Phoenix Hikes: A South Mountain Traverse

Itching to get out of the office, a co-worker and I decided to get outside and go for a nice long hike this past weekend. We headed to South Mountain Park & Preserve, a short drive from downtown Phoenix. Referred to simply as South Mountain, the park is actually a series of small mountain ranges within a vast desert preserve. Visible from just about anywhere in the Valley, the mountains anchor the southern part of the city’s skyline. Along with Camelback and Piestewa Peak, it is one of the natural icons of Phoenix. The mountain is not very high, only 2,690 feet at its highest, but it stretches for miles. With over 17,000 acres and 51 miles of trails, South Mountain is the second largest municipal park in the world! Downtown Phoenix is literally only minutes away, yet the desert landscape on the mountain seems like worlds apart.
South Mountain Trails
Our plan was to follow the National Trail, a 17 mile transverse of the mountain. To make this logistically feasible, we parked one of our cars on the East side of the mountain at Pima Canyon trail head and then drove the other one out to the Western end. We parked at the San Juan trail head, a gravel lot off Estrella Drive and 43rd Ave. There we caught an access trail to San Juan Lookout and started on the National Trail.
 Desert Flower
The National Trail runs for nearly 15 miles and is the longest trail in the park. It covers a lot of ground, but is otherwise not very difficult. The trail reaches a max elevation of just under 2,500 feet, mostly meandering its way along the ridge of the mountain. The initial ascent was fairly steep, but once on the ridge we were cruising.The desert was full of life! Incredibly, cacti and other shrubs were already blooming. While the Northern states remain buried in snow, Spring is already upon us in Arizona. It was cool to the Ocotillos covered in green leaves. We have one in our yard at the house and it looks completely dead. Apparently, they only grow leaves once or twice a year when the rains come. Wild! We continued our journey up to Telegraph Pass and had lunch beneath the towers that supply Phoenix with its entertainment (TV and radio). After lunch, we took a side trip over to Dobbin’s Lookout, the highest view point accessible to visitors. A stone rest house built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps still remains. It never ceases to amaze me how much the CCC accomplished. The lookout was worth the trip as it presents a great vantage point of the Phoenix skyline.
South Mountain
A couple miles farther down the trail we took another sidetrip, this time on a spur trail through Fat Man’s Pass and Hidden Valley. The pass was a narrow slit through a rock that I could barely squeeze through, let alone a “fat” man. On the other side, Hidden Valley was beautiful. Some old saguaros called this place home and it seemed to be a nice oasis of desert life. 2 miles after the valley the National Trail officially came to an end. We continued down Pima Wash Trail the last mile to the parking lot where we reached my stuffy car around 4. The drive back to the other side was a bit agitating. After a full day spent in the serenity of nature, we were in no mood to deal with rush hour traffic. By the time I got home, I was burnt out. It had been a great day though. I love living somewhere so close to the outdoors. It’s great to really get away! Until next time…
South Mountain
How to Get There:
Pima Canyon Trail head is located on Pima Canyon Rd. To get there, take I-10 East towards Tucson. Get off on Exit 155, Baseline Rd. Head West on Baseline before turning left (South) onto 48th st. Pima Canyon Rd is off 48th street. You’ll see signs. Other places in the park have various access points. Check a map.
There are several different entrances to the park, depending on which part of the mountain you are going to. One of the most popular is Pima Canyon Trailhead. There is no cost to enter the park.
Good maps can be purchased at REI or other outdoors stores. Otherwise a decent one can be found on the Phoenix Government site.

Written by Jake G

I'm a 26 year old who loves to hike, bike, backpack, and explore the outdoors. I'm a Midwesterner who currently resides in sunny Arizona. I hope to inspire others with my adventures and maybe give some advice for your future vacations. Follow me as I travel around the country and...
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