!” Fee Free Day – November 15, 2015

Maricopa County is home to one of the largest regional park systems in the nation, featuring over 120,000 acres of open space for Valley residents and visitors, all within a 45-minute drive from downtown Phoenix! Each county park has its own unique features such as interpretive centers, recreational activities, campgrounds, and hundreds of miles of trails ranging from wheelchair-accessible and easy to primitive and challenging.

Whether you plan on photographing wildflowers, viewing wildlife, stargazing, exploring archaeological and historic sites, walking along a barrier-free trail, hiking a steep backcountry trail, enjoying scenic Sonoran Desert views on horseback or mountain bike, fishing along a river bank, or boating on a lake, Maricopa County parks offer a variety of year-round opportunities for all ages and comfort levels.

Regular day-use vehicle entry fee is $6.00. (All trails within the Maricopa County Park System are for non-motorized use only.) Park rangers offer a variety of guided hikes and educational programs at no additional cost. For a complete listing of events at each park, visit the Maricopa County Parks calendar. See the park websites for additional fees and annual passes.


Maricopa County Parks & Recreation

The Top Ten Maricopa County Regional Parks include the following:

1. Adobe Dam Regional Park – Sitting at the base of the Hedgepeth Hills in north Phoenix, this 1,526-acre day-use park offers the opportunity to participate in many fun recreational activities including baseball, golf, paintball, kart racing, r/c airplanes and model railroading! Also adjacent to Adobe Dam Regional Park is the Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve, Thunderbird Conservation Park, and Wet n’ Wild Water Park.

2. Buckeye Hills Regional Park – Located in the southwest valley, just 5 miles south of Buckeye about 21 miles north of Gila Bend, this park consists of 4,474 acres of natural Sonoran Desert with beautiful views of the Gila River riparian area. Facilities include picnic tables, cooking grills, two large ramadas, and a primitive campground. The park has restrooms but no running water or electricity. The Joe Foss Shooting and Archery Range is also located in this park.

3. Cave Creek Regional Park – Ranging in elevation from 2,000 to 3,060 feet, this upper Sonoran Desert oasis north of Phoenix provides hikers and equestrians with majestic views. The popular Go John Trail makes a 4.8-mile loop around the park’s highest mountain. The easy Clay Mine Trail leads to a white clay deposit. In the 1870s, gold seekers staked their dreams on the jasper- and quartz-studded hills. Be aware that there are several mine shafts in the park, which are dangerous—and illegal—to enter. But guided trails to these sites give visitors an opportunity to travel back in time. The Cave Creek park has a family campground, picnic ramadas, and a horse staging area. There is also a rodeo arena at the southwest corner of the park. (Look for the sign on 32nd Street before the park entrance).

4. Estrella Mountain Regional Park – Estrella was established in 1954 as the first Maricopa County regional park. Located near the junction of the Gila and Agua Fria Rivers in the southwest Valley, this 19,840-acre park includes desert, mountains, and a large riparian area. The Sierra Estrellas (Star Mountains) were once within the Mexican border, and remained so until the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. The rugged summits are just as rough and inaccessible as when the Spanish Conquistadors passed by. The majority of the park remains pristine desert, very similar in appearance to the landscape seen by the first settlers and explorers. But many amenities are available today, including the only grass picnic area (65 acres) in the Maricopa County Park System. Also, the Estrella Mountain Competitive Track appeals to mountain bikers, runners, and equestrians alike.

5. Lake Pleasant Regional ParkThis northwest Valley park, with the rugged Bradshaw Mountains as a backdrop, offers many activities such as boating, jet-skiing, fishing, swimming, camping, hiking, picnicking, and wildlife viewing. The lake’s open waters provide excellent conditions for sailing. Primitive camping is possible for both vehicles and boaters along the lake shore. Eagles nest along the Agua Fria River arm in the northeast from mid-December to mid-June; visitors may not enter the area during nesting season. The Pipeline Canyon Trail is the designated hiking trail at Lake Pleasant; it’s two miles one way, between the north and south recreation areas. A floating bridge connects the trail during high water levels. There is a restaurant and marina on site, as well as a Desert Outdoor Environmental Learning Center. (Entry to the Desert Outdoor Center is reserved for school programs and group functions only, except for designated public events.)

6. McDowell Mountain Regional Park – Nestled in the lower Verde River basin, elevations in this 21,099-acre northeast valley park rise to 3,000 feet with spectacular views at the base of the McDowell Mountains. Entrance is on the east side of the park, north of Fountain Hills. Visitors to this park will enjoy over 50 miles of multi-use trails. In addition to hiking trails and barrier-free paths, the McDowell Competitive Track offers interconnected loops for mountain bikers, runners, and equestrians: a 3-mile Sport Loop, an 8.2-mile Long Loop, and the challenging 2.9-mile Technical Loop.

7. San Tan Mountain Regional Park – Consisting of over 10,000 acres ranging from creosote flats to dense saguaro forest, this southeast Valley park changes in elevation from about 1,400 feet to over 2,500 feet, offering both easy and challenging experiences for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. This day-use-only park has a picnic area and a Visitor Center with educational information, wildlife exhibits, and tortoise habitat.

8. Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area – The Spur Cross conservation area, in far north Maricopa County adjacent to the Tonto National Forest, encompasses 2,154 acres of rugged upper Sonoran Desert. This park is known for its fascinating archaeological sites, abundant vegetation, spring wildflowers, lush riparian habitat, and a diverse array of wildlife along Cave Creek, which flows throughout the winter months. Although remnants of early mining and ranching are still apparent in this park, it has the feel of being miles away from civilization. To reach the Spur Cross Conservation Area, follow Cave Creek Road into the town of Cave Creek, then turn north onto Spur Cross Road and take it all the way to the end.

9. Usery Mountain Regional Park – Located on the Valley’s far east side, this park has 3,648 acres at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains. Families will enjoy the nature center, educational programs, picnic areas, playground, and campgrounds. The park has trails to suit almost everyone including wheelchairs, equestrians, and mountain bikers. Probably the most popular feature of the park is the Wind Cave at the boundary between the volcanic tuff and granite on Pass Mountain. Breathtaking views from this 2,840-foot elevation are offered to anyone who hikes up the Wind Cave Trail. Usery Mountain Regional Park also has an archery range, horse-staging area, and Arizona Model Aviator flying site located inside the park. The Usery Mountain Shooting Range is just north of the park entrance.

10. White Tank Mountain Regional Park – This is the largest regional park in Maricopa County, with nearly 30,000 acres on the Valley’s west side. Most of the park is made up of the rugged and beautiful White Tank Mountains, rising sharply from base to peak at over 4,000 feet. Rainwater plunging through canyons, pouring down chutes, and dropping off ledges has scoured out a series of depressions, or tanks, in the white granite rock, thus giving the mountains their name. The popular Waterfall Trail leads to pools and a seasonal waterfall deep in a box canyon. Petroglyphs can be seen on some of the big boulders along the way. Download the self-guided hike outline for the Waterfall Trail here.

Did You Know…? In 2012, a Maricopa County parks program giving homeschooled children outdoor science educational experiences was selected as a top national winner and one of 33 Maricopa County excellence awards announced by the National Association of Counties (NACO). The Usery Mountain Regional Park Home School Program received a Best of Category award, the highest award, in the parks and recreation category. The program is a partnership between the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department and the Arizona Science Center that focuses on meeting the needs of the homeschool community by combining traditional classroom instruction with outdoor interpretive programs. Programs are geared towards youth between the ages of six and ten years old and consist of a wide variety of topics including desert plants, rocks, the water cycle, and other natural phenomena.