Valley locals don’t have to go far to reach primo Arizona backpacking: All of our top trails are two hours or less from Phoenix. Within that short drive, you’ll reach towering saguaros, rare desert oases, sculpted canyons, and a few top-notch swimming holes for good measure.
1. Reavis Ranch, Superstition Wilderness
Trailhead: Rogers Trough
Mileage: 14.4 round-trip
Accumulative elevation gain: 2,455 feet
Drive from downtown Phoenix: 2 hours
This classic out-and-back overnight trip in the Superstitions Wilderness might surprise those who’ve only explored the western edges of the range. Hikers along the trail are treated to shady groves of alligator juniper and ponderosa pine and grassy meadows. The primary attraction, however, is the remains of the Reavis Ranch and its historic orchard, where you can collect a few fresh apples in the fall. With a reliable water source, abundant campsite options, and several interesting side trips nearby, this trip often can easily be extended to two nights.
2. Cave Trail #4 (Seven Springs) to Spur Cross, Tonto National Forest
Trailhead: Cave Creek
Mileage: 12.4 (point to point)
Accumulative elevation gain: 1,700 feet
Drive from downtown Phoenix: 1 hour 30 minutes
This shuttle hike starts near the popular Seven Springs area northeast of Carefree and traverses the southern edge of the Tonto National Forest, ending at the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek. Much of this easygoing trail follows a gorgeous little canyon containing one of the closest perennial streams to the valley. This makes for a pleasant mix of shady riparian vegetation alongside the Sonoran Desert ecosystem—and keep your eyes out for two crested saguaros in the first 3 miles. If you can’t arrange the vehicle shuttle, this trail is also great as an out-and-back from the Seven Springs side, or you can catch the Skunk Tank Trail to create a loop back to your car.
3. Horton Creek Trail, Tonto National Forest
Elevation gain/loss: 1,222 feet
Drive from downtown Phoenix: 1 hour 45 minutes
Horton Springs is a popular respite from the Phoenix heat. Tucked away at the base of the Mogollon Rim, this spring seemingly pops right out of the hillside, flowing downstream along much of the trail, greeting approaching hikers. From the parking area, the trail gains steadily through a mixed forest of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, oak, and alligator juniper towards the Rim. You’ll find the spring just beyond the intersection with the Highline National Recreational Trail, which offers some alternative campsite options if you prefer additional solitude. The springs are a magical, mossy, lush oasis that seems out of place for arid Arizona. Head back the way you came, or combine the Highline and Derrick Trails for a more challenging loop back to the trailhead.
4. Fossil Springs, Fossil Springs Wilderness
Trailhead: Fossil Springs
Mileage: 8 (not including side trips)
Elevation gain/loss: 1,785 feet
Drive from downtown Phoenix: 2 hours
This trail leads to one of the most prized riparian zones in the state. Discharging nearly a million gallons of water at a constant 72 degrees, Fossil Springs is one of the most abundant and reliable water sources in Arizona, and supports a diverse ecosystem of trees, shrubs, fish, and birds. While entrance permits are required for the summer busy season—April through September—the remainder of the year is perfect for an overnight backpacking trip.
5. Charlebois Spring via Bluff Spring & Dutchman Trails, Superstition Wilderness
Accumulated elevation gain: 2,290 feet
Drive from downtown Phoenix: 1 hour 15 minutes
Located in the western heart of the Superstition Wilderness near several water sources, Charlebois Spring (often pronounced “Charley Boy” by Phoenix locals) offers a variety of overnight trip options, including three different return routes. It’s also perfectly located to serve as a basecamp to explore the folklore and historical sites surrounding the infamous Lost Dutchman Gold Mine in the area. The most scenic loop swings out around Miners Needle before heading down Whiskey Spring Canyon and catching Red Tanks Trail to the northeast towards Charlesbois Spring, then returning to the trailhead via Bluff Spring.