Usery Park – Pass Mountain and Desert Hiking

In one of those weird little ways that things work out, Usery Park is located just below Usery Pass. Usery Pass is between Usery Mountain and Pass Mountain and Usery Park is on the Pass Mountain side.

In case you want to tell which mountain is which, Usery Mountain has a big sign on the side of it that says “< Phoenix”…

The Phoenix sign

and Pass Mountain is the one with the big tan “scar” across its side.

Old Scarface Pass Mountain

Usery Park is part of the Maricopa County park system. It’s located in the east Valley, between Mesa and Apache Junction.

In addition to the hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and riding trails, Usery Park has a visitor’s center, an archery range (five-star rated), picnic areas and a campground. On the southeast side of the park is the Arizona Model Aviator’s flying site, with an 800’ paved runway. Since the park is elevated above the Valley, views extend across the Phoenix metro area. On a good day, the White Tanks on the Valley’s west side are visible in the far distance, with the Phoenix city center, Camelback, the Papago Buttes and South Mountain closer in and with the Santan Mountains to the south. Good views of the Superstition Mountains to the east are also to be found in the park.

Usery Park itself is Sonoran desert, with many fascinating animals and plants on view for the lucky and the vigilant. We’ve seen coyotes, desert tortoises, various species of lizards, hawks, turkey vultures, hummingbirds, rabbits, cliff chipmunks, and many other types of animal. There’s cholla, saguaro, barrel, and other cacti, too, plus lots of ocotillo and Arizona’s famous wildflowers in the spring. Trails run all through the park. Those on the south end are mostly through the flat alluvial fans – the debris that has washed off Pass Mountain – but even there you will need to watch your step.

The Merkle Trail (marked MT on this map), just to the southwest of Pass Mountain, is the only barrier-free (though unpaved) trail in Usery Park, with a round trip distance of .9 miles. The trailhead is at about 1980’ above sea level. If you take the Vista trail (, marked VT and definitely not barrier free!) instead of one side of the Merkle, you get a short, steep climb to 2,078’ at the highest point in the Merkle Hills and a total trip of 1.1 miles.

The Merkle Trail

The Merkle Trail

Vista Trail Turnoff

Vista Trail Turnoff

Climbing the Vista Trail

Climbing the Vista Trail

The Wind Cave trail (marked WC) goes up the side of the mountain, gaining about 900’ in 1.5 miles. There’s a steep section in the middle of the hike as the trail nears the mountain, but the last part is a bit easier as it runs along the side of the mountain. The end of the trail is not quite at the top of the mountain and hardy souls can go on up, though the trail is not improved and is difficult.

A look down the Wind Cave trail in Usery Park

The Wind Cave itself isn’t really a cave, but rather a depression in the face of the “scar”. The niche is deep enough to provide a little shade for much of the day. There are bees that have built a hive into the face of the rock in the back of the “cave” and enough water seeps out of the rock face to keep plants growing on the wall. From the cave and other high points on the trail you can look north across the Salt River and, if the timing is right, see the 560’-high fountain in the lake at Fountain Hills.

The scar is actually a wide band of yellowish volcanic rock called rhyolite, or tuff, laid down about 16 million years ago from volcanoes in the area where the Superstitions now are. Since it’s sitting on ancient granite and capped by dark rock, the band stands out quite prominently. It is also fairly soft, allowing erosion to pit its surface, making small depressions like the “Wind Cave.”

A view near the top of the Wind Cave trail in Usery Park

Embedded in the rhyolite are chunks of other rock from the original volcanic core. One place along the trail offers an embedded rock that’s broken open to expose a geode. Pretty cool!

If you prefer distance over elevation, or want to get away from things, the Pass Mountain trail (marked PM, naturally!) runs 7.1 miles around the mountain. The east side is real wilderness, so be prepared before you head out on this one. We’ve not yet done the loop, so can only offer basic information that it’s of only moderate difficulty (assuming that you’re prepared to do a 7-mile desert hike in the first place).

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of other trails running through the park that offer different perspectives on a beautiful and exotic landscape.

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