My most recent quest to the McDowell’s led me to the steep trail up the boulder-clad, granite mountainside, toward the fork that would take me either east to Goat Hill, Hog Heaven and the East End or west to Windgate Pass. My destination lied just north of the well-traveled ridge-line path to Windgate Pass. I would journey in the shadow of the Glass Dome, along the Gardner’s wall, skirting the massive granite promontory known as Tom’s Thumb on my way to The Rist…where I would seek out the Ogre’s Den.
I love creative landmark names and some of the best names on the planet come from river runners and rock climbers. It just so happens that the granite-strewn north end of the McDowell Mountain Range in North Scottsdale is a climbers heaven. The north slope of the range, where my trail would take me, is littered with massive chunks of granite rock. Some are huge exposed monoliths like Tom’s Thumb, a 150ft geological feature that is easily recognizable from almost anywhere in the valley. Others are piles of jumbled boulders that have collapsed on each other creating a virtual playground for rock climbers.
As I had agreed to drop off some friends to an afternoon of drinking in Scottsdale, I decided I would take advantage of the opportunity and hike the trail to Tom’s Thumb. I have visited Tom’s Thumb before, many, many years ago when I was new to the valley and had no idea what this massive feature was. I simple knew I had seen it many times when driving in north Scottsdale and was curious as to what it looked like up close. Not knowing, or being aware, of any trail I simply parked my truck and climbed the mountainside to reach the huge granite feature. That was nearly 15 years ago. Now, I know the valley and I know many of the trails and landmarks and I wanted to revisit this iconic destination again…on the official trail.
So I drove down the unimproved, dirt road past private property, commercial sub-divisions and open grazing land to the base of the mountain. The area is now part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, and there are designated trails and official rules regarding the use of the area. Due to some construction near-by, there is a temporary access parking area for Tom’s Thumb located at the end of 128th street (signs are posted to guide you). The parking area would potentially hold about 10-12 vehicles but there is a smaller overflow parking area just before you get to the main one which I would guess holds about 4-6 vehicles. Luckily, this trail is not very crowded and not often accessed from the north side. Especially when you get to visit the trail mid-week, as I did.
The trail starts at the northwest corner of the main parking area. There is a sign to mark the way and also warns to clean up after your pets (thank you very much). It’s a relatively easy walk at first until the trail turns sharply south and begins the switchback up the mountain. It’s not a long trail, but it does climb aggressively up. There are some great little side trails to small lookouts that offer great vantage points to the north. If you’re willing to wander off trail a little, the route offers some very unique and interesting boulders and rock formations.
The main trail to the ridge-line splits and heads east to larger rock formations and climbing areas while the western trail heads further into the preserve toward Tom’s Thumb, Windgate Pass and the Gateway Trails. There is a sign along the main trail that tells you where to turn off to visit Tom’s Thumb and the Gardner’s Wall. Tom’s Thumb is impressive, but unless you have your climbing gear with you and the experience to use it there’s not much to do there. I stopped at a nice boulder pile just south of Tom’s Thumb and climbed around for a while practicing some basic bouldering skills. As I played among the boulders, I had a visitor. Considering I had only seen one other person, an older man walking his dog, on the trail that day I was surprised to have someone appear on the trail with me. We crisscrossed each other’s paths a couple of times before the young woman asked if I’d been here before then asked, “Do you know where the cave is?”
I did not know where the cave was…but I had heard about it. The Ogre’s Den is a small cave located “just off the trail past Tom’s Thumb“, according to the hiking books. The challenge had been offered and I accepted, we WOULD find the Ogre’s Den. Armed with an impressively vague description and no real idea where to look or what to look for, we set out “past Tom’s Thumb” to look for the cave. I admit that I wandered cluelessly across the ridge to nearly every pile of boulders that could possibly house a small cave. The only other clue we had was that there was supposedly wall paintings and artwork in the Ogre’s Den and as we both searched we hoped it would be obvious once it revealed itself.
We decided quickly that we had searched too far from Tom’s Thumb and headed back, hiking around the south side of The Rist where, on a hunch, I followed a small game-trail up the south side of The Rist and stumbled upon a shallow hollow in the rock, with a well-worn floor and artwork painted on the rock walls. I called my discovery down to my new companion who quickly scrambled up the path to join me in the Ogre’s Den. We spent a few minutes exploring the small cave, finding a small shelf in the rock where past visitors have left offerings, presumably to the resident Ogre. There is also a small decorative box next to a pile of spent ballpoint pens, with paper on which to scrawl your appeals to fickle Ogre.
I climbed out of the cave through a small crag above the offering shelf and found myself at the shoulder of the main trail through The Rist. I had passed within feet of the Ogre’s Den and had never suspected it’s location was so close. Laughing at my own inability to discover the feature we were after, we headed back the way we had come. My new friend had parked at the same trailhead and I now had a trail companion on the return to my truck. As much as I am a fan of solo-hiking, there is something fun about meeting a fellow hiker, sharing conversation and swapping stories. Especially when you’ve just successfully completed a quest together!
Tom’s Thumb – McDowell Sonoran Preserve
Some trailhead parking. From Phoenix head east on 101 to Pima, north on Pima Road to Dynamite and east on Dynamite to 128th Street. Head south on the unimproved dirt road following the signs to the parking lot trailhead.
Trail Length: 3 mile round-trip (without the extra wandering around)
Elevation Gain: 1,000 feet
Difficulty: Easy at the top, moderate to strenuous up the mountain
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