Mention hiking in Phoenix, and a few prominent spots likely come to mind – Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak, Peralta Trail in the Superstitions.
Each is amazing in its own way – offering variations on stunning desert terrain and sweeping views. But they all come with another, less attractive feature as well – throngs of hikers.
On the other hand, mention South Mountain, and many people, even Arizonans, will draw a blank. Even though it’s the largest of Phoenix’s parks, the 16,000-acre South Mountain Preserve usually isn’t included in the same category as the other popular hiking areas.
And that’s good news for those who do venture to the South Phoenix park. The day I visited, I encountered only a few other hikers on the trail, and I had the trail’s summit views all to myself.
Another major plus of the South Mountain area? The Farm at South Mountain, a charming pecan grove-cum-eatery that features, among other restaurants, the picnic-friendly and rustic Farm Kitchen.
Because of its proximity to the hiking and mountain biking trails of the South Mountain Preserve, The Farm makes for a perfect “Hike and a Bite” adventure – another in my blog series of beautiful trails and the delicious refreshments often available nearby.
While any of the preserve’s more than 30 trails would make for a stellar desert hike on a spring day, the Mormon Trail has a number of points in its favor: Consistently great views of the Valley of the Sun; plenty of desert plant life (think prickly cholla and towering saguaro cacti); stunning rock formations; a short 1.2-mile route to the summit; and relatively few crowds.
Although the trail is designated as multi-use, it does not attract the kind of mountain-biking traffic that the nearby highly rated National and Desert Classic routes tend to bring in.
What hikers can expect, though, is a steep climb to the top. The elevation rises about 1,000 feet in the 1.2-mile ascent. And the rocky terrain can make for tricky footing in places. Still, the hike is rated as moderate, and it is less strenuous than trails on Camelback Mountain, or Piestewa Peak.
And the pay-off at the top is, arguably, comparable. The peak at the 1.2-mile mark offers a birds-eye view of the entire metro area, set off by the distant Phoenix skyline.From the trailhead parking lot off 24th Street and Valley View Avenue, the Mormon Trail begins climbing immediately, and except for a few level stretches, does not subside until the top. Plan to stop numerous times along the route – both to catch your breath and to soak in the views.
Another advantage of the Mormon Trail is its proximity to other popular South Mountain trails, which can extend your hike to five miles and up. Signs at the top point to routes for the longer Mormon Loop, the National Trail, the Javelina Trail, and the Ridgeline Trail – each of which features continued classic desert terrain.
As with any Arizona hiking, a couple of warnings are in order: Along with the desert plant life comes desert wildlife – namely snakes and lizards. It pays to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes, which are known to make frequent appearances along the trail. And it might go without saying, but carrying enough water is crucial on this and any Phoenix-area hike. Most hiking websites recommend drinking about a liter of water per hour, and more when temperatures exceed 85 degrees.
Before heading to The Farm for your well-deserved picnic lunch, it pays to drive up to Dobbins Lookout – a 2,330-foot-high observation point in the South Mountain area.
The road to the top is windy and steep, but the payoff is incredible. A stone observation deck – constructed by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s – offers a cool vantage point for the metro-Phoenix view spread out far below.
After getting your fill of the views, a stop at The Farm is definitely in order.
While the business features several restaurants, including the fine-dining Quiessence, I found The Farm Kitchen to a be a delightful end to a morning of hiking. With its walk-up counter, customers can choose from a variety of sandwiches, soups, seasonal salads and baked goods.
Wicker picnic baskets are available, and you can take your lunch to the picnic tables in the huge grassy area and relax under the shady pecan trees. Even though I’ve lived in Arizona for years, I wasn’t familiar with the South Mountain Preserve, beyond the area’s many radio towers that light up the night sky. I thoroughly enjoyed making a new hiking discovery.
The South Mountain Preserve is located at 10919 South Central Avenue, Phoenix.