Trail Love Letter: The Pemberton Trail

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: This is the first installment of a monthly series to pay homage to some of my favorite trails. These are not trail guides, per se, but rather tributes to some of the finest running trails in the United States.]

There is perhaps no more pristine park in the United States than McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Maricopa County, Arizona. Home to both the Pemberton 50k in February and the Javelina Jundred in October, McDowell Mountain Park is a trail runner’s dream. With 67 miles of smooth desert trails, the McDowells have something for everyone.

I first became acquainted with the park when I moved to Phoenix in 1996. Back then, the trail system was not as developed as it is today but the heart and soul of the trail system was clear, the 15.4-mile Pemberton Trail. Forming a perfect loop through the cacti and palo verde-laden basin, “Pembie” as many of the locals call it, is one of those trails that never gets old. My preferred direction for running the loop is clockwise but either way is great. Whichever way you go, you basically climb for five miles, traverse up and down through a series of washes and arroyos for five miles, and then descend for five miles. It’s simple, elegant, and downright beautiful at any time of year.

Just today, on New Year’s Eve, I was fortunate enough to do a loop of Pembie. I crawled out of my tent before dawn, choked down a quick cup of coffee, and was on my way before my family awoke. I will never grow tired of the peaceful serenity of the desert just before sunrise.

As I shook off the morning chill and began to get into a rhythm on the flowy, buffed-out singletrack, the memories of two decades ago came flooding back. Some memories of long hot days in the desert running this impeccable trail without a care in the world and other, more intense memories, of running this loop in the heat of competition, trying to get my first elusive ultramararhon win. My loop today took a bit longer than it did 20 years ago, but it was every bit as satisfying.

As I rounded the final bend and dropped through the last of what seemed like 100 dusty washes, I thought about how great it is that one can return to one’s roots in this way. From the first time I ran Pembie, I’ve raised three kids, had five jobs, and run 170 ultras, and yet the elegant simplicity of the trail remains intact, waiting patiently in the dry desert sun for the next time I can do a loop.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Eddyline Brewery in Buena Vista, Colorado. Epic Day Double IPA tips the scales at 10% ABV so should not be taken lightly. However, it is delightfully drinkable and blends the pungency of danky hops with a citrusy burst of flavor at the end.

Call for Comments

Do you have a story of running or racing on Arizona’s Pemberton Trail?

During the Pemberton Trail 50k. Photo: Pemberton Trail 50k

At the Javelina Jundred. Photo: Aravaipa Running

Night running on the Pemberton Trail. Photo: Andy Jones-Wilkins