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Shake-Rattle and Roll at South Mountain Preserve

Friday, August 12, 2011 Mountain Park is one of the great recreational resources of the Valley.
With more than 50 miles of multiuse trails crisscrossing more than 16,000 acres of rugged desert beauty, the park is adored by hikers, bikers and horseback riders alike.

But there's more - several splendid lookouts give even casual visitors an eagle's-eye view of the Valley, while a couple of stables just outside the park allow weekend wranglers to indulge their inner cowpoke on park trails.

The park got its start in 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge authorized the sale of 13,000 acres (the park has since grown) of federal land to the city of Phoenix. Price tag: $17,000. What a steal.

Today, with more than 3 million visitors a year, South Mountain Park is the second- most-visited park in all of Arizona, bested only by the Grand Canyon.

Whether you're looking for a relaxing, half-hour stroll or challenging daylong trek, an easy rolling mountain bike ride or options for road bikes, a scenic desert trail for a horseback ride or spectacularly scenic lookouts, you'll find it at South Mountain Park.


One of the great things about South Mountain Park - in addition to its sheer size, easy accessibility and wonderfully varied terrain - is its system of interconnected trails, which allows hikers to tailor treks to suit their fancies, as well as fitness levels.

Trails range from the short, easy, barrier-free Judith Tunell Accessible Trail to the grueling, 14.3-mile, cross-the-park National Trail.

Fat Man's Pass: One of our favorites is the fun, family-friendly trek to Fat Man's Pass. Kids love slithering through the foot-wide slot. So do adults. The 20-foot squeeze takes you between enormous, smooth granite boulders.

Where: Take the Summit Road to Buena Vista Lookout, then hike on the National Trail east-northeast about 1.5 miles to the signed junction to Hidden Valley. Fat Man's Pass is just beyond.

Length: 3-mile round trip.

Difficulty: Easy.

Ranger Trail: For a harder hike, try the Ranger Trail. As you set out from the Five Tables Picnic Area (which, as you might expect, has five picnic tables), the ridgeline in front of you looks daunting. Not to worry - a series of long, fairly gentle switchbacks keep the ascent from becoming overwhelming.

The Ranger Trail ends at a junction with the National Trail, about 1.4 miles and a leisurely 45 minutes from the trailhead. For better views to the south, continue west along the National Trail about 100 yards.

Return to the trailhead the way you came.

Where: About a quarter mile beyond the park offices at the old entry station (or three-quarters of a mile beyond the new entry station), turn left at the sign to the equestrian area and proceed about a quarter mile to the Five Tables Picnic Area. (Don't fret that the sign refers to the Three Tables area. This is where you turn.)
Length: 2.8-mile round trip.

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous. The trail gains about 800 feet of elevation, but the gradient is reasonably gentle for most of the way.

Mountain biking

The Desert Classic Trail is the best route in the park for mountain biking. The long, rolling single track meanders across the bajada on the park's southeastern section.

Although it's often recommended for newbies, the Desert Classic dips in and out of several sandy washes, sometimes rather steeply. Although experienced mountain bikers will find it an outstanding ride, beginners will likely end up walking several stretches. Be sure to watch for hikers and horseback riders sharing this popular trail.

Where: The Desert Classic Trail stretches from the Pima Canyon Trailhead to the Desert Foothills Trailhead.

Length: 9.6 miles, one way.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate for experienced riders, moderate to difficult for novices.

You may spot a handful of hard-core cyclists grinding along the National Trail, which crosses the spine of the mountain range, all the way across the park. This is a genuinely tough ride, suitable for expert riders only.

Road biking

Used to be, cyclists could expect plenty of shake and rattle as they rolled along the potholed-pitted roads at South Mountain Park. No more. Last year's paving project turned the bone-shaking roads into easy rolling pathways, great for road bikes.

