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

There are 9 comments

  1. Kristen Lodge

    Loved reading your article. I too have a soft spot for the Pemberton Trail. It was my first 50K. I was living in Tucson and knew nothing of the amazing parks surrounding Phoenix.
    What a great trail and event – it started my love of trail running and ultra running.

    1. Barth Z

      Nora. You have at Catalina SP a very special trail runner treat…Romero Pools Trail. Where else in Arizona your side of the Canyon can you run up about 4 miles on the western sun drenched flank of Mt Lemon and be rewarded with an ice cold dip in the pools. And if you are fast enough you can meet the same water when you cross the stream at the bottom on your return before a stop at the little gift shop to enjoy a Dove bar.

  2. Lynn David Newton

    Love it! I’ve logged about 50 complete loops on Pemterton Trail from the time I lived there, counting loops run during both the Pemberton 50K and Javelina Jundred, including some solo runs during the hottest days of summer. It was about a 40-minute drive from my house to the trailhead, but well worth the trip. I greatly miss living in that area because of those trails.

  3. Barth Zurbuchen

    Pemberton patiently paced its way into my permanent memory in 2015 when it became my first 50k finish. A deep thankfulness forced out tears of joy shortly after crossing the timing mat for the second time when the realization hit me.. ….. I just completed something I once thought was doubtful and then was doubly surprised when I was told I had won my age group.
    Pemberton is the backbone for so many runs. Mountain bike from the campground or visitor center to any of the outer loops. Stash the bike at Jackass Junction, Dixie Mine, or Rock Knob. Or run in from Lost Dog Trailhead on the Scottsdale side. For hill repeats try Thompson Peak Road, heh heh.
    And the campground. Most of the Hosts are avid bikers and always looking for a riding buddy. Back of the camping loops are elevated with incredible views of 4 Peaks, the Superstitions with a clear view of Flat Iron and Weavers Needle. Plan on spending 2 hours with a Belgian (recommend Kasteel’s Barista Chocolate Quad) enjoying the sun setting behind the McDowells and watching its shadow project across the valley and up 4 Peaks. Then enjoy the purple twilight complete with coyote song.
    Yeah….a very special place Andy. Thanks for jarring that memory loose.

  4. Joel

    I’m here too! I just came down to McDowell Mtn Park today from Flagstaff to get me some warmth and trail time on Pemberton and the other butter smooth trails. I come down a couple times every winter to camp, run, and enjoy the sun. There’s not a more relaxing place to run in winter. I also got my 50K personal best here a couple of years ago, making the place extra special.

  5. Pete

    Great trail! My first ultra being Pemberton 50k. Two loops with a convenient stop at the car after loop 1 to replenish. Still remember the moment and scenery of the point I realized I had just run over 26.2 miles. Great memories! Thanks AJW!

  6. Pete

    I love McDowell although I remember my visits there being very different from smooth trails. Instead, I recall lots of loose, sometimes larger rocks, and uneven terrain that made me cautious of an ankle-twister. Looking forward to this series throughout the year.

Post Your Thoughts