Hike | Ford Canyon Trail | White Tank Mountains
I can’t remember a hike that I’ve ever been on before that has as varied a terrain as Ford Canyon Trail. This out and back, multi-use trail includes sand, dirt, loose rock, and boulders. From just after mile marker 3 to just after mile marker 5, it’s these boulders that give the trail its “hazardous” or double-diamond rating. It’s also what makes the trail incredibly challenging and fun.
- Distance: 7.4 miles one way
- Type of Trail: Out and back
- Elevation Gain/Loss: 1408 ft. between low and high points
- Difficulty: Extremely difficult
- Amenities: Drinking fountains and bathrooms
- Dog-Friendly: Yes
- Hours of Operation: Su – Thu: 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Fri – Sat: 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
- Entrance Fees: $6.00 per vehicle or $2.00 per pedestrian
To avoid most of the flat, desert-terrain approach, we parked at Picnic Area 7 instead of the horse staging area, where the trail actually begins. This puts you about a mile closer to the base of the mountain. One of the advantages of hiking at the White Tank Mountains is the ability to customize routes using different trails. Instead of hiking Ford Canyon Trail as an out and back, we opted to make a counter-clockwise loop from Waddell, to Ford Canyon, to Willow Canyon, to Mesquite Canyon, and then right back to Picnic Area 7. There are several options to make the loop longer, but this route made for an approximately 9-mile trek—perfect for a Saturday morning and afternoon.
Consider the Waddell Trail as an easy 1-mile approach to Ford Canyon, which you’ll connect to just before mile marker 2. The next 1.5 miles of Ford Canyon is relatively easy at a steady incline until you reach a little past mile marker 3. The terrain becomes much more rocky though gradually so—the boulders begin almost as if the trail were a staircase. It gets increasingly more difficult to the point of requiring some scrambling. As the boulders got larger, I had to be a bit more careful where I placed my footing, and there were times I had to use my hands for balance. With that said, there was no part of the trail that made me feel uncomfortable. It was in this part of the ascent that we experienced the most shade from the canyon wall. Once we emerged into the wash, we were in full sun.
As we hiked through the wash, it seemed as if we were on an entirely different trail. We made our way through the white rocks until we reached a kind of alcove. The flora is almost marshy and resembles nothing of the desert plants at the start of the trail. The rocks grew higher on one side, and there were shallow pools of green water from the rain that fell almost a week prior. It was at this point during the hike I had no idea in which direction to go. Once I climbed the rock wall and peered over the pool of water, I saw the trail marker. (For the most part, the trails at White Tank Mountains are very well marked with green mile markers and brown trail markers.)
The rock formations were sometimes large and required additional scrambling. Just after mile marker 4 we reached an earthen damn and by a little after mile marker 5, we were out of the rocky, “hazardous” part of the trail. The terrain changed again into an almost grassy ascent via switchbacks up the mountain. The view at the top was one of my favorites on this hike—the backcountry in winter looked like green and brown waves speckled with cacti. We continued on just before Ford Canyon actually ends to turn onto Willow Canyon Trail, a 1.6-mile stretch that varies in elevation before connecting to Mesquite Canyon Trail. We hiked down the last 1.5 miles of Mesquite Canyon Trail via the switchbacks while taking in some exceptional views of the valley.
This loop might be one of my favorite hikes in Arizona simply because of the varied terrain. With its exquisite geological formations and stunning views at several different points, this challenging hike is one that I can do again and again.
From the north: Take Highway 303 south and exit at Peoria Avenue. Turn right and travel west for 1 mile on Peoria Avenue. Turn left (south) onto Cotton Lane. Turn right (west) on Olive Avenue. Continue 4 miles to the park gate.
From the south: Take Highway 303 north and exit at Northern Avenue. Turn left (west) onto Northern Avenue and travel west for 1 mile. Turn right (north) onto Cotton Lane. Turn left (west) onto Olive Avenue. Continue 4 miles to the park gate.
Park hours allow for stunning views at sunrise and sunset.
Pack plenty of water and a hat or sunscreen as there is little shade cover on the trail.
Be cautious of low-lying, thorny mesquite and Palo Verde trees that line parts of the trail. • Wear shoes/boots with good tread as the trail is rocky.
In the warmer months, get an early start as a most of the trail is in full sun.
Plenty of trashcans are located at the trailheads. Make sure to leave the park better than you found it.
The building located near the park entrance houses the Nature Center, the Regional Library, and a bookstore. You’ll find vending machines, bathrooms, and drinking fountains. Stop in for a quick visit to the Nature Center to pick up maps, snacks, souvenirs, and trail information.
Hours for the Nature Center are:
- Summer (5/09 - 10/09) Monday thru Saturday: 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. Sunday: Closed
- Winter (10/10 - 5/08) Sunday thru Saturday: 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.
This blog was thoughtfully written by Jia Oak Baker. You can find her on Instagram at @violetsky29.
* Please remember to hike at your own risk. To learn more please refer to our Hiking Disclaimer.