White Tank Mountain Regional Park - Exploring the White Tanks

Rain Transforms this Desert Park

White Tank Mountain Waterfall
The Waterfall at White Tank Park. Elizabeth R. Mitchell

Phoenix' West Valley residents all love the White Tank Mountains with the glow of early morning sun dancing off the peaks. They hike and explore the dusty trails and hunt for wild flowers in the spring. But only rarely, do they see the magical transformation that the White Tank Mountain Regional Park goes through after a rain. Only rarely are visitors and residents treated to a cascading waterfall at the end of Waterfall Trail.

Note: Update on new Waterfall Trail.

It was one of those rare rainy times that led me to dodge the raindrops, check the water level in the washes, and head out to the White Tank Mountain Regional Park to see what it looks like after a few days of rain. It was a grey February day. The roads were coated with desert mud that had washed across the day before. It was drying up, and I knew there was just a small window of time when I could explore the magic of the desert after a rain.

Rivers Appear in the Desert

I parked at Ramada 7 and headed out on the Mesquite Trail. The rocks were glistening as the sun peeked out from behind the retreating rain clouds. The trail was lined with new, fresh greenery. As I greeted some fellow hikers on the trail, I stopped and heard an unusual sound. Was this the sound of a river, where there had never been a river before? The hikers excitedly told me about fording a small river that was just a few minutes up the trail.

I went there, kept my distance from the rushing waters, and was content to take photos. I couldn’t believe I was in the desert. The trail reminded me of the creeks and rivers of the northwest.

The Waterfall

I headed back to my car and drove a short distance to the parking lot for the Waterfall Trail.

There were quite a few cars there and as I tightened the laces on my Gore-Tex hiking boots, I saw families and couples coming back after a hike along the trail. I asked if they had seen the waterfall. A young woman in a “Life is Good” t-shirt said that the falls were flowing but that she couldn’t reach the falls as the water was too deep.

Determination Pays Off

At that point I decided I would get my waterfall picture come heck or high water. As I followed the trail, other hikers and I started climbing over boulders, first on one side of the flowing water, and then on the other side. We found convenient rocks to use as stepping stones. At one point, as I was helped over yet another boulder, the other hikers decided to turn back. I could see the area where the waterfall cascaded over the crest of a rocky cliff, but couldn’t see the actual falls without somehow, navigating a slippery, water-filled turn in the canyon. A few children could be heard ahead, their excited voices echoing against the canyon walls. It was possible to see the waterfall but I had to choose between climbing or wading. Common sense took over. I looked down at my Gore-Tex boots and opted to wade.

Wading took me into deeper and deeper water.

With camera in hand, I decided it was too late to turn back. I was almost to the falls. My boots filled with cool water. As I found myself in water up to my knees, I turned the corner and saw the cascading waterfall. The falls and the spray of the water was a glorious sight. What was usually only a trickle at the end of a hot dusty trail where the petroglyphs were the highlight, was a rushing torrent. It was loud, thundering and … wet!

I got my photo and turned to wade out of the narrow canyon. I realized that between my water-filled boots and wet jeans, I would be carrying a lot more weight on my trip back down the trail. Fortunately it’s a short one, and I got just a few curious glances from hikers as I headed back to my car.

When You Go

Getting There: From Phoenix, Arizona, travel the 101 west to the Bell Road exit. (If the 303 route is more convenient, you can take the 303 to Olive). From Bell Road, head South on Hwy 303 to Olive. Turn west for 4 miles on Olive to the White Tank Mountain Regional Park entrance. Map
Fees: $6.00 per car. Annual passes are available.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sun - Thurs and 10 p.m. Fri & Sat.
More Information:
Phone: 623-935-2505
Website: www.maricopa.gov/parks/white_tank/

Liz’s Tips:

Visitor’s Center: About a mile into the park, there is a nice little Visitor’s Center. Stop awhile and find out about the Park’s flora and fauna. Don’t be surprised to see a well-caged rattlesnake at the Center. This is a great place to get your questions answered before you head out to explore the Park.

Safety: If it is raining, don’t go until the rains have stopped. Check the washes for water level and don’t attempt to drive to the Park if there is significant run-off in the washes. Call the park to be certain that the trails and roads are passable. Use common sense and caution during the rainy season. What looks like a dry wash, can fill up in a matter of minutes during a downpour.

Enjoying the Park: Picnic ramadas can be reserved, but if they are not being used, the covered tables are an ideal place to have lunch after a hike in the desert. Maps, showing ramada locations and parking, are available at the Park entrance or the Visitor’s Center.

For the Novice: If you are not sure about hiking in the desert, consider attending a group walk led by a Park Ranger. The Park offers a variety of short guided hikes.