South Mountain Park in Phoenix is an island of rugged Sonoran Desert wilderness in a sea of urban sprawl. And no tiny speck of an island. South Mountain Park is 11 miles long and spreads across more than 16,500 acres, making it the largest municipal park in the country. The peaks of the three mountain ranges that comprise the park — the Ma Ha Tauk, Gila and Guadalupe — top 2,000 feet, more than 1,000 higher than the valley floor.
While elevated overlooks accessible by car and ridgeline trails offer sweeping views of downtown Phoenix and adjacent suburbs, the park’s 51 miles of trails for horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking make it easy to leave the city behind.
Far-sighted Phoenix city fathers in 1924 bought 13,000 acres from the federal government for $17,000. During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built many of the trails, overlooks and other park facilities still in use.
Land purchases by the city through the years — the most recent in 2009 — have expanded the park to nearly 17,000 acres.
Things to do
Sedentary types can drive up the park’s Summit Road to Dobbins Lookout, the second highest point in the park, for panoramic views of downtown high-rises, Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak. But most visitors come to hike and mountain bike.
Most of the trails are rocky, rugged and oftentimes steep. Families with small children will enjoy the 1-mile Judith Tunnell Trail that begins at the South Mountain Environmental Education Center near the park’s main entrance at Central Avenue. The trail is wheelchair-accessible and features benches, shade ramadas, water fountains and interpretive signs explaining the natural history and cultural history of the park.
At the other end of the spectrum is the National Trail, which takes you the east-west length of the park. At more than 14 miles, the National Trail is a demanding day hike, but the payoff is long stretches of solitude in a city of more than 1 million people.
Along any trail, keep an eye out for some of the hundreds of Native American petroglyphs etched into the boulders and cliff faces. The designs were made by carving into the rock and removing the dark patina-stained layer.
Why you’ll want to come back
Why step on a scale when regular trips to Fat Man’s Pass can gauge how the old waistline is expanding? At Fat Man’s Pass Two, giant boulders come together leaving a narrow passage about 20 feet long and maybe a foot wide. The easiest way to get to Fat Man’s Pass is to park at the Buena Vista Lookout and hike 1.8 miles east on the National Trail.
Flora and fauna
The desert is full of life and South Mountain Park is a good place to learn that. There are more than 300 species of plants in the park including palo verde, ironwood and the towering saguaro cactus (pictured in the top photo) with arms reaching for the sky.
Birds commonly seen in the park include Gambel’s quail, roadrunners, Harris hawks, canyon wrens, canyon towhee and rock wrens.
If you’re on the trail early in the day — or very late in the day — you may see javelina or a coyote.
By the numbers:
- Website: South Mountain Park
- Park size: 16,500 acres or 25.8 square miles
- 2010 visitation: 3,000,000
- Funky fact: The male chuckwallas — a type of large lizard — of South Mountain Park have an orange tail, a trait unique to this population.
Inset photo of a hiking path in the park: Jeff Hutchison/Flickr