Horseback Riding Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Arizona

Longtime rider and horse breeder Lynn Kelley shares great horse trails in Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Arizona, part of Equitrekking's 50 State Trail Riding Project.

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” —- Navajo proverb

by Lynn Kelley

We are so fortunate to have visionaries here in the Scottsdale area that subscribe to this philosophy! They created the parks where we ride our Marchador horses!

McDowell Sonoran Preserve horse trails arizona

It was 1990 when Scottsdale citizens initiated the preservation of Scottsdale's McDowell Mountains and the Sonoran Desert. The vision was to preserve approximately 36,400 acres, equivalent to 1/3 of Scottsdale's total land area! When completed, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve will consist of mountains, Sonoran Desert, and natural corridors linking to natural open space in adjacent communities and to the Tonto National Forest (3 million acres) and the Maricopa County McDowell Mountain Regional Park (21,000 acres).

McDowell Sonoran Preserve horseback riding az

What the three areas mean to horseback riders is quite a varied terrain! The Brown Ranch trailhead has access to many mountains, hills and boulders with great vistas from the summits. McDowell Mountain Park has wide roads and sandy washes with wonderful wildlife. Tonto National Forest provides trails that lead to the Verde River, for splashing and playing and watching the bald eagles that nest there.

The Preserve is one of the areas we ride often. It is open to the public from sunrise to sunset and it’s free! What makes it even better for horseback riders is that no motorized vehicles are allowed within the Preserve. Bikers, hikers and horses are allowed! Dogs are allowed but must be leashed.

scottsdale arizona horseback riding trails

If you are lucky enough to live close to a park boundary like we are, you can just ride into the Preserve using one of their designated entry points. The step-over entry is something you should train at home before you get here! We have witnessed many a frustrated horse and rider team.

stepover horse trails scottsdale preserve arizona

Or you can trailer to any one of the many trailheads. Brown’s Ranch Trailhead is the one we use most. This trailhead provides parking for 200 vehicles and 24 horse trailers, restrooms, shade ramada, shaded educational amphitheater, water for people, dogs, and horses. This trailhead accesses the vast network of trails throughout the northern area of the Preserve, including the Brown’s Mountain Trail with a spur trail to the summit.

Arizona scottsdale northern preserve map mcdowell sonoran

The trails are well marked and mileage is posted on the maps and often on the trails. The desert can be tough on horses. In the low areas, the ground is often sandy or hard-pack, but as you climb, there are granite outcroppings and boulders. Wearing boots or having shoes on your horse is a good idea.

brown ranch trail photos

Bring water with you on the trail! Even on a cooler day, you need to drink a lot of water.

Because there are over 55 miles of trails from the Brown’s Ranch Trailhead, it is surprisingly quiet and peaceful. Sometimes when we ride out on the weekdays, we will be the only riders we see. You can ride along in silence and listen to the hawks calling or come up on some of the wildlife that lives in the desert: javelina, deer, coyotes, bobcats and yes, there are jackrabbits here too!

The desert landscape is harsh with lots of cactus. One ride, my mare was kind of jumpy and I finally got off and found a branch of stag horn cholla in her tail. Every few steps it was sticking her in the rear legs. “Good girl!”, I said when I got off and saw what was happening.

nature woodpecker scottsdale preserve

pricklypear arizona horseback

The elevations in North Scottsdale make it about 10 degrees cooler than what you would find in the city and there is almost always a gentle breeze. If you choose to climb to the mountain tops, the trails are steep and they are rugged, but the views are worth it. You will need the rest at the top anyway to rest your horse, so it’s a great place to take a break. Coming down, we have to rate the horse’s speed-- too many rocks and boulders to go fast. Some of the shortest trails will actually take some time if they are climbing trails.

The trails are built in a sustainable manner, meaning they are improved to reduce erosion and wear. Many are named in the spirit of the history of the area, including Bootlegger trail and Whiskey Bottle Hill, which makes it fun. It is not so many years ago that this was free-range cattle country–– they were there when we first moved to Scottsdale in 2001. There are lots of stories about ghost cows at Brown’s Ranch–– your horse may see one on the trails here!


How you can go: If you do not own a horse or are visiting and would like to go ride, there is one outfitter that takes trail rides into the preserve, contact Cave Creek Outfitters. For more information on the Scottsdale Preserve, visit Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve website and the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy website.

About the Author: Lynn Kelley is passionate about riding and about Mangalarga Marchador horses, the ultimate Brazilian Saddle Horse. Lynn and husband John own and operate Summerwind Marchadors and SW Future Foal in AZ, CO and NC. For more information and photos of the Marchador breed, you can visit her at the Summerwind website or on Facebook.