Although an early wake-up call may contradict the idea of vacation R&R for some, it’s really the most superb way to begin your day in Phoenix. The light of golden hour illuminates the desert landscape, and there’s plenty of life about.
On a recent trip to Phoenix, we set out before sunrise for our first hike in the Sonoran Desert. We were surprised at just how remote the trails felt even though we were just minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown Phoenix.
Following a dusty path as it sloped and slanted, a streak of blue caught our eye just before a Sonoran tiger whiptail darted away beneath a rock. We heaved and hoed, digging deep to find the strength and speed that would take us to the summit and beat the sun.
We revelled in the reward at the peak, watching the morning light wash over the desert’s cacti, standing dutifully with their raised arms, protecting the centuries-old secrets of this sacred place. Without speaking a word, we all agreed on the sanctity of this moment.
Fortunately, the Sonoran Desert had more than one hike in store for us, and we were able to immerse ourselves in the wonders of the desert again and again. These are a few of our favorites:
A Glimpse of Sunrise from Camelback Mountain
This mountain, which gets its name from its two rock formations that resemble the head and back of a kneeling camel, invites hikers to make the 1,400-foot ascent to its peak via Echo Canyon Trail. And we obliged. But we definitely worked for it.
The 1.2-mile Echo Canyon Trail begins with a relatively easy incline that allows you to take in the scenery and spot the ‘Praying Monk,’ a rock formation that looks like a devout holy man knelt in prayer.
We took a minute to prepare for the intense incline that awaits around the next bend. Fortunately, there are handrails and a few worn-in paths that made the climb a little easier, plus the view of Piestewa Peak behind us was a great excuse to make a few stops to catch our breath and snap some photos.
The top of this second slope marks the half-mile point. And if you’re anything like us, you’ll have a difficult time believing that you’ve covered fewer than 900 yards! But the mountain has more in store.
Steep steps and boulder hopping between the wash take us to the one-mile mark before the trail tilts seemingly steeper. Fortunately, there are plenty of tracks in the last section that make the final ascent easier than expected.
Then it’s an easy stroll around the final bend to panoramic views of the nation’s fifth-largest city below, along with South Mountain Park and Preserve, the Superstitions Mountains and Four Peaks (the Mazatzal Mountains) off in the distance.
Depending on your level of fitness, it’s wise to give yourself about an hour and 15 minutes to reach Camelback’s summit. Even when you’re hiking at sunrise—when temperatures are cooler—you’ll want to take plenty of water and make time for plenty of stops.
Summiting Piestewa Peak to the Sounds of Japanese Folk Music
Also located in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, and not far from Camelback, Piestewa Peak also offers rewarding trails. Named in honor of Lori Ann Piestewa, the first Native American woman in the U.S. military to lose her life in combat.
You may be thinking there’s little point in climbing a peak so near to Camelback, but trust us, the views on this hike provide a unique perspective—both along the way and from the top—especially at daybreak.
Summit Trail, as the name suggests, will take you to the top of Piestewa. While it’s nowhere near as tough as Camelback, there are plenty of switchbacks and large step sections that will put you through your paces.
You should be prepared to go steadily uphill on this one—the incline never lets up—but you can take solace in the fact that most sections have steps, which allow you to sink into an almost meditative movement to draw yourself up the mountain.
But the best part about summiting Piestewa at sunrise is hearing the enchanting sounds of Ken Koshio’s taiko drum, bamboo flute and chanting beckoning the new day. The Japanese folk artist hikes the peak every day to share positive vibrations with the early risers of the local hiking community.
The ethereal sounds emanating from the instruments just as golden hour kissed the surrounding landscape, certainly inspired our gratitude for the chance to immerse ourselves in nature and experience the earth as humans have for thousands of years before us.
Steering Steadily Up South Mountain Park and Preserve
On the opposite side of the Greater Phoenix area, about 20 minutes south of downtown Phoenix, lies one of the country’s largest municipal parks, and another jewel in the city’s crown: South Mountain Park and Preserve.
With 16,000 acres of unencumbered Sonoran Desert vistas, South Mountain is a highlight for sunrise seekers. The 58 miles of trails are a treat for hikers, bikers and riders, too. But if you want to break dawn from the prime vantage point in the park, the trek to Dobbins Lookout is a must.
The best part about this one—especially if you’re feeling a little lazy—is that you can reach the lookout by car. Although, it’s far more rewarding to tackle Holbert Trail, which will take you on a 4.6-mile round trip out and down, on foot.
The route starts and ends with some steep inclines, but the middle stretch is fairly gentle, and we found ourselves surrounded by iconic Sonoran Desert landscapes (including beautiful wildflowers in spring) that became more extraordinary the further we hiked.
Regardless of how you get there, the views from the top, and the early-morning light splashed on the rustic stones that compose the lookout structure itself, will make you feel like you’ve taken a step back in time.
Taking a Peek at Phoenix From Papago Park
If you’re looking to add a quick hike into the itinerary for your day in the city, or looking for a park that offers more to do than just a sunrise hike in Phoenix, Papago is the place to go. This 1,500-acre park is nestled just 15 minutes east of downtown Phoenix and offers an abundance of activities.
Most visitors are drawn here to visit Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden, which means that the hiking and biking trails in the park are relatively uncrowded at dawn.
For the best golden hour views, we headed up the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. A quick 0.3-mile hike from the parking lot will lead you past a series of sandstone rocks dappled with holes (known as tafoni) and up to the lookout point.
Since there are a limited number of sunrises on any trip, we discovered that this hike might be better-suited for a sunset. The rock formation’s oblong hole makes for perfectly framed pictures of the lagoons in the foreground and the city skyline in the distance when gazing west.
The Passion Passport Team’s Tips for Sunrise Hikes in Phoenix
- Time it right. Be sure to check what time the sun is rising and the estimated hiking time to ensure you reach the peak before day breaks.
- Be prepared. Hitting the trails before dawn means you’ll likely need equipment like a headlamp to see where you’re going.
- Stay hydrated. Although temperatures can be low if you’re heading out before sunrise, the desert heats up quickly and it’s important to take enough water.
- Be sun smart. You might start your hike in the dark, but as soon as the sun comes out, you’ll want to have protection like sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses.
- Bring a friend. While the views from any of these spots are spectacular, the sunrise is always better when shared with a buddy.
With all of these mountains to summit, there’s no doubt that you’ll be working up a bit of an appetite while you’re out on the trails. Check out our foodie guide to Phoenix for the best places to satiate your appetite in the Valley of the Sun.