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Tom’s Thumb Trail – A Stunning Hike in Scottsdale, Arizona

Tom’s Thumb Trail

Hiking Lenght: 2.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 1300 feet

Hiking Time: 2-3 hours

I and my team headed off to explore another region of Phoenix, and I hung around the Scottsdale area to check out the Tom’s Thumb hike.

This rock formation looks like a giant thumb sticking out of the ground right in the middle of the McDowell Mountain area. If you’ve ever been to the Scottsdale area, you’ve likely seen it jutting out among the landscape. 

When I looked at Tom’s thumb trail directions, I noticed that the McDowell Mountains have two Tom’s Thumb hiking trails. Some locals told me that I wanted to take the one you access via the trailhead off of N 128th street, as that was the popular hike.

I set out early in the morning on the moderately challenging hike to reach the peak before the hottest part of the day. Here’s everything you can expect if you decide to hike Tom’s Thumb in Scottsdale, Arizona.

A stiff climb on desert singletrack leading to fantastic views of Tom’s Thumb and the surrounding area. 

Hunter R., Hiker

Where Is Tom’s Thumb Hiking Trail? 

phoenix to Tom’s Thumb Trail
Phoenix to Tom’s Thumb Trailhead Map

The Tom’s Thumb hiking trail is in Scottsdale, AZ, in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. To get there from Phoenix, take AZ-51 north to Scottsdale. 

Take Exit 15A to merge onto AZ-101 Loop E and then take exit 34 for Scottsdale Road. Continue on Scottsdale Road for about 4 miles and turn onto E Happy Valley Road.

Drive that road for approximately six more miles and continue onto North 118th street. Make an immediate right turn onto Ranch Gate Road, and after 1.3 miles, turn right onto N 128th street.

You’ll find the Tom’s Thumb parking area about a mile down that road. 

Do You Need a Permit for Tom’s Thumb Trail? 

No, you do not need a parking permit or special hiking pass to hike Tom’s Thumb Trail. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is open from sunrise to sunset, and there is no charge for parking or access. 

Tom’s Thumb Trailhead 

After parking in the designated parking area, you will see the signed trailhead just past the restrooms. There’s also a visitor’s center where you can grab a map of Tom’s Thumb Trail.

Although the trailhead area has restrooms, you will not find any drinking water, so bring an adequate amount with you for the hike. 

How Long Does It Take to Hike Tom’s Thumb Trail? 

Most people can complete the hike up and back in about 2 hours. However, it can take up to 3 hours, depending on your experience and physical fitness.

The hike also does not offer much shade, so plan time to stop, hydrate, and rest along the way. 

Other Hikes near Phoenix:

Trail Description

Tom's Thumb Hiking Trail
Trail View – Courtesy of Al_HikesAZ @ Flickr

I arrived at the trailhead shortly after sunrise and had no problem finding a parking space.

I made a quick stop in the visitor center to pick up some trail maps and noticed that the trail does allow you to bring dogs as long as you keep them on a leash.

You should also make sure that your dog can do the steep climb. 

Another thing to note about the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is that it is a day-use park only. So the hours for Tom’s Thumb are sunrise to sunset daily.

No campsites exist here, and camping is not allowed anywhere on the Preserve. 

The trail began to ascend almost as soon as I started. This hike has you gain over 1300 feet of elevation in less than 2.5 miles, so be prepared to get your legs working immediately. 

tom's thumb hike
Tom’s Thumb’s Rock Garden – Courtesy of Al_HikesAZ @ Flickr

I quickly encountered my first set of switchbacks which took me up to Raven’s Roost, the first viewpoint on the trail.

Most hikers will want to stop here for a minute and catch their breath before continuing with the next set of switchbacks that bring you to the second lookout. Each lookout that you stop at has increasingly beautiful views. 

Throughout the hike, Tom’s Thumb remained in my sight, guiding me in the right direction.

However, the trail is also well-marked, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding your way. It is also a relatively smooth trail, making the hike easier.  

The scenery along the hike was interesting, with many neat rock formations of various shapes. Some looked like mushrooms coming out of the desert.

I also happened to catch a glimpse of a Mule Deer as I started and some various types of birds. I’ve since learned that if you visit during the roosting season, you’ll likely see some of the nests of the birds of prey. 

scrambling up to Tom's Thumb
Scrambling up to Tom’s Thumb – Courtesy of Al_HikesAZ @ Flickr

As I got closer to the top, I saw large boulders and had to scramble using my hands through them to continue towards Tom’s Thumb. Soon after, I reached the base of Tom’s Thumb and took in the Four Peaks, Piestewa Peak, and Camelback Mountain views. 

Some rock climbers were there as well and starting to make their way to the Tom’s Thumb summit. It was fun to stay a few minutes and watch them do the technical climb. 

From the base, you can continue hiking to The Lookout via the Lookout trail if you want to go a bit further. I decided not to continue, and after resting and rehydrating, I made my way back down, returning to the parking lot the way I came. 

hiking back down from Tom's Thumb
Hiking Back Down From Tom’s Thumb – Courtesy of “Take A Hike Arizona” @ Flickr

Best Time to Hike It

As with many hikes in Arizona, the best time to hike Tom’s Thumb is between October and March. During these months, the temperature will be below 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Summer temperatures can rise well above that, so you will want to hike as early as possible and know the risks associated with the heat. 

Our Tips and Recommendations 

My recommendations for when you hike Tom’s Thumb: 

  • This trail does not offer any shade during the daytime, so you may want to wear a hat for protection from the intensity of the sun. My team recently tested and reviewed a variety of women’s hiking hats if you’re looking for ideas on what type to wear. 
  • Bring plenty of water with you. Remember, the trailhead does not have any available drinking water. 
  • If you’re hiking the Tom’s Thumb trail toward the end of the day, make sure you return to your vehicle before sunset. The park gates close at sunset every day. 
  • Although you can do this hike with children, I don’t recommend trying it with ones who are very young. The scrambling portion at the end may prove too hard for most younger children. 
  • The area does have rattlesnakes. Watch for them as you walk, and don’t wander off the trail. 

FAQs

Where Do You Park for Tom’s Thumb Trail?

To access the Tom’s Thumb trailhead, park at the designated parking lot off N 128th street in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. You will find adequate free parking there. 

Can You Climb Tom’s Thumb? 

Yes, if you have experience and proper rock climbing equipment, you can climb to the top of Tom’s Thumb once you reach the base. I saw a few people attempting this climb the day that I visited. Only experienced technical rock climbers should attempt it.  

What Mountain Is Tom’s Thumb?

Tom’s Thumb is a mountain made out of granite, located atop the ridgeline of the McDowell Mountains near Scottsdale, Arizona. It has an elevation of 3,924feet. 

How Hard Is Tom’s Thumb?

The Tom’s Thumb hike is considered a moderately challenging hike. You gain over 1300 feet of elevation in about 2.5 miles. It has some steep areas, and you will need to scramble a bit at the end, but it is not as tricky as Camelback Mountain. 

How Was Tom’s Thumb Formed?  

The McDowell Mountains formed from various rocks of the Precambrian period about 25 million years ago. Tom’s Thumb is made up of granite and is located in the area of Arizona that many consider to have the best granite in the state.