Piestewa Peak is one of the great urban hiking destinations, surrounded by the sprawling Phoenix metropolitan area. You won’t find peaceful natural solitude here, but you will enjoy an invigorating hike to the top of the mountain, with great views of Phoenix and everything else nearby. The hike is 1.2 miles, one way, and gains about 1,200 feet (368 meters).
Even though I arrived fairly early, the parking lot was already quite full. Fortunately, since the trail can take less than an hour for experienced locals who run the trail, people come and go quite frequently. I was lucky enough to catch a parking spot near the trailhead, after just a few minutes of driving around.
The trail to the peak begins here. There are a few picnic tables nearby, but it’s pretty obvious that almost everyone comes here to tackle Piestewa Peak.
Or is it Squaw Peak? The mountain was known as Squaw Peak, or even more offensively, Squaw Tit Mountain, up until just a few years ago. The debate raged for years in Arizona, as to whether the name should be changed. State officials approved the change in 2003, and national officials voted in favor of it, five years later (due to a five-year waiting rule). The new name honors Lori Piestewa, a US Army Specialist killed in Iraq. Lori Piestewa was the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the US military.
That settles the question of the name… although you may still hear it referenced as Squaw Peak. Now, onto the hike!
This won’t come as a shock: you’re going to be doing a lot of uphill climbing. However, this well-trod trail never seemed impossible, or extremely difficult. It was challenging, for sure, but for the most part, the trail is wide, fairly smooth, and not extremely steep.
After a short while, you’re high enough to start enjoying a sweeping view of the Phoenix skyline — which is tinted, unfortunately, by a layer of Phoenix smog.
If you’re in moderately good shape, you’ll have no trouble reaching the peak, but you’ll also have a lot of incredibly slender, muscular physical specimens bounding past you. I experienced it here, and later in the day, on Camelback Mountain. It’s easy to start feeling insecure about your physical prowess, as you watch all of these beautiful people put you to shame.
Along the way to the top, you’ll have some close encounters with some picturesque cactus, which seem to be well-positioned for photographs.
At the top, you have your choice of two peaks: this one, and the one directly behind me as I took this photograph. This one seems to be less popular, which leads me to believe it’s not the actual high point.
Looking down from the top, that big office complex in the foreground is the Charles Schwab campus. In the distance, you can see Phoenix’s stretched-out downtown. The city seems to have two downtowns, as a result of an early vision by city planners, that the downtown district would fill the entire space, and create a lengthy corridor of skyscrapers.
The view east…
… is even better with feet in it.
You have to zoom a long way, to get a good view of Phoenix’s “downtown downtown”.
While at the top, you won’t be alone — and not just because of the crowds of hikers. The mountain’s population of squirrels are more than happy to provide some entertainment, in exchange for any granola crumbs you carelessly leave behind.
I was happy to have the distraction of photographing these little guys for a few minutes.
Looking to the southeast, it’s easy to spot another of Phoenix’s landmark mountains. That pyramid-shaped pile of rocks in the distance is Camelback Mountain. A couple hours after my hike at Piestewa Peak, I tackled the Echo Canyon trail to the top of Camelback. Trust me, if you’re trying to decide between hiking the two mountains, and you’re looking for the easier trail, Piestewa is your best bet. Camelback was much more challenging — of course, that may be in part because I had already hiked Piestewa that day. You can read about the hike up Camelback Mountain here.
The Bottom Line
Hiking up Piestewa Peak is a great way to acquaint yourself with the Phoenix area, or to feel like a local for a little while. Don’t be too intimidated by the super-perfect people who trot up and down this trail every day. And accept the fact that you won’t experience solitude on this hike.
The hike to the top of Piestewa Peak begins in Phoenix Mountain Park. Take the Piestewa freeway (AZ 51) to the Glendale Avenue exit, then head east towards the mountain. As you begin to curve around the mountain, the road turns into Lincoln Drive, and you’ll see the entrance to the park (Squaw Peak Drive).
Parking is limited, and is not adequate to meet the demand — especially on comfortable days in winter. Plan on arriving early, and realize that you may need to park in overflow lots, that require a short hike to the trailhead. Parking and admission are free.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from I-17 to Piestewa Peak: