a varied day hike in White Tank Mountain Regional Park, including the park’s namesake White Tanks along the Ford Canyon Trail
Loop Guide: Mesquite, Ford Canyon, and Waddell Trails
MAP: Phoenix Area Trails (paper) or White Tank Park (PDF)
PERMITS: no permits are required, but there’s a $7 entrance fee for regular passenger vehicles.
DESIGNATION: White Tank Mountain Regional Park (Maricopa County)
BEST SEASONS: fall, winter, spring
DISTANCE: 10.4 mile loop
ELEVATION: trailhead 1,550ft, high point 2,850ft
ACCESS: paved roads
DIRECTIONS: The regional park is located in the northwest corner of the greater Phoenix area – technically near Waddell, AZ. For those coming from outside the local area, the park is best accessed via AZ 303. Exit at Peoria Ave, heading west. Immediately turn south on Cotton Lane, and turn right (west) on Olive Ave, continuing to the road’s end to access the park.
TRAILHEAD: The trailhead for the hike described on this page is at the end of Ramada Way, shown as Ramada #7 on the park map. You’ll be given a map at the park’s entrance gate.
ROUTE: well maintained trail with signed junctions and mile markers
The park gate is closed every night! Hours are:
- Sun-Thurs: 6am – 8pm
- Fri-Sat: 6am – 10pm
DOGS are allowed in this park. The rules go that they must be on a leash (6ft or less in length), licensed, and you must pick up after them.
Here’s a map that shows the trails involved in this loop. You can right-click on the image to view a larger version, or download it.
The hike begins and ends at the picnic area marked #7.
- MQ is the Mesquite Trail
- FD is the Ford Canyon Trail
- WD is the Waddell Trail
- WL is the Willow Canyon cutoff
A schematic map for the park is available online (PDF), from the county park. The image above was culled from the link.
The description below is described in a clockwise direction, going up the Mesquite Trail and down Ford Canyon. The Ford Canyon Trail is the day’s highlight, so going clockwise saves the best for last.
It’s certainly possible to go in the other direction (counter-clockwise). Travel up Ford Canyon can be steep and rough, so some hikers may wish to finish this section first. Counter-clockwise is easier on the knees, too.
This has become a popular route for running, so expect to see a fair amount of trail runners out there – especially on the Mesquite Trail.
From the parking and picnic area at the end of Ramada Way (road), start heading west up the Mesquite Trail, which is a well-maintained, obvious path. Soon you’ll follow a small drainage uphill and traverse to the right, entering another drainage.
After 1.8 miles you’ll reach a junction with the Willow Canyon Trail. Stay to the left on the Mesquite Trail to complete the hike as described, or bear to the right on Willow Canyon to shave the hike’s total distance by 1.4 miles (see map). The upper, longer route arguably has better views.
Continuing on the Mesquite Trail, you’ll climb an additional 2.4 miles to meet the upper end of the Ford Canyon Trail, as well as the upper end of the Goat Camp Trail.
Turn right down the Ford Canyon Trail. You’ll reach the upper end of the Willow Canyon Trail 0.7 miles after leaving the Mesquite Trail. Continue up and over a ridge, with clear views to a high point with communication antennas.
Soon the trail descends into Ford Canyon proper, where you simply follow the wash down the canyon. Soon you’ll encounter an old dam.
For me this was the most enjoyable part of the hike. The white granite sometimes holds pools of water – the namesake “tanks” of the park. The area also tends to feel more remote than other trails in the White Tanks, with some minor rock scrambling required to navigate pour-overs in the canyon.
Keep your eyes open for the point at which the trail leaves the canyon, to the right. The junction will be well marked with a vertical post, 2.7 miles from the upper junction with the Willow Canyon Trail.
If progress down the canyon becomes very difficult and requires rock climbing skills, you missed the junction. Go back.
A steep section of trail bypasses a major pour-over in the canyon. Beyond here you’ll pass a warning sign for uphill hikers, and the Ford Canyon Trail begins to level out, with distant views toward greater Phoenix.
1.9 miles from the bypass is where you’ll reach the junction with the Waddell Trail. Turn right here, and follow the level trail for 1 mile to close the loop.
Radio Summit & Barry Goldwater Peak
Incidentally, neither of the park’s high points are directly accessible via its hiking trails. Park officials discourage going to these peaks (there’s jeep roads that access them), but some hikers choose to do so anyway.
Rumor has it that visiting the peaks is discouraged because the communication towers are sensitive to the local Luke Air Force Base, but I’ve never heard of any hikers getting into trouble for bagging these developed summits.
The prominent peak from the trails is Radio Summit, with its long row of towers. Its peak is slightly over 4,000ft in elevation. Barry Goldwater Peak is the high point of the range, topping out at a slightly higher 4,088ft.
My Trip Notes and Photos
I hiked this loop as described on December 15, 2018. It was my first time in the White Tank Mountain Regional Park, joined by Haley and friend Doug Nering.
It was a unique experience to see so much vibrant life in mid-December, including butterflies, tadpoles, and wildflowers in bloom.