Scrambling through Arizona’s toughest trails

Finger Rock. (Photo by: Zach Armenta/ Arizona Sonora News)
Finger Rock. (Photo by: Zach Armenta/ Arizona Sonora News)

To truly test how good a hiker you are, take these tough trails and see how long you last.

Arizona may be one big desert but it has no shortage of hiking trails for people to enjoy. Here is a list of the 10 toughest trails in Arizona, according to hiking groups in the state.

Rim to rim to rim

We all like the Grand Canyon but this may make you hate it. You start at Bright Angel Trailhead and head to North rim. After you reach North rim, you head to South Rim to finish. Sounds easy right? Don’t be misled. It’s a 42-mile hike in the Arizona heat. You may see amazing scenery but will you have energy to actually enjoy it? You gain and lose 11,000 feet of elevation throughout the hike and there could be snakes in your way. Tim Davis, Luxe Adventure Traveler, said “Can there be a harder challenge?”

Rim to rim

You may be cutting out one rim on this trail but it doesn’t make it any easier. Instead of 42 miles, you do 24 miles so that should make it easier. Wrong, the heat still exists because Arizona is a desert and that means the weather is still burning hot. Just because you cut out 18 miles doesn’t mean the snakes will hang out in those 18 miles. A key to survive: water, water and more water.

Finger Rock 

I went to the Catalinas early Friday morning trying to reach the top for a picture my teacher told me to get. However, I quickly realized he wasn’t getting that image. The trail starts with an immediate uphill and keeps going uphill. After two miles, I couldn’t find the trail. There were two rock sides you go up and after going up both, I wasn’t sure where the trail was. Bees swarmed around my head looking for a spot to stick me. Returning back to my car was tough as I got lost a second time. If you have weak knees or knee problems, I suggest you stay away. Pack lightly for this adventure.  If you think the finger rock is flipping you off, don’t worry I agree with you.

Lava Falls

If you ever wanted to hike on an extinct volcano, here is your chance at the Grand Canyon. Vulcans Throne is an extinct volcano and despite this being the shortest way down to the Colorado River, it could be the toughest way back up to your car. You drop 2,520 feet in two miles going across loose rocks and lava blocks. There is no shade or water so the typical dry heat will get you. What is hiding in those loose rocks? Possibly rattlesnakes and scorpions. I could barely handle rocks that won’t move. Imagine planting your foot on a rock and as you step forward, it moves and you lose your balance. I don’t need to describe that danger.

Cathedral Rock

The fourth highest peak in the Catalina Mountains, this hike is no joke. This climb is 15 miles and gains 4,500 feet. That isn’t even the worse part. To get to the top, class five hiking is required. That means you need ropes and be able to climb rocks and falls are considered fatal. For those who are uncomfortable or can’t do it, like me, then the closest you can get is 100 feet from the top. Enjoy the view if you don’t make it to the top.

Superstition Ridgeline

Knock on wood if you want to survive this trail. At 11.5 miles long, this trail near Phoenix is tough. The starting elevation is 2,290 feet and you gain 2,820 feet. That is crazy gaining more elevation than you start. This trail can take more than eight hours to hike. According to Michael Humphrey, president of the Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club, you need to bring a map and GPS. “Missing the trail down will leave you watching the city lights at night, but with no way to get there.” Phoenix night lights is nice, but not if you are sitting on a mountain with no way home or supplies.

Mt. Humphrey

The highest point in Arizona is 12,633 feet and in Flagstaff, so make sure you prepare for the cold. The 5.5 mile one way trail will fool you early by enjoying a nice walk through a meadow. Try to remember it because you will start to do switchbacks soon. At three miles, you will be at 11,800 feet elevation. I’m sure you will be able to see your breath every time you get some air. The last two miles will be more uphill and just imagine the punishment your knees will take coming down.

Piestewa Peak

A mile long walk that anyone can do in Phoenix. Looking at nature and enjoying a day with friends. Wrong. This may be the shortest trail I will mention, but it is no joke. You gain 1,180 feet elevation in a mile. You still have the rest of the day to enjoy but you may not have the energy. You don’t need to bring a lot of supplies and worry about being alone.

Wilderness of Rocks

This is the first trail you lose elevation in Mt. Lemmon and then gain it coming back. The four miles going one way will be nice as you go downhill. However, you have to remember that downhill turns into uphill. Those four miles become difficult trying to get back to your car. Instead of seeing rocks and cactus, you get to see trees and get a taste of living in the Pacific Northwest. In the end you gain about 1,300 feet elevation but this could be one of the most relaxing hikes on this list.

Four Peaks Motherlode  

I’m glad I didn’t go to Phoenix for this trail for multiple reasons. The distance is 7.8 miles roundtrip and it has multiple class rankings. It can be considered class three or four based on the trail you take. Class three requires you to climb over rocks and possibly use a rope. Class four you need to have a rope and be able to climb.

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Zach Armenta is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

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