Rock Climbing in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

By local contributor
Annemarie Kruse

What to Expect

The granite boulders of the McDowell Mountains have been the playground of rock climbers for decades, long before the formation of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The geology in the northern part of the city of Scottsdale on the north end of the McDowell Mountain range is characterized by large granite rock piles of rough-grained granite, similar to the famous rocks of Joshua Tree National Park. As the city of Scottsdale grew, developers eyed the surreal boulder-strewn landscape but outdoor enthusiasts pushed back and initiated the process of creating the citizen-supported McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The Arizona Mountaineering Club, an organization of regional climbers was a very active part of this grassroots effort.

Through the efforts of local citizens and the Arizona Mountaineering Club, rock climbing was built into the Preserve’s master plan as a legitimate and sanctioned activity. Limitations were instituted, allowing only for the preservation of existing and historic routes in the region and the creation of designated approach trails to prevent off-trail hiking. As a result of this provision, most of the rock climbing routes in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve are traditional style routes, requiring climbers to place all gear (bolts, pitons, etc) required to protect against falls and to remove gear after use.

Most of the popular climbing routes in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve are near the Toms Thumb Trailhead. Some of the most well-known spots are Sven’s Slab, Gardener’s Wall, Morrell’s Wall, and the Thumb itself.

  • Rock surface
  • Types of climbing
  • Difficulty levels


Popular Climbing Areas

There are numerous climbing spots around Tom’s Thumb trailhead and Granite Mountain with the majority being trad climbing and only a few options for sport climbing or bouldering.

Sven Slab: Access to Sven Slab from the Tom’s Thumb trailhead requires only a short 0.5-mile hike from the parking lot. This large granite boulder hosts a number of different routes from relatively beginner options like the ever-popular “Quaker Oats,” one of the few sport climbing options in the area, to more challenging options to hone your skills in disciplines like edge climbing and or multi-pitch climbs like Mouse Tracks.

Tom’s Thumb: This 200’ tall granite dome is the most prominent feature on the north end of the McDowell Mountains and has long been a favorite of climbers in the region. In fact it was named for a local climber called Tom Kreuser who bagged the first ascent of the Thumb in 1948. Supposedly there are more than 30 routes to the summit of the Thumb, including classics like Treiber’s Deception and Kreuser’s Route. Climbing the Thumb is a must for Phoenix-area climbers. Approaching the routes on the Thumb requires a 2-mile hike.

Gardener’s Wall: Gardener’s Wall is just below Tom’s Thumb so be prepared to hike to start your day. The most classic route at Gardener’s Wall is Hanging Gardens. It’s a 5.6 2-pitch trad climb with the option to hike down off the back. Gardener’s wall also offers several sport climbing routes.


Things to know

The climbing season in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is primarily winter and spring. In the summer the rock gets scorching hot. Whatever the season, you should be properly prepared for being outdoors in the desert. Some of these routes require quite a bit of hiking which makes water even more important. There is no water at the Tom’s Thumb trailhead, so bring plenty with you for the day.

The local REI in Paradise Valley has some great resources on climbing in the region if you’re looking for more insider tips and offers occasional climbing classes and the Arizona Mountaineering Club puts together outings and community events as well.

The Tom’s Thumb trailhead provides access to all of the areas above and is about a 40 min drive from downtown Scottsdale.