Which geologic landmark in Arizona attracts more than 3 million visitors every year, but many Arizona residents have never been there? You may be surprised to learn that it's not the Grand Canyon! I'm talking about South Mountain Park and Preserve.
Located directly south of downtown Phoenix, South Mountain is the largest municipal park in the world. There are more than 50 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails on over 16,000 acres of land.
Like many Phoenix residents, I have driven past South Mountain countless times but never taken the time to check it out up close. That was the case until earlier this year, when I decided to head up there on a whim on Memorial Day. What I found greatly exceeded my expectations!
I started out by taking the I-10 freeway to 7th Avenue, and then continuing on the access road to Central Avenue. From here, you simply stay on Central Avenue all the way until it ends at the entrance gate to the park. Just past the main gate, there are public restrooms and vending machines.
While South Mountain offers plenty of trails for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding, I chose to do the most American thing ever: I drove to the summit. That's right, the road to the top of South Mountain is a public road that is freely accessible from 5am to 11pm.
The winding two-lane road to the top has lots of sharp hairpin turns and is very scenic. Passing is not allowed and you must use extreme caution as there are bicyclists, hikers, and wildlife all over the place. There are two unnamed viewpoints on the way up that are large enough to turn around. My little economy car made it to the top like a champ, but then again this isn't exactly Pike's Peak.
The highest publicly accessible point is Dobbins Lookout, elev. 2,330 ft. This viewpoint features a stone viewing pavilion which provides ample shade for observing the city. On a clear day you can identify the Cardinals Stadium in Glendale, downtown Phoenix, North Mountain, Camelback Mountain, Sky Harbor Airport, and even Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe! The panoramic view of the entire Salt River Valley is simply breathtaking.
The next viewpoint, Buena Vista, is quite a bit further down the road. This one offers a closer view of the airport, but the view of downtown Phoenix was not as good in my opinion. Continuing on down the trail, the next and final viewpoint was on the south side of the mountain.
The highest peak in the South Mountain Range is Mount Suppoa, elevation 2,690 ft. This mountain is easy to spot because it is home to more than 20 different radio and TV transmission towers. This portion of the mountain is fenced off and inaccessible to the public. However, you can drive around to the back side for a great view of Mesa, Chandler, and the East Valley.
It was at this viewpoint that I spotted a rattlesnake sunning himself on the blacktop. I was able to snap a picture of him just as he slithered back into the brush!
It is easy to spend an entire day hanging out on top of South Mountain, visiting the different viewpoints and marveling at the massive sprawl that is Phoenix. Bring plenty of water and maybe even pack a lunch if you plan to stay a while.
South Mountain is a very convenient way to enjoy a scenic drive without leaving town. If you've never been there, I would highly recommend you make time to check it out!