South Mountain Preserve, one of the nation’s largest municipal parks, offers outdoor enthusiasts a quick and easy escape from the daily grind. It features 16,000 acres of desert wilderness, just a short 10-minute drive from downtown Phoenix.
History of South Mountain Preserve
The preserve encompasses three mountain ranges: Ma Ha Tauk, Gila and Guadalupe. It’s believed the ancient Hohokam Indians settled this area thousands of years ago. Remnants of stone ruins and petroglyphs – or ancient rock carvings – are still visible today.
The region was first designated a city park in 1924. Starting in 1935, the region was developed into a recreational mecca with multi-use trails, picnic spots and scenic viewing areas. The master plan was spearheaded by the National Park Service utilizing President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Many of the structures built during this era still exist.
Today, the park features more than 50 miles of trails and numerous picnic areas. Two Ramada’s have been built to accommodate large groups, one of which shelters 150 people.
Mountain Bikers Flock to Dobbins Lookout
A two-lane, paved road snakes to the top of Dobbins Lookout, a central peak overlooking the Valley of the Sun. About five miles from the base of the mountain range, this scenic view is among the most popular destinations in the park.
At 2,330 feet, nature lovers who drive or bike to the lookout will be rewarded with panorama views of the sprawling cityscape. You can savor the binocular-friendly landscape while relaxing on benches or picnic tables. A small stone fort reminiscent of early Western settlers provides some shade. Parking is available at the top.
To access Dobbins Lookout, enter the reserve from the north side. Take Central Avenue south from downtown Phoenix until the road ends. It turns into San Juan Road, which leads to the top. Signage is posted throughout the area. Drivers need to be cautious of cyclists, especially around blind curves.
The City of Phoenix has designated the fourth Sunday of each month as a “Silent Sunday.” On these days, the main access roads are closed to motorized vehicles, and cyclists can roam freely.
Hiking Trails at South Mountain Cater to All Levels
You can explore the park’s trails on horseback, foot or bike. The difficulty and length of each trail varies greatly, attracting individuals with a wide range of fitness levels. A sampling of hiking trails at South Mountain include:
- Judith Tunell Accessible Trail: This one-mile trek is broken into two, half-mile loops. Elevation gain is minimal. The trailhead is located at the South Mountain Environmental Education Center near Central Avenue and Dobbins Road. Disabled accessible parking is available. It’s appropriate for beginners or those searching for a relaxing stroll.
- National Trail: This 14.3-mile trail runs the distance of the preserve. It’s considered moderate to difficult. The trailhead is located at 48th Street and Guadalupe Road in the southeast portion of the park.
- Holbert Trail: Accessed from Central Avenue, the trailhead is located at Activity Complex. This 2.5-mile trail is steeper than most others in the region. It also passes by Mystery Castle, a stone, adobe and cement structure built by a landowner in the 1930s. Visitors aren’t allowed inside, yet the exterior serves as a conversation piece in itself.
- Bajada Trail: From Central Avenue, follow the signs to San Juan Valley. There is a gravel parking lot at the 2.5 mile marker. The 2-mile hike is considered easy to moderate. There are little elevation changes aside from a few steep wash crossings.
Some 3 million people visit this park each year. Check out the City of Phoenix’s South Mountain hiking maps to learn more about the trails throughout the area.