hiking through the desert located in a new regional park south east of the Phoenix area
NORTHERN LOOP AND 'Q' LOOP
The San Tan Mountain Regional Park is a work in progress in the south east area of the valley, near Queen Creek. When we first hiked here, there is a proposed trail system, however the trails are not fixed yet. There were a few "Temporary" loop trails marked as Loop A and Loop B. These trails have since been marked, although in a different manner than the the temporary labels.
Either fortunately or unfortunately, we took an unmarked loop trail that took us further south, looping around the 2300 ft peak to the southwest of the parking area. We have no idea if this loop will become part of the eventual park trail system, but we're calling this the Q loop (Q for "Questionable").
The Q loop starts at the visitors center. Towards the back of the visitors center is an entrance to the park. Don't forget the $6 parking fee.
Follow the San Tan trail to the south from the visitor center. It can be sandy walking and there are sections where you are walking in a wash following horse hoof prints. Follow the trail eventually winding through a saddle with views of the west side of the park, including views of the Gila River Indian Community. Here the trail becomes more distinct and easier to follow. This area of the hike is the most picturesque, as you are alone among the Saguaro dotted desert, with towering mountains to your North. Keep your eye out for the area of trail that turns right (North) to make sure you don't walk right out of the park.
The trail continues around the un-named peak, eventually merging back up with the Northern loop, which is a well marked dirt road, closed to vehicle traffic. This trail section is now named the Moonlight trail. From here, it's a flat, straight shot back to the parking area.
A few days later, we returned to try the Northern Loop. The Northern Loop is well marked and starts from the parking area after entering the park and paying your $6 to the nice person at the gate. We did the Northern Loop in a counter-clockwise direction to make it easier to navigate. Turn right at the first hiking sign for the Northern Loop, this is marked as Goldmine Trail. From here, the route finding is minimal as long as you follow the signs pointing for the trail at any trail intersection. This loop is more flat but also exposes you to the solitude of the desert in this park. There are plenty of good views of the Goldmine Mountains to the north. This trail is open to mountain bikers (which yield to hikers) and horseback riders (which you need to yield to) so stay alert. After 1.1 miles, the Goldmine trail ends and you turn left onto the San Tan trail. Take the San Tan trail another 1.5 miles to the intersection with the Moonlight trail. Turn left onto the Moonlight trail and follow it the remaining 1.2 miles to return to your car.
If you have the time, the memorial to the fallen solders of the Afgan and Iraq wars is well worth the time to visit. It's at the base of the tall flagpole near the visitor center. The details of hiking in this area are sure to change as the park evolves, but this is nice glimpse of what may come.
Link to San Tan Regional Park website: http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/santan/