Not only is the 30,000-acre White Tank Mountain Regional Park the largest regional park in Maricopa County, but it’s also one of the best places in the Valley to hike, mountain bike, and horseback ride through the Sonoran Desert. It boasts incredible sunrises over the city, a waterfall after heavy rains, and petroglyphs (rock art) carved into stones along its trails, too.
While some of the trails can be extremely challenging with drastic elevation changes and rough terrain, several are nearly flat and even, making them perfect for families. The park has a nature center where families can learn about desert creatures on display and family-friendly activities like stargazing.
Petroglyphs found in the park date back possibly 10,000 years, but the Hohokam were the first people to call it home. These predominate hunter-gatherers built seven villages, ranging in size from one to 75 acres, during their stay in the area from 500 to 1100 AD. When they moved on, they left behind a rock shelter, their own petroglyphs, and sherd areas.
Sometime later, the park’s land fell under the control of the Yavapai, who were eventually forced to live on reservations elsewhere in the state. Today, the park has 11 archeological sites, including the seven villages and several temporary camps.
How to Get There
White Tank Mountain Regional Park is located on the west side of the Valley, approximately 15 miles west of the Loop 101. There is no public transportation to the park. You will have to either drive yourself or take a rideshare to get the park’s entrance.
If you are driving yourself from Phoenix and the East Valley, take I-10 West to the Loop 303 North. Exit at Northern Avenue, and turn left at the light. Drive one mile west to Cotton Lane. Turn right onto Cotton Lane, and continue to Olive Avenue. Turn right again, and take Olive Avenue to the park entrance.
From North Scottsdale or Deer Valley, take the Loop 101 towards Peoria. Exit at Northern Avenue, and follow the above directions into the park.
What to Expect
Because of its petroglyphs, waterfall, and nature center, White Tank Mountain Regional Park is popular and can get congested, especially on weekends. To avoid the crowds, skip the heavily trafficked Waterfall Canyon Trail in favor if one of the park’s other trails or arrive early in the day.
If you are planning to hike Waterfall Canyon Trail, manage your expectations. Despite the trail’s name, you won’t see a waterfall except after substantial rain.
Spring and fall are the best times to visit the park. Temperatures are moderate during the day, and during the spring, wildflowers bloom throughout the park. Winter can still be pleasant but don’t be surprised by the occasional rainy day. During the summer, arrive early to avoid the heat.
Admission to White Tank Mountain Regional Park is $7 per vehicle. If you hike, bike, or ride a horse into the park, the entry fee is $2 per person. Maricopa County Parks and Recreation also sells an annual pass that allows unlimited access by vehicle to all of its parks for $85. The yearly pass is $30 for those who plan to hike, bike, or ride a horse into the parks.
Hiking in the Park
White Tank Mountain Regional Park has approximately 30 miles of shared-use trails, ranging in length from 0.9 miles to 7.9 miles and in difficulty from easy to strenuous. Also, there are 2.5 miles of pedestrian-only trails, including two short tracks that are hard-surfaced and barrier-free. For the more adventurous, the park allows overnight backpacking with a permit at established backcountry campsites.
Before heading out, assess the ability of everyone in your party and choose an appropriate trail, taking into account the hike will be more challenging in higher temperatures. Wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes (no sandals or flip flops), and carry plenty of water. As a general rule, adults should drink at least two cups of water every hour and children at least one cup, depending on their size.
Of the park’s 14 designated trails, these rank among the most popular:
Waterfall Canyon Trail: This 2-mile round-trip trail is barrier-free to Petroglyph Plaza and is easy enough for non-hikers and children to make it the rest of the way to the waterfall. A mentioned above, the waterfall only flows after a heavy rain, but at other times, you can see the rocks made smooth by it over time. Download the guide before you go for information on the plants, wildlife, and petroglyphs you’ll see along the way.
Black Rock Trails: The pedestrian-only Black Rock Long Loop and the Black Rock Short Loop both start from Ramada 4. While the half-mile, barrier-free Short Loop simply circles the black rocks the trails are named for, the Long Loop extends the journey to 1.3 miles, going through one of the archeological sites.
Mule Deer Trail: This moderately challenging trail parallels the eastern edge of the park, offering astounding views of the Valley. Rather than hike the trail’s entire 3.4 miles (and back), start at the nature center, hike two miles to the South Trail and make a loop back to the nature center.
Ford Canyon Trail: Hardcore hikers can challenge themselves on the 7.4-mile Ford Canyon Trail. Most hikers stop at the abandoned dam at 4.5 miles but you can continue to where the trail ends at the junction of the Goat Camp and Mesquite Canyon trails.
Other Things to Do
Hiking is just one of the recreational activities you can enjoy at White Tank Regional Park. The park also offers mountain biking, horseback riding, stargazing and more.
Mountain biking: You can navigate nearly 30 miles of shared-use trails within the park or test your skills on its 10-mile competitive trail, the Sonoran Loop Bicycle Competitive Track. The high-speed trail is shared with cross-country runners and endurance riders and occasionally hosts competitive events.
Horseback riding: If you own a horse, you can ride or trailer it into the park and explore the shared-use trails on your own. You can also lope or gallop on the Sonoran Loop Bicycle Competitive Track. For guided horseback rides, contact Corral West Horse Adventures.
Nature Center: Housed in a LEED Platinum-certified building, the park’s nature center displays small native animals such as scorpions and has exhibits on Hohokam people. There’s also a gift shop and an onsite library. Check the park’s calendar for special programs, including one demonstrating how the staff feeds the center’s snakes before you go.
Stargazing: Hosted by Stargazing For Everyone, the park offers free stargazing programs periodically on Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Participants of all ages learn about the stars, moon, planets, and more while taking turns looking through telescopes.
Where to Stay
Outdoor enthusiasts can camp at one of the park’s 40 individual sites. Most sites can accommodate RVs up to 45 feet in length, and all have water, electrical hook-ups, a picnic table, barbecue grill, and fire ring. To reserve one of these spots or one of the two group campgrounds, visit the Maricopa County Parks’ website. The nearest hotels are located near State Farm Stadium at 99th and Glendale Avenues. For a little more luxurious stay, make a reservation at The Wigwam in Litchfield Park.