San Juan Lookout: The road to the San Juan Lookout, closed until further notice to motorists (due to fire concerns), is an especially fine ride, a smooth, fast cruise across the scenic western end of the park. And with no motorists to watch out for, it's more fun than ever.

Where: Many cyclists park at the gatehouse and ride the main road about two miles to San Juan Road. If you prefer, though, you can drive to San Juan Road and park in the large triangular area among the roads, then ride the rest of the way.

Length: About 4.5 miles, one way. Add two miles (each way) if you park at the gatehouse.
Difficulty: Easy.

Summit Road: Those looking for a challenge can test their skills on the Summit Road, which also was repaved last year. But it's a tough grind, gaining well over a thousand feet of elevation. Keep in mind that the road is pretty narrow and, often, has virtually no shoulders.

Where: Park at the gatehouse or the beginning of the San Juan Road, as previous, and take the Summit Road to the Gila Valley Lookout.

Length: About six miles one way, if you start at San Juan Road. Add two miles (each way) if you start from the gatehouse.

Difficulty: Strenuous. Recommended for experienced, well-conditioned cyclists only.

Horseback riding

Saddle up and take a ride through the scenic desert foothills within South Mountain Park. There's nothing like the steady clop-clop of hoof beats on a trail and the rhythmic motion of a horseback ride to give you a taste of the Old West.

Ponderosa Stables: For a guided ride, rent a horse at Ponderosa Stables, near the Central Avenue entrance to the park.


There are dozens of picnic tables and grills across the park, all within easy reach by car. Most are first come, first served, but the larger ramadas - some of which can handle up to 200 people - can be reserved by signing up, in person, at the South Mountain Environmental Education Center, up to six months in advance. All are free, except the Activity Complex, east of SMEEC, which has an industrial kitchen and can be leased for $20 an hour.


There are thousands of prehistoric petroglyphs scattered throughout the South Mountain region. Those ancient symbols include representations of geometric figures, lizards, snakes, bighorn sheep and eerie humanoids, but no one knows whether they were meant to convey practical information on the location of game and water sources, or played a role in religious rituals.

Among the best places to see petroglyphs are:

• Off the Telegraph Pass Trail on the south side of the park.

• About a quarter mile or so along the Holbert Trail behind the visitor center.

• Along the Judith Tunell Accessible Trail.

There's also an inscription - almost certainly spurious - of Fray Marcos de Niza near the Pima Canyon Trailhead. Take the Desert Classic Trail south and follow the signs. The inscription is a couple of hundred yards from the trailhead, but the trail does go up several rough, rocky steps. some historians think the Franciscan friar - who claimed to have seen the fabled Seven Golden Cities of Cibola in western New Mexico in 1539 - may have traveled through the Salt River Valley, the carving at South Mountain Park probably was created in the 1920s or 1930s.

Scenic overlooks

The Dobbins Lookout provides the best, most expansive views to the north. The popular, frequently crowded overlook features a stone resthouse, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a brass plaque pointing out about two dozen features in the distance, a couple of unshaded picnic tables and restrooms. (But those with delic`te sensibilities may wish to find other facilities.)

Hikers can access the Holbert Trail from here.

Where: Take the Summit Road a little more than three miles to the signed turnoff to the lookout, which is about a quarter mile off the Summit Road.

Buena Vista Lookout also provides grand views to the north, but not quite as good as Dobbins. It is, however, considerably less crowded.

There's a bench about 75 yards north of the parking area, to contemplate the sweeping views before you.

Hikers can take the National Trail east to Fat Man's Pass and Hidden Valley from this lookout. No facilities.

Where: From the turnoff to Dobbins Lookout, continue about a mile and a half to Buena Vista.

Gila Valley Lookout is the highest point in the park accessible to visitors, only 30 feet or so below the antenna-clad summit of Mount Suppoa (2,690 feet).

Vistas to the south are breathtaking, with range upon range of mountains fading into the distance. You'll also find good views of the Superstition Mountains to the east and the Sierra Estrellas to the west. No facilities.