Great views, with some local history along the way.
Shortly after you leave the parking lot and head due north on the trail, you'll pass through a cut in a large, earthen levee that runs east-west for a little over a mile. I thought the structure might have been older than it really is, and possibly related to the mining that went on in the area. However, here's what Larry Levy, Steward Chair of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, has to say about the levee:
"Our understanding of the origins of the levee is that it was built for 100-year flood control purposes. That is, it is to prevent or reduce the impact of rare - but not impossible - mountain floods that can come washing out of Bell Canyon and across what is now McDowell Mountain Ranch. Its construction was likely mandated as a prerequisite to getting subdivision approval. Having some minor experience in this area, I surmise that the material used to build the levee was reclaimed from excavations for road beds within McDowell Mountain Ranch. In other words, it's just neighborhood dirt that had to be dumped anyway... we do not have records to prove any of this, we just accept it a reasonable and likely".
After learning this from Mr. Levy, I went to Maricopa County's official website to look at some aerial photos of the area. There is one set of photos taken on January 21, 1993, and another set taken on December 3, 1996. The levee is not present in the 1993 photos, but it is there in the 1996 photos. In other words, the levee was built sometime between those dates, and is at most about fifteen years old.
Once you pass through the cut in the levee, you'll cross the wash that comes down from Bell Canyon. Just beyond that is a right turn onto an old trail. The newer trail continues north and eventually east, but if you take the right turn now, it's a short cut up the canyon. It also leads you to a bit of a mystery in these parts. About a half mile up the trail, there are the remains of a stone house or building. It was roughly square, had a cement foundation and mortared stone walls at least part of the way up. The walls have mostly fallen down by now. On one side of the building, there is a greater concentration of fallen stones. These may have been part of a chimney. There are a couple of steps at what was presumably the front door. Mr. Levy addressed the question of the building for me:
"Your question about the house ruins across the canyon from the mine is an on-going one with us and with city personnel. So far, no one knows. There are no records. One of our MSC founders recalls helping to take apart the wooden portions of the structure back in the 1980's when the house had become an attractive nuisance to neighborhood kids. The fear was that someone was going to get hurt in a fire there. Anyway, common feelings on the subject suggest that this small home was built in the 30's or 40's perhaps by one of the local ranching families for use by a ranch hand... it was not uncommon in Arizona history for people to just go out into the desert on public land and build a home. Sometimes they would live like this rent free for years before anyone asked to them to move, or to file proper claims. Such went on right into the era of the Great Depression and probably afterwards as well".
As you're hiking east into Bell Canyon, look south to the other side of the canyon and you'll see the remains of a mining operation. Here's what Larry Levy of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy says about the mine:
"The mine diggings in Bell Canyon are the remains of the Paradise Gold Mining Company. Newspaper stories circa 1914 tell of the 'discovery' here likely being the largest gold discovery in Arizona to that date. The claims were rolled into a stock company about 1916, and stock was sold at least into 1919. However, it was all a 'working' fraud. They put on all the appearances of making a mine, but never produced any ore - they just appeared to be 'working' on development as they sold stock. They did dig holes in the ground, they did build a bunkhouse on the site, and they did invest in a well for water. But like all frauds of this type, the property was eventually abandoned. The articles of incorporation in Arizona were lifted by court order in June of 1927 after many years of their having failed to file reports with the Commissioner of Corporations and pay fees".
From the top of Bell Pass, you have quite a few options. You can go back down the way you came, enjoying the great views of Scottsdale; you could bushwhack your way north up a ridge to McDowell Peak, and then even on to Drinkwater Peak; you could bushwhack your way south up another ridge to an unnamed, rocky outcropping that has a great view of the towers on top of Thompson Peak; or you could head east. If you head east and downhill, you could go to Windgate Pass, over to a trail up Thompson Peak, down to the Dixie Mine and some very interesting petroglyphs, or on into McDowell Mountain Park.
Distance 3.34 miles, one-way
From the Loop 101 freeway heading south in Scottsdale, take the Bell Road exit. If you're heading north on the 101, you'll need to take the Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard exit, which is south of Bell Road. Then go north on the frontage road, straight through the Frank Lloyd Wright intersection. You'll cross over the Central Arizona Project canal, and Bell Road will be the next major intersection. Once you're on Bell Road, head east for 1.9 miles until you get to 104th Street. There is a small, dirt parking lot on the side of Bell Road at East 104th Street. Park here, and the trailhead is through a gate there.