Mountain Biking Scottsdale, Ariz. – McDowell Mountains



A view from Waypoint 22!
A view from Waypoint 22!

This is the first in my series about mountain biking in Scottsdale, Ariz., and this episode will focus on the trails on the southwest wide of the McDowell Mountains.

There’s something about mountain biking that’s kind of funny. Despite the name, it often doesn’t happen in or on mountains. There’s a lot of mountain biking in valleys, plains, glades, prairies and the like.

But if you’re mountain biking the trails on the west side of the McDowell Mountains, you are truly biking on, up and down mountains.  Most of these are part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. This preserve has a pretty interesting history, and it’s certainly worth reading about.

But enough about that: On to the riding! Just look at the trail profile – I still haven’t gotten my new GPS and mapping software to talk nice to each other yet. But you’re looking at close to 1,500 feet of climbing jammed into six miles.

And here’s the thing: We’re not talking about groomed, lovely singletrack like you’ll see on Flagstaff’s jewel of a ride, the Schultz Creek Trail. This is often doubletrack, and usually rocky with some serious rocky madness served as a side of dog-doo.

The interesting thing is that I rode part of this trail shortly after it was built, and reviewed it for The Arizona Republic. I was pretty impressed, even though there wasn’t much trail yet. I know that quite a few people have been beavering away over the last decade to really expand the number of trails.

Click for a bigger view!

Section-by-Section Breakdown

Waypoint 17-21 (Mostly Quartz Trail): Here’s a bunch of really decent trail. All middle-climbing. An occasional rock garden. The biggest hazard are ill-mannered mountain bikers. That put me in a bit of a snit for a good portion of this ride.

Waypoint 21-22: This stretch might take you into the granny ring. It’s steep and quite loose in spots. Keep grinding, and you’ll soon enjoy a nice view!

22-23 (Lost Dog Trail): Kind of fun! Doubletrack, so it’s not quite as thrilling. But a decent bit of shred.

23-24 (Old Jeep Road): Oy vey. This section starts as a downhill doubletrack. The views are beautiful when you can spare the attention. Later toward Waypoint 23, this gets nasty. Some super-tight, loose, steep switchbacks. I had to dab one of ’em. There is one rock garden that took everything that a fully suspended bike, disc brakes and a skilled rider can offer.

24-25 (Sunrise Trail): Hideous! Just look again at the elevation profiles. The worst thing is that the first three quarters is really loose and rocky. When the rocks go away, it gets steeper! And here’s the worst: It’s a false summit. This is a saddle before a super-steep descent into a parking lot on the other side. That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more, I says, and turns around. (end Popeye speak) Even on the way down, it doesn’t get all that fun until you’re back on a ridge with a little less exposure.

24-31 (Ringtail and back to Lost Dog): The first part of this jaunt is pretty fun. It’s all downhill, curvy and cholla cactus-lined. Two out of three ain’t bad! Toward the latter half, it flattens out and goes through a confusing warren of trails, and you eventually wind up at a trailhead (waypoint 31). This is where I shut my GPS receiver off to take a break, and my waypoint number got all weird. It also made making the map tougher than it needs to be.

31-22: Not bad riding. A gradual climb. This is is where it strikes me that the trail designers didn’t have mountain bikes in mind, though. This trail should’ve cloverleafed back on itself to take advantage of space. Instead, it’s linear to shuttle hikers. Between 22-23, you’re treated to that rocky downhill you had to climb awhile back.


Swooping down the Taliesin Trail
Swooping down the Ringtail Trail

20 and beyond (Taliesin and WestWorld trails): At Waypoint 20, I turned onto something called Taliesin. This is the best bit of trail in the preserve. Rocky enough to be the desert, with an occasional rock garden – but fast and swoopy! I spent a few miles being absolutely delighted. It turns into a route around a golf course when it veers south, and it gets lots less interesting. From there, I picked my way through the streets and stopped to watch some men’s league soccer at the park before getting back to my car.

Wrapping it Up

According to the McDowell Sonoran Web site, the conservancy “has even left some rocks in the trail for you!”. And how. There are rocky riding spots in the Valley of the Sun that are well-designed and fun. This is not one of them. The rocks are most often against the contour of the trail, usually sticking straight up into the apex. Most are square-edged, and coming in an area where riders will have barely any momentum. That’s poor design and execution.

Here’s the worst thing: These trails are built linear and point-to-point. That simply screams that they were intended for hikers. There is so much space here: An outstanding trail builder like Kim Doud or Chuck Boyer would use this area to loop trails back into each other, possibly tripling the amount of riding on tap. Perhaps the conservancy decided against that because its management felt it conflicted with being a nature preserve. But I simply don’t know at this point.

Really, I’ll only ride here to create a west-east epic. The riding is just not that great as-is. Maybe a decade of wearing in will help. I just don’t know.

Here’s the true bottom line, though: Locals should appreciate this trail because it’s a place to ride without driving far. But it certainly won’t be a destination for out-of-town fat-tire enthusiasts, who will skip merrily past it and head to one of a dozen far better local trail systems.

This post just might contain affiliate links. Fear not, they’re non-spammy and benign. Hey, I have to keep this thing running somehow!

By Wandering Justin

Writer. Traveler. Gastronomic daredevil. Fitness fan. Homebrewer. Metal dude \m/. Cat and dog lover.


  1. It was, indeed – all thanks to you!

    So I went to the bike shop that once employed me today. I wanted a new Santa Cruz Superlight. No dice – no extra larges in stock!

  2. My partner is having the same problem… I swear bikes are only made for people who are 5’9″ 😉

    Are they going to order one for you? Or are you going to find a different bike?

  3. Yeah, I’m gonna just order one. I’d hoped to just cart one home today and go ride a most excellent trail tomorrow. But the scurvy dog of tallness be scuttlin’ me plans, arrrrr.

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