Sonoran Desert National Monument

The Sonoran Desert National Monument is Northwest of Tucson, and Southwest of Phoenix. It's not one of the well known desert spots in Arizona. But it's an area of stark desert beauty. You'll find wonderful areas to explore. Some hope it will someday be called Sonoran Desert National Park - but right now it's still a National Monument.

Sonoran Desert National MonumentNorth Maricopa Mountains Wilderness Trail Winds Through the National Monument

All three sections of the Sonoran Desert National Monument convey the character of the AZ desert environment. All three are wilderness areas.

When you visit, you won't likely encounter many others. If any at all! So if you like getting out into areas without crowds - this is for you!

One thing you should be aware of...

Because of the nearness of military base operations - flights of helicopters and jets occur over some of these areas. The Sonoran Desert National Monument acreage is classified as a "Military Training Corridor."

These activities essentially happen just about daily. They are short in duration. The military sorties bring the aircraft in relative close proximity to ground level. That can be disturbing to people seeking a wilderness experience.

People have complained to the BLM about this situation. It really is beyond their control, however.

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Sonoran Desert National Monument Wilderness Areas

North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness

Two trails in this area are suitable for hikers or for horseback trail riding. Margie's Cove Trail is 9 miles long. Brittlebush Trail is 6 miles. The Brittlebush Trail's end intersects Margie's Cove in the middle.

You'll find that access to these trails isn't that easy. Particularly right now: the Bureau of Land Management is not allowing access for trail heads at the beginning of Brittlebush, or at the East end of Margie's Cove. BLM updates should be checked. Read more>

You should take Woods Road to the parking area at the West trail to access it. Then head for Margie's Cove trail. For directions from the Phoenix area, or Gila Bend, it is best to download the map - Get it here >

A historical trail called Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail travels through the Southern portion of this wilderness area. It traces the route Lt. Colonel Bautista followed to lead 240 people from Sonora Mexico to settle in San Francisco California. The Butterfield Overland Stage Route, the Mormon Battalion Trail and the Gila Trail all coincide with this route as well. There is also a 4-wheel drive road along this area for about 10 miles.

A very interesting historical route can be traced, while visiting in the Sonoran Desert National Monument. A great website is available, with an interactive map assistance to plan out a route. See more here >

South Maricopa Mountains Wilderness

This unit of the Sonoran Desert National Monument totals 60,100 acres. Its elevations range from 1,280 ft. to 3,270 ft. It's an area of low to intermediate desert with some mountainous peaks.

You'll find the typical saguaro cactus forests, along with others such as barrel, prickly pear, and cholla. There are palo verde, mesquite, and ironwood trees in the higher areas. The unique and wonderful ocotillo are also found in their suitable environs.

The cactus give way more to scattered trees and bare rocky expanses as the elevation increases. The very low elevations don't generally support many saguaro. There you'll see uniform  "forests" of creosote bush and bursage. 

desert wilderness faunaOcotillos amidst Saguaro Cactus in a Sonoran Desert National Monument wilderness area

You may love this very primitive area. It's suitable for a true back-country desert experience. If you get in there - with the desolation and isolation, neat sightings of animals are possible!

For instance, desert bighorn sheep inhabit the higher elevations. Bobcats, fox, desert tortoise, mountain lion, mule deer, javelina and many raptors can be seen. The right circumstances may be present!

The southern boundary does parallel Interstate 8. Yet there's no way to enter the wilderness from that area. A high clearance 4-wheel drive is recommended.

You should enter in the North via non-maintained dirt roads which exit south off of Maricopa Road (Rt. 238). Still not easy, though. There will be railways to cross. There are also some rights-of-way restrictions encountered.

Be forewarned that the BLM states "legal access is not assured."

Table Top Wilderness

The Sonoran Desert National Monument first caught our eye when we noticed the Table Top Mesa. We were in Casa Grande for a visit, and noted that particularly intriguing mesa-shaped mountain West of town. Before leaving, I wanted to drive toward it.  Kind of check it out!

We began to drive West, getting somewhat closer to it. We started to realize - it wasn't as close to the town as it had seemed! We kept driving, and it wasn't getting that much closer!! We went home and then investigated...

That's when we found out about - Table Top Wilderness! We planned a hike there for an upcoming weekend. What a trip, for sure!

Our research found there are 2 hiking trails within this area. Horseback riding is also suitable in this section of the Sonoran Desert National Monument. There's the Lava Flow Trail and the Table Top Trail.

We wanted to go to the top of this mesa. That's why we decided on the Table Top Trail. I think, against the better judgment we are suggesting here to you (do as we suggest - not as we did here!), we did not prepare well. This was actually one of the first trails in AZ we explored.

Driving from our home in Tucson (then on the East side), it took us about 3 hours just to get to the turn-off on Interstate 8. You actually drive past your observation of Table Top mesa, when approaching from the East. Until you reach the Vekol Road exit.

Drive South from there, the road soon changes from paved to dirt. Our vehicle was a 4-wheel drive, with fairly high clearance - as they recommend. Good thing, as it had rained that past week. There were some areas full of mud and huge puddles. We could see where the large Vekol Wash had been running strong!

Drive from the exit, keep track of your total miles from the freeway exit. The road can be confusing - with some turn-offs without signage. Sometimes we wondered if we were going the right way!

Follow these directions from the I-8 Exit 144: 

  • When the pavement ends you'll see the sign directing you toward the right, to the trail-head for Table Top: 13.2 miles. 
  • At 7.9 miles, try to spot another trail direction sign pointing to the right - a land-mark is a decaying building. But just keep on.
  • When reaching 11 miles, you'll note a cattle corral - make a left there and gently cross the cattle guard. 
  • Continue another 0.9 miles and bear right. The road gets a little rougher yet after this. 
  • In a little less than 3 miles you'll pass the Lava Flow south trail head, with parking on the right.
  • But continue on for Table Top, which you'll reach at 15.5 miles. 

We arrived there and parked - there's room for a few cars. There's an outhouse and a picnic table. We thought that was a bit amazing after coming all that rough way!

We got out our day-pack, our water bottles, our binoculars, and our hiking sticks. We signed the trail log, and began our trek up the hill! We didn't have a map with us - but here's one for you right here >




Table Top Mesa elevation is 4,373 ft. The trail itself is a round trip, 3.5 miles each way.

We forgot a consideration, in our novice desert hiking experience! The upward sloping of this hill becomes a factor! About 2.5 miles of the trail has you increasing your elevation by 2000 ft. Quite a steep climb!

We enjoyed the trail, the views and the terrain altogether. But we did not make it to the top! We got maybe about 2 miles into it, and decided to turn back. We knew we had made some errors. We felt we were unprepared.

  1. We'd gotten too late a start. At our turn-around point it was now almost 4 p.m. We had only planned for a day trip. We needed to be back home by early evening. The day was slipping away.
  2. We were truly not used to climbing such steep trails. In fact we'd only just begun hiking in the desert. It was a bit much - too soon. We needed to start with trails that were a little easier, and then build up to this.

Live and learn - we loved the area! We said we'll be back - and we will. Haven't yet had a chance. It is on our list.

Whenever we drive to San Diego along Interstate-8, I wistfully view Tabletop Mesa. I recall our past trip to this Sonoran Desert National Monument, and think "One of these days..